Christmas Greetings

Christmas 2013

The following is my Christmas letter to the St. Giles and Centenary congregaitons

Dear friends in Christ,
This is a letter I always look forward to writing. To folk at St. Giles: receiving a letter at Christmas from me is new. For Centenarians, this is not the first.

Much has changed for members and friends of both congregations over the past year. Now you are part of One Main Street United Church, an exciting new endeavour in the United Church’s ministry in Hamilton’s urban core and lower mountain.

One Main Street United is not a church yet – it is the imagination and hope of a church, born out of the ashes of declining possibilities at both the St. Giles site and the Centenary site. In a genuine sense it is an Advent church: a church waiting for its realization in faith.

One Main Street is an opportunity; an opportunity for all of us to experience the birth of Jesus Christ in a unique way. Next year? Next year may be one for all of you as a new church, with a new name (as the temporary name “One Main Street” is set aside).

It is with the vision of a new birth church that I reach out to you with this Christmas message, acknowledging as I do that we traverse the very difficult space of endings and beginnings:
One Main Street United Church, creating a tipping point for an inclusive and affirming ministry:

• a multi-generational congregation feeding the spiritual needs of the people;
• a church responsible in stewardship, spending energy and dollars on ministry instead of buildings;
• honouring and growing from congregational identities and usable history;
• committed to offering social justice and outreach ministry 7 days per week.

May God bless you in the practice of faith in the coming year; may the blessings of Christmas be there for you.

Gateway of Song

As many of you know who are following this blog, St. Giles and Centenary churches are in the final phase of a dynamic discussion of amalgamation. The plan now is for both congregations to vote on the merger definitively on February 23 2014.

This afternoon the One Main Street Choir and its guest The Tempus Choral Society of Oakville offered their annual “Gateway to Christmas” service of music and readings at the Centenary site. It was a splendid program, shaped around some very fine singing of the Christmas movements of Handel’s Messiah. As is customary I offer a few words of welcome somewhere near the one-third mark of the service, giving thanks to One Main Street’s music director Brian Turnbull, the choirs, and then asking those who attend to dig deeply and generously into their pockets for the work of both choirs.

It seems plausible that a One Main Street United Church (with whatever permanent name it decides upon for itself) will not be choosing to be a rebirth congregation at either the St. Giles or the Centenary sites. Neither building is likely a fit for the mission and purposes of this new congregation. So I found myself trying to understand and to share that understanding with those gathered this afternoon.

I looked up at the sparsely attending group and I said that in the four and a half years I have been minister in this place I have never once preached from the pulpit. I have stood behind that pulpit once (on a Tuesday afternoon I think about two years ago) and looked out on the pews that I had read somewhere once sat about 1500 people and were full. I spoke that Tuesday afternoon alone in the sanctuary in a preacher’s voice from the pulpit unaided by amplification. My voice soared into the space easily and clearly. The Centenary church was built in 1868 as a preacher’s space. It was built for my voice.

It was built for the preaching of the word.

No wonder, then, that the Centenary sanctuary is a beautiful place for choral and instrumental music. The Gateway to Christmas service attested to this in so many ways. The parts in the singing were clear to be heard, no muddledness from the acoustic, reverberation from the large choruses piling up in richer and richer tapestries of sound.

And yet, this building and the Centenary congregation just appeared together in 1868. There was no gathering of a small band of people wanting to start a church worshipping in a school hall somewhere nearby. There was just a need in bustling 19th century Hamilton in which Methodism was a vital part for another sanctuary to accommodate the overflowing number of Methodists in town.


There was a grace that informed that appearance of building and congregation, a grace that informs all our efforts as people of faith to be better people than we are. The building itself now appears no longer to serve us in our efforts as people of faith to be better people than we are. The pews have been a long time without anywhere near those 1500 people they could sit. But the grace in which Centenary appeared in 1868 is also the grace in which something new is being born in the merging of St. Giles and Centenary.

The song we heard sung today in the Centenary sanctuary is a gateway through which we all may go with thanksgiving and joy to the new life that just awaits our realization.

Mother Agnes-Mariam speaks reconciliation

Mother Agnes-Mariam of the Cross gave her first Canadian talk at the Centenary site on Sunday, December 1 at 2 pm. Her talk was sponsored by the Hamilton Coalition to Stop the War. Mother Agnes-Mariam of the Cross is a Carmelite nun and mother superior of the Monastery of James the Mutilated in Qara, Syria, which has a community of three monks and twelve nuns. Born in Lebanon in a refugee camp 61 years ago, she is Palestinian on her father’s side and has worked in Syria for about 20 years.

