- Sing a New Song: Portraits of Canada's Crusading Bishops
Although the title promises broader horizons, this book profiles four Anglican bishops in British Columbia. The first of them, George Hills (1859–92), is long dead; two, David Somerville and Douglas Hambidge, are retired; and the last, Michael Ingham, is the current bishop of New Westminster, a diocese of about eighty churches in and near Vancouver, most of them attracting fewer than three hundred worshippers a week. The author, a freelance author and life-long Anglican, writes in a breezy, opinionated style for a popular Anglican audience. Except for her chapter on the dead bishop, which builds on documentary research, the book depends predominantly on twenty-three interviews that the author conducted with Somerville, Hambidge, and Ingham, and several more with a few of their admirers. (She did not interview their critics.) Concerning the dead bishop she allows herself the occasional restrained criticism, but she is relentlessly appreciative of the living bishops. These are official biographies: 'each of the three living bishops . . . approved every word.'
Few Christians now embrace the term crusading, but Ferguson likes it. Her favourite crusaders have clear moral causes, unyielding views, [End Page 271] polarizing personalities, authoritarian instincts, and the will to win. David Somerville has quite different characteristics, and his is the shortest chapter, but he is here because he gave leadership in the Anglican movement for the ordination of women. Hills crusaded against Anglican Protestantism, particularly as embodied in his most popular priest; a permanent schism resulted. Hambidge's most evident crusade was on behalf of the Nisga'a in their land claims in British Columbia, but many readers will cringe at the cross-cultural insensitivity in this chapter. ("'Let's talk about why God has never called an Indian," he asked countless times . . . Eventually the Nisga'a started to hear God.') Ingham's crusade was to provide liturgical blessings of same-sex partnerships, and along the way he threatened lawsuits against unhappy parishes, dismissed dissident clergy, replaced unsympathetic lay wardens, and closed uncooperative churches, all of which Ferguson approves as signs of his moral purpose and focused leadership.
The author gives evidence of having checked facts, dates, and names, and she includes some interesting material. But the value of the study is compromised. Her hagiographic intent is too dominant. Her historiographical skill is weak; she uses evidence uncritically and ignores or distorts wider contexts, networks, and movements in order to make her bishops look more creative, courageous, and influential than they really were. And she lacks theological conversancy. Particularly confusing is her decision to 'use the following interchangeably': 'liberal/ progressive/catholic,' and 'conservative/traditional/evangelical/protestant.' Accordingly she thinks that liberals fought protestants during the Reformation, and she cannot quite grasp the idea that a pope might be both catholic and conservative.
The author's main interest is Ingham, whose chapter is twice as long as any of the others. She so emphasizes resemblances, agreements, and continuities from Hills, Somerville, and Hambidge to Ingham that the first three bishops function in the book as Ingham's forerunners. The conceit is that each of the four bishops, but especially Ingham, led his diocese in some significant initiative of social change; he rallied many supporters and vanquished a few dissidents; and he thus contributed to the slow conversion of the outside world. The implication is that Vancouver Anglicanism has a special global mission: in submission to its prophetic leaders, it recalls the wider Israel, by word and sign, to the claims of social righteousness.
There are some troubling touches in this stance. Those who resist the true prophetic teaching are, inevitably, represented as benighted and recalcitrant outsiders. In the chapter on Ingham, they are mainly the Anglican bishops of Africa and Asia, whom Ferguson broadly characterizes as poorly educated, irresponsible, and duplicitous. In addition, many of the ostracized Vancouver clergy whom she [End Page 272] identifies have Asian names. And many readers will be suspicious of a historiography that gives four white, male, straight leaders of the church establishment such enormous and fawning...