20 Minutes with Jeffrey Metcalfe

The Rev. Canon Jeffrey Metcalfe has a full plate. Recently installed as canon theologian for the Diocese of Québec, Anglican Church of Canada, Metcalfe is also completing his PhD. He’s a husband and father, and an Ontario-born Anglophone continuing to hone his French in a very Francophone — and very secular — mission field.

Metcalfe, 30, grew up in a rural area two hours outside of Toronto, completed undergraduate studies in Winnipeg, and earned his MDiv from Trinity College, University of Toronto, in 2011. After ordination, he served three parishes on the remote Magdalen Islands, Québec, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In 2015, he returned to Trinity to begin his doctoral work, developing a theological ethnography of how migration and race are imagined and understood among Québec City’s Christians.

Metcalfe also intends to explore how Christians can welcome refugees into a community that has struggled with the arrival of people perceived as racially and religiously different from the majority, with expressions of anti-migration and anti-Muslim sentiment growing into publicly visible right-wing groups and even a mass shooting at the Grande Mosquée de Québec in January 2017. Six people were killed and another 19 injured.

Metcalfe recently sat for tea with TLC’s Matthew Townsend, with whom he spoke about his growing work in the Diocese of Québec, the region’s struggles with refugees and racism, and his previous work as a rural priest. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to be a canon theologian in Québec? What kind of work will you be doing as this job unfolds?

It feels like, at the same time, both a significant responsibility and a great joy; responsibility in that it’s not a normal position for any diocese to have. Every diocese in Canada, probably, will have their financial officers, their retainered lawyers, their experts in stewardship, resources for mission, congregational development. I think we may be the only diocese in Canada that has a full-time canon theologian. That’s kind of an odd move to make in a place where the church has very little left.

While our resources are stretched both in terms of people and finances, the leadership and the people (this is a position approved by the diocesan executive committee) have made a statement by creating this position, saying it’s not enough that we make our decisions through the lens of state law and financial prudence. We have other accountabilities that we need to provide for in our decision-making processes. That’s the responsibility element, obviously some weight to carry.

It feels like a joy, from a theological perspective and an academic perspective. It’s not often that you get to be in a place that is the place in which your theology is given life, the place from which it comes; both because my actual doctoral project is set here, but also because my own understanding of what my task as a theologian is: to be as a servant to the church. So, it’s a great privilege and joy.

In terms of pragmatics: I have forming portfolios or tasks, subtasks. One is what I just mentioned: when there are issues that come up, decisions that have to be made, when Bishop Bruce [Myers] calls in the executive director, the financial staff, the chancellor, at some point I will also get a call. First, I like to help engage people in doing their own theological reflection, as well contributing my own. Partially, it’s just to provide a level of theological accountability and reflection on every level of our decision-making.

That’s also to the service of the parishes. I get called in, occasionally. I was called in to two different parishes that were considering closing, to help walk them theologically through their discernment. My methodology is ethnographic. That’s the approach to my own research, so that’s the approach I take as the canon theologian.

By doing that, coming to know some of the people, the issues that they face, the demographics of the place, and then walking them through a theological reflection that’s based on their own theological reflections, one of those congregations came to the conclusion that it was time to close. While they were sad and upset to make that decision, there was also a sense of we made the right decision.

We didn’t go in with okay, you have to sell this because mission demands we’re going to use these funds for something else. Under previous [political] regimes in Canada, we had something we called, rather than evidence-based policymaking, policy-based evidence-making. The same thing happens theologically. So, we’ve tried to take a different approach. Rather than going in and saying the writing’s on the wall, folks, saying instead, what do you read? And by drawing people’s own reflections out — not leading them into the direction you want them to go — you might be surprised when you trust people that they actually know their community better than you do.

So that was one congregation. The other one came to the exact opposition conclusion: “Actually, I think we have a little bit of life left.” So, they decided that they would use their location — right out of Québec City, Stoneham, a very small church community that might have seven parishioners — in one of the most beautiful areas of Capitale-Nationale. They said, why don’t we use the beauty of this place as a way of also worshiping God? And we’ll invite people from the community, we’ll invite people from the Anglican churches in the city to get out. We had an Epiphany star party just recently. We had a parishioner from the cathedral who is an amateur astronomer come and give this reflection after a Eucharist, guiding people through the constellations and sharing theological reflection that he did on his own. It was beautiful and really well done.

That was this community’s way forward. They were clear: we’re not saying this is going to save us, but this is how we can live faithfully with who we are, where we are, and with the time God has given us.

Do you think there’s reducing anxiety in the system here, that people aren’t as worried about the future of the church and are starting to turn to these kinds of questions?

It’s a very diverse place, so each congregation is different and lives out the particularities of their moment uniquely. I think one of my roles is definitely to help liberate people to feel like they have a legitimate voice, that their theological reflections, while not necessarily academic, are legitimate. I think when people are given a space to articulate themselves, that also becomes healing, whichever way their decision goes.