Opponents identify Mother Agnes-Mariam with the Syrian regime. She offers no opinion on that, because she is not allied with any but those who seek non-violent resolutions to conflict, and she is willing to ally herself with anyone who genuinely does. She makes no bones, however, about being committed to the continued existence of the Syrian state. The state is not the regime. Without a state, she pointed out to the 100 plus audience at her stop in Hamilton on Sunday Dec 1, a person has no identity in the international community. Without the state, there is no passport. A person might as well not exist as far as the rest of the world is concerned. All the human rights, all the international laws are alienated from a person when they are stateless.

Mother Agnes Mariam speaks at the Centenary site on Sunday Dec 1 2013
Mother Agnes Mariam speaks at the Centenary site on Sunday Dec 1 2013

Statelessness is the very real possibility that motivates Mother Agnes-Mariam and thousands others as they seek to promote a non-violent resolution to the conflict in Syria. Outside military intervention offers no possibility of such a resolution; it will simply exacerbate the conflicts already in play. She stated emphatically and movingly that Syrians need to forgive each other. She said that only with the Holy Spirit will the Syrian people be able to have this come about. I did not not experience her claim for the power of the Holy Spirit as an ideological claim, but rather a faith claim.

Two things that Mother Agnes-Mariam said really stood out for me. She said that Islamists — radicals, extremists — are missing something inside of themselves that needs healing, not punishment, nor fear. She also described many of the so-called “jihadists” as “professional fighters” who needed to gussy up their self-description in order to continue to be “employed”. Hence they describe themselves as religious fighters etc. “But this is not Islam,” she said. One can see how that point relates to her belief that radicals are always missing something inside.

Her comments led me to recollect something from my own rather sheltered past. I recall studying a play called Faust by the English renaissance playwright Christopher Marlowe. The story of Faust is the story of a man who makes a deal with the devil. In the course of classroom discussion of the play, the professor remarked that “heaven is an acquired taste.” 

Indeed. The world is awash with people who are intent on making a hell of right here, so sure that there is nothing more, and so certain misery they can inflict on others is a high calling.

But no.

Heaven. Or peace. Or justice. Is an acquired taste. We can acquire it.

Mother Agnes-Mariam said she would pray for One Main St. I said we would pray for her and all Syrians.

If you Google Mother Agnes-Mariam you will find much controversy. It is noteworthy that non-violence is so controversial.

Among some, that is.


Unsettling Goods: Choose Peace in Palestine and Israel

In and with genuine love and respect for all those who live in the land three faith traditions call holy — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — members of the United Church of Canada are being urged this Advent by their church to begin non-violent resistance to actions of the State of Israel which demonstrably stand in the way of peace in Palestine Israel.

It is very difficult for those of us who have not visited the region to understand what has most recently come to pass since the 1948 partition in the area that led to the creation of the State of Israel and a large stateless population of Palestinians. In Hamilton Presbytery we have been blessed with explanations by three of our number who in recent months accepted the invitation of our Palestinian brothers and sisters in faith to “come and see.”

What they saw confirmed that which our General Council has asked us to open our eyes to see: the destruction of homes, the expropriation of property, the building of security walls on Palestinian land, the development of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River. All of these actions truly stand in the way of peace. All of them are being carried out in direct contravention of Geneva conventions regarding the obligation of occupying forces. The occupation is destructive of human lives in Palestinian territories, and it is corrosive of the very spirit of democracy which the State of Israel claims it seeks to safeguard and promote in the region.

The occupation needs to end.

We members of the United Church of Canada are being encouraged to pray for this, to study it, and to act to help bring it about. Here is a link to the United Church of Canada webpage that outlines the pray, study, act elements of our UCC initiative.


On Tuesday, December 3 at 12 noon we members of the United Church will be joined by other groups expressing solidarity with our initiative for peace at the Federal Building in Hamilton at 55 Bay Street North. We will pray, reflect, sing, and then be invited into a non-violent act of protest. To begin.

To begin. Be there if you can.

Unsettling Goods postcard front

Annual YMCA Peace Medal Breakfast

I attended the Annual YMCA Peace Medal Breakfast this morning at the Hamilton Convention Centre. This is Peace Week (Nov 16-23). I arrived at the breakfast at the early hour of 7:30 am and joined Linda Waugh and a few others to represent The Ecumenical Social Justice Stations of the Cross Committee. The Committee was nominated for the Peace Medal in the adult group category. The big news for us was that the other nominated group “Live Different” won the medal for our category. But the bigger news was keynote speaker Musician/Actor/Author/Advocate Emmanuel Jal.

