Anarchist Priest – Living in the tension
By Gwen McAllister
Not long ago at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church where I am priest, a friend and parishioner good-naturedly called me out as a hypocrite: “You preach against hierarchy, but you’re an Anglican priest.”
It’s a tension in which I have found a rather comfortable vocational home, living in the messy “now” of Christianity in upheaval, working like so many others — in my small, local way within community — to reclaim the Christian faith tradition from Christendom and Empire. I do preach against much in which I am complicit: systems of exploitation and privilege, domination, wealth. Together with many others, I reach for much that is rare and precious in our daily context: sharing of resources, mutuality in relationships, a celebration of all that lives and our embraced interdependence.
I don’t frequently identify as an anarchist. It seems presumptuous: I don’t think I do enough to earn the title. And then, taking on that label sounds like it is too much about me and my identity, when in fact I live out my vocation and identity together with others as part of a parish community, a larger faith community, and a larger non-religious community of resistance. But also, “anarchist” is not an identity I hold to in the same way I hold to understanding myself as part of a vast and rich faith tradition. Yet faith has brought me to politics which in turn have contextualized my faith; each informs the other.
When I first encountered anarchist theory, it held no appeal for me and I passed it by. What did resonate with me was Indigenous North American, especially Anishinaabe and Cree, ways of organizing and understanding people in relation to one another and to the land. The values of which these spoke, to me, are also held by some anarchists in the context of the mega “culture”: valuing each individual’s unique contributions and supporting one another; organizing flexibly together in local groups, face to face, for the particular context; understanding humans as part of a larger interdependent world of beings. But it was Indigenous theology, Indigenous understandings of Scripture and Christian faith that brought everything together for me. It helped me get some perspective from outside of the westernized, Euro-centric limitations to which many of us are conditioned. When I saw Scripture more from the perspective of land-based, locally-organized people, it made so much sense. It was furthermore more radical and subversive that I’d ever imagined.
The piece that is most radical has to do with our loyalties, our allegiance. When it comes down to it, do we love our country as a nation-state or as a land and its creatures? Do we love life as systems of privilege, or as vulnerable creatures?
This question of allegiance, of where our hearts make a home, of what are our gods, is not a small one. It includes every aspect of how our lives are organized. I am thrilled to own a little house and finally feel some sense of security and permanence in it; but I am aware that this is a privilege given to me by a death-dealing system of property and ownership. Many people in this city will never be able to own a home of their own. The system is set up to exploit humans, land and resources for the sake of wealth and privilege. My heart lies with the land and its people, not with the systems that create my privilege.
The structure of the church in my context is in many ways helpful and useful. I appreciate knowing who is responsible for what. But I have no deep allegiance to it just because it is the structure in which I move. Although I treasure the beauty and depth of Anglicanism’s well-worn path, it is not where my allegiance lies. I believe we are called by our faith tradition, as by anarchism, as by basic humanness, to stand first and fiercely with the living world and its creatures; in the language of my faith tradition, with the Source of Life and all creation. As humans, we are located within that creatureliness; and if it is a difficult leap to make mentally, we are called to limp there.
Years of involvement with the SCM (Student Christian Movement) helped prepare me for this calling: we participants ourselves led the movement, made decisions, organized our own conferences, pursued our own collective interests in faith and justice issues, and designed our own learning opportunities. When I then sought training in non-hierarchical, empowering leadership and ministry preparation, the Centre for Christian Studies provided it. The Centre’s method and models for learning and leadership are a “radical and subversive” resource for the faithful, just mutual community-building to which scripture calls us.
These two learning communities prepared me to work in ministry with St. Matthew’s, a community which was already on its way to living out what I might call anarchist ways of being together. Our little parish in central Winnipeg’s West End is diverse, humble, traditional and often messy. We aim for wide participation rather than a polished service. The Communion table is open to anyone who would like to receive. We are working to build community and closer relationships through shared meals. Those who share their skills as leaders and I are seeking to grow an atmosphere of invitation to wrestle with our scriptures and tradition rather than to conform. We look into where we come from in the story of scripture and dream about where we will go as the people of faith in this time and place. We emphasize that we in our little faith community are in this together; we need each other.
None of these things are specific to anarchist ways; but I believe that’s partly the point: there is so much commonality and overlap between anarchist, gospel, Indigenist, and community-minded ways of being together. Probably the most anarchist influence on my ministry work is the habits I have formed in recognizing illegitimate authority and pressure to conform, and denouncing these as contrary to all that is life-giving. But these strengths are important to gospel living as well.
This is work that I am privileged (in both the positive and negative sense) to have, in which even my anarchist self can enter with a whole heart and know that it is good work in the truest sense.
And I still wear too much black.
A is for Anarchist. Gwen McAllister graduated from CCS in 2014.
Feature photo of Manitoba landscape by Shelly Manley Tannis.
Bird photo by Kimiko Karpoff.