From our perspective, we’re not trying to shepherd them to make the choice that we’ve already decided on other grounds which are not theological; they’re necessarily financial. I suspect that it’s, in the very least, a more pastoral approach. But it’s a risky one. It means that you make decisions as a leadership that might not be pragmatic. It means that you have to be willing to allow that people don’t make the decisions that you might want or need them to make. But then that’s part of trust — not trusting that they’ll make your decision.

What is it like to observe religious tension in Québec — the mass shooting at the Grande Mosquée last year, the law banning face coverings, the rise of anti-immigration and anti-Muslim groups inspired by France’s Front National — and how would you explain it to someone who doesn’t know Québec well? What do you think is the role of Christians and Anglicans in Québec, in terms of response?

Those are two really big questions, and this is also part of my doctoral research. The first thing I would say is that white supremacy is a global phenomenon, that I think anyone living in a space that has been colonized or is populated by colonizers has an experience of that.

In different particularities, in different places, it manifests itself differently. I think you’re right to say that the Québec way this gets expressed tends to be more similar to groups like Front National in France. Interestingly, though, I think the regime south of the border has definitely had a significant impact in emboldening the voices. White supremacy is our global reality, and has been that way for a very long time. And what we’re seeing now are various expressions. You can think of it in some ways like a mushroom. In the actual piece that you see, the fruit of the mushroom, is a small part of the creature that lives underground.

Whenever in Canada we have this conversation, it becomes very tied up in identity performances. So, you’ll have people from English Canada who will use the expressions of white supremacy that they see in this space as an example of why this is a backwards place: that it denounces the values the rest of Canada might hold as being part of its identity markers, like multiculturalism. I think that’s problematic because racism is as present in a place like Toronto as it is in Québec City, but it becomes very easy, quickly, to point at the speck of sawdust in your neighbor’s eye while you’re missing the beam in your own. I always have to start this conversation by saying that — because there’s a longstanding identity performance that goes into the history of these two colonial powers, the French and the English.

I think we have yet to fully take account of, and confess as Christians our participation theologically and practically, in the creation of the whole colonial reality here. As an Anglican in Québec, I think we have a particular responsibility to look deeply within our tradition, our history, our presence in this place, our theology, even our church architecture — this goes all the way down — to become aware of the damage that the system and structure, which we have helped give rise to, has wreaked on this place: the environment itself, as well as those people who called this place home long before any of us arrived. Part of our task — and part of my task as a theologian, specifically — is to address that deeply uncomfortable reality.

As Anglicans who have been a minority, to varying degrees, throughout our time in this place, … I think we need to make ourselves aware of the way this legacy continues to operate in our society. Here is the reality of secularization: we’re not at the helm. But our theology — Western Christian theology, the great tradition — has helped give rise to the current structure, which no longer commands obedience in the way that it once did. I think we can argue that maybe that’s a good thing. But what that means is that it’s easy for groups like La Meute to say things like, “We’re protecting Québec’s values, which are secular values. We’re about having a secular space and we don’t want to go backwards.”

I think part of our responsibility as a church is to help dig out those foundations, to help make our people aware of their own history — good and bad, because it’s mixed — and in so doing, help equip ourselves to live the gospel more faithfully. We’re never going to reassume — nor ought we ever try to — the political power that our community once held. Nor is the Catholic Church. What we can be is a remnant of people who can speak from a place of confession. We can say, here is what we think we contributed to this situation and here are the things we are going to do in terms of our thinking and terms of our practice to try and join with those others who find themselves now at the margins.

Solidarity seems cheap in some ways, because it’s easy to say we stand in solidarity. To literally be with these people, whoever they may be, is something else. And right now, they are definitely the very least of the Muslim community, who find themselves targeted in the extreme, by the extreme.

The very fact that there was a mass shooting in Canada last year, and that it targeted Muslims, might surprise many Americans.

That’s exactly it; that’s not our reality. Québec City, unless the statistic has changed, is the safest city in Canada. I think its crime rate is less than Disney World, in terms of violent crime. So, it is extreme — when you have not just that one act, but you have the president of the mosque’s car being torched, and constant leaflets. My research started before the mosque shooting because the four mosques in Québec City are, on average, attacked once a year; some kind of attack, usually crude vandalism. But as we’ve seen, these things progress.

Groups like La Meute claim they’re defending the cradle of European culture in North America from Islamic encroachment and Shariah — they cite a connection to Europe. Yet the histories of Québec and France are very different: Québecers are the French-speaking people still living under a crown; and their geographies are different, in terms of the refugee crisis and immigration. Do you see connections?