Social Justice Stations of the Cross Walk 2012
Social Justice Stations of the Cross Walk 2012

Here was our introduction to Emmanuel: “In the war-torn region of Southern Sudan, Emmanuel Jal was born into the life a child soldier on an unknown date in the 1980s. Through unbelievable struggles, Emmanuel managed to survive and emerge as a recording artist, achieving worldwide acclaim for his unique style of hip hop with its message of peace and reconciliation born out of his personal experiences.”

He followed his talk by singing his latest single We Want Peace and then took questions and comments. I was struck by one person’s response and question especially. She said, “Emmanuel, you have humbled us today. You cannot be doing what you are doing without a vision. What is your vision?”

Singer and Activist Emmanuel Jal performs "We Want Peace" at the 2013 YMCA Peace Medal Breakfast
Singer and Activist Emmanuel Jal performs “We Want Peace” at the 2013 YMCA Peace Medal Breakfast

His response was to say that he seeks to be realistic. Foremost he wants to tell the world that peace is possible. It begins with the individual, and then expands to those around oneself, and then around the world. But telling is not enough. He talked about forgiveness. He told an African proverb. Hate is drinking poison yourself and expecting the other person to die. Everyone yearns for forgiveness, and to forgive. He learned to forgive those who tormented him and killed many of his family members. It took awhile. When he forgave them, they could no longer live inside him and make him bitter.

Most the attendees were high school students. It was a great lesson to hear.

Be reborn as you carry on, my friends

Centenary and St. Giles United Churches are delving into the stuff dreams are made on. It was just one year ago this weekend that United Church Moderator Gary Paterson preached at St. Giles 104th anniversary service. Centenary cancelled its service and came over to St. Giles and joined in, as did First-Pilgrim United Church. You can see a video file of Moderator Paterson’s sermon here:


Since then St. Giles and Centenary have been journeying on a road to merger. They were saddened when First-Pilgrim dropped out.

In June of this year St. Giles and Centenary threw their lot in together on a Sunday morning and began one common worship service each Sunday, alternating between the two sites by month.They are moving toward a formal vote to merge early in 2014.

During one of these common services of worship in September I asked the congregation(s) to think through and feel through with me the kind of merger they thought they might be embarking upon. I offered two different kinds of mergers for consideration: a continuation merger, and a rebirth merger.

A continuation merger is a blending of two congregations’ programs and styles. The other, a rebirth merger, is a new start, with the intentional dissolution of previous entities. While a continuation merger forestalls closing, the pattern of decline usually continues. Continuation mergers are least likely to result in growth and most likely to result in closing. The rebirth merger works best with a new location and new ministry personnel. It has a better track record than continuation mergers.

People present that Sunday wrote down on recipe cards which kind of merger they expected, added comments, and put the cards on the offering plate. I’ll say more about the comments they wrote in another blog post, but the numbers are interesting in themselves. Those anticipating a rebirth merger that day outnumbered those expecting a continuation merger by two to one.

in his blog post on November 28 2012 Moderator Gary Paterson ended with these words as he reflected upon his experience with us in worship on November 18 2012:

“Amalgamations are hard, I know. We are often wedded to a spirituality of place, church buildings rich with memories, where we truly were encountered by the Spirit. But we also know that the Spirit keeps moving and transforming, and we need to do the same. I wonder if these three Hamilton churches might all be willing to sell their buildings and bring the wisdom of their history and the power of their vision…and with God’s help, create a new church, a new mission.”

Contemporary Worship Service

Sept 29: Contemporary Worship Service. One Main Street United Church had its first contemporary service at the Centenary site. Ever. Was it ever exciting to me. We’re getting that huge worship space to work for us as we contemplate, discuss, debate and make the future of this merging One Main St. United Church (creating a tipping point for an inclusive and affirming ministry) happen.

The St. Giles site has been holding a contemporary service on the last Sunday of the month for a number of years. The core of the service is the praise band. They and the St. Giles site people have learned many songs of this type. Now, with the praise band a natural part of the “worship landscape” for One Main St. United, we can add to this by raising up some of the excellent congregational songs (in our More Voices songbook) that just call out for accompaniment by praise band.

There’s more to a “contemporary service” than whatever “contemporary religious music” of the day is. It’s really about a spirit that begins in questioning ourselves and ends in delight in the glory of God.

Thanks to everyone who contributed on Sunday, and especially to those who took up the challenge and helped me shape a reflection on the Plate Spinner drama on the spot by offering their comments and responses to my questions.

We’re at St. Giles this Sunday for World-wide Communion.

Sept 15: Toyo Eiwa University September Visitors

Toyo Eiwa University visitors lead a sing-song at the luncheon Sept 15 2013

Yours truly came to the Centenary site of One Main Street United Church in the summer of 2009. One of the first of the uniquely Centenary things in which I became immersed was the connection Centenary has with an all-girls elementary, high school and university in Tokyo.

Toyo Eiwa (the name for all the divisions of the school) was begun in the 1880s as an elementary school by the first Canadian Methodist woman missionary to Japan. Martha Cartmell was sent by the newly formed Methodist Women’s Missionary Society of Canada.

In another first, the Canadian WMS’s organizing meeting was held at Centenary just a few years prior.

Martha Cartmell was a member of Centenary Methodist, and later, Centenary United Church.

Rev. Seiichi Ariga, a United Church friend of Centenary’s and of Toyo Eiwa, told me soon after I came to Centenary that one of the forms of respect for ancestors that is so deeply rooted in Japanese culture is for respect to be shown at the grave of an important founding individual.

Thus, for many years, groups of Toyo Eiwa students, alumni and faculty have made their way to Centenary for a Sunday service and then on to the Hamilton Cemetery to visit Martha Cartmell’s headstone.

And this brings me to the latest visit — the annual visit of eleven students and one faculty member of the Early Childhood Education program at the Toyo Eiwa University that occurred on Sunday, September 15, 2013.

As usual, they came for service. Afterward, One Main St. United made them and shared in a luncheon with them. The Toyo Eiwa group then led those gathered in a sing-song. A couple of songs were in Japanese, but they also chose a children’s hymn — Jesus Loves Me — that we heartily joined them in.

Then it was on to the bus for me and for them and a quick trip out the cemetery. It was a lovely day and we paused there to show the respect that Martha has earned in Toyo Eiwa for her founding this girls schools — one of the first for girls in Japan. We ended with a prayer.

Then they were off to Niagara Falls and to complete, in the days after, the educational activities that had been built into their itinerary in Canada.


Toyo Eiwa University students, teacher and tour host with Rev. Sloan at Martha Cartmell's grave


Sept 8: Today’s Centenary connects with a wee bit of its past

About 30 people rolled into Centenary’s sanctuary all at once at 9 am Sunday Sept 8 2013. They were a tour group of visitors from around the world — some from Australia and New Zealand, some from the United States, many from Canada, and at least one from Mount Hope on the Hamilton mountain. Their connection to each other is that they are all descendants of German settlers who came to County Limerick, Ireland, in the early 1700s from the German Palatinate.

But what is their connection to Centenary?

Their ancestors were settled in Ireland by the English crown to help establish Protestantism in that region of Ireland. Like many in Ireland, those settlers and their descendants subsequently emigrated to other parts of the world where English is spoken.

Why would descendants of such a group choose to visit Centenary? The answer helps explain our name.

Two of the early Irish Palatine emigrants to North America were Philip Embury and his cousin Barbara Heck. They came to New York City. Philip was a Methodist lay preacher.  Barbara convinced Philip to begin his preaching ministry in the city. In October of 1766 he began holding regular services in their home. 

The congregation rapidly outgrew its earliest places of worship. In 1768 the group erected a building on a site on John Street in New York City. They called it Wesley Chapel. It was dedicated on Oct 30, 1768, becoming the permanent home of the oldest continuous Methodist congregation in the United States.

In 1868 Centenary, in Hamilton, became one of many new congregations across North America that year named in centennial recognition of the establishment of that first Methodist congregation in North America. Hence the name “Centenary.”

Centenary is now a United Church because the Methodist Church in Canada merged with most Presbyterians and the Congregationalist in 1925 to form the union church called “The United Church of Canada.”

Our Irish Palantine visitors heard some of the history and the current life of the Centenary congregation — now the One Main Street United Church congregation. They sang two hymns — one of Lutheran background and the other of Methodist and they enjoyed an organ selection played by One Main Street United Church’s Music Director Brian Turnbull.

Our visitors left with us postcards from the region in which the Irish Palantine settlers were settled. The first is Embury-Heck Memorial Methodist church built in 1766 in Ballingrane, Rathkeale, County Limerick. The second is of the Irish Palatine Heritage Centre in Rathkeale, Co. Limerick