I think it’s important to distinguish the diversity of the citizenry. The Québec of Vieux-Québec or Sillery or Sainte-Foy is very different, in the city, than Charlesbourg or Beauport. It’s really important to distinguish between elite culture in these kinds of debates and culture of non-elites. For instance, newspapers: you have, in Montreal (Diocese of Montreal), like four dailies, which is unheard of now. Four dailies being sustained in one city? So how does that happen? One is the Gazette, and that’s an Anglophone paper. You have Le Devoir, which is the paper of scholars and various social and economic leaders. This is the paper in which public debate happens. Then you have La Presse, and you have Journal de Montréal.

There are parallels. In Québec, you have Tout le monde en parle, a talk show that’s one of these cultural phenomena here. Everyone watches it. No one in English Canada all watches the same thing — maybe Game of Thrones or something, but not a news show. Who does that?

That show existed in France. It’s canceled in France. But it still goes here. I think there is more connection in a slice of society, but that slice of society — for economic and social reasons — has significantly more power than the remaining people in society.

On the other side of society, you have extremely rural and remote places in Québec. What was it like to work in the Magdalen Islands?

It was a very interesting place. It’s hard to sum up a place like the Magdalen Islands because I think the temptation in any rural posting, and especially one as extreme as the islands, is to give it either a glowingly positive review or [tell] a horrific story. And as I think we would all agree, the truth is usually somewhere in the middle.

Because it’s so disconnected geographically from the rest of Québec as well as the rest of Canada, it really has its own culture. Every region in Canada has its own culture, but the interesting thing about the islands is, historically, almost all of the parishioners there would be not only lobster fishermen; they would also be the descendants of shipwreck survivors. So the people who live there, a great deal of them are the descendants of the people who came there accidentally, and by selection are the ones who’ve never left. That, over time, creates particular cultures that would be quite different from other areas where there’s a lot more interaction with newness or other cultural groups and societal trends.

The best example, phenomenologically: I’m in my rectory, and I wake up at 4 a.m. and I just can’t sleep for whatever reason. I turn on the light and go get a glass of water. I turn off the light and go back to bed. The next day, 8:30, 9 o’clock, I get a phone call: “Good morning, minister. Saw you had a hard time sleeping last night. Anything on your mind?”

If you were in Toronto and you made that call, your priest might call the police. That’s super creepy, right? From an outside perspective, you can see and experience that as an invasion of privacy. From someone from my culture, it absolutely is. But the other side of that is that people are always watching each other in the Magdalen Islands, and that’s a safety net.

How did culture develop as a safety net?

There’s historically not a lot of access to social services or services in general. It’s within the last several decades that they’ve had roads connecting all the islands. And there are people who remember pre-electrification. So there’s an aspect of concern. As a person who’s not from that place, it’s very easy to read that concern in ways that are offensive.

That’s one of the challenges. The way the fishing season works, there’s a great deal of free time on people’s hands during the year. Like many remote communities, when you have a lot of time and means to spend, you can find yourself spending the time and means in ways that are not necessarily the healthiest. There are significant issues with addiction, all over the map. The same kind of cultures that protect each other from falls and health scares are also the same kind of ones that cover for people when they are doing things that they ought not to be or ought to seek help for.

The Anglican parish there is in a largely Anglophone community. The Magdalen Islands are 95 percent French, but the islands are linguistically segregated. There are three predominantly Anglophone islands, and it’s not easy for those people to get certain kinds of social services that we take for granted in urban centers. Which just means that the priest’s job is to be a front-line mental health worker, a community development worker, a liturgical support, a pastoral presence: all these things that come together; and are actually the way priests used to function quite a while ago, but it’s something we’re not really prepared for.

What would you like Anglicans and Episcopalians outside of Québec to know about the church here?

I think of our communities, in some ways, like the Benedictine communities at their inception. We’re not here to create some massive movement that’s going to do this, that, or the other. I’ve been involved in every deanery within the province except for the lower north shore. The people here, like every other place, are just beautiful, wonderful people. I draw on the Benedictine idea because I think our call isn’t necessarily to do these big things, but it’s to do small things well — in places where the demographic realities that we have mean there might not be a next generation of Anglicans on Entry Island, that this community has said this may be the end of our world, but we’re going to live it well. And so we’re going to plant a garden. And we’re going to meet each other as neighbors. And we’re going to share things. That’s it. We’re going to live faithfully on a 2-kilometer-square island with no road access.

So, that’s the charism of the Benedictine order in some senses: we’re going to go to this place and just live here, in a small way, well. One of the ways that I’m filled with encouragement and joy by serving in this place is to work with people who have no ambition. In theological schools, in places like the Diocese of Toronto, you have competition between clergy. You have competition between parishes.

Overall, we’re sort of beyond that, at least to some extent. What’s to compete for? So, you get people who are just wanting to study faith, just to study Christian theology. Not because they have grand ambitions, but because they love it.

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