Bishop’s book explores our attitudes to other faiths

Posted on May 16, 2013

Bishop Patrick Yu, area bishop of York-Scarborough

By Stuart Mann

The Muslim Association of Canada recently opened an office directly across the street from the Diocesan Centre in Toronto. I pass it almost every day but never go inside. Why? Because the people inside have a different religion? Am I afraid of something? Or perhaps I just would not know what to say.

This is not an unusual experience for those of us—of all faiths—who live in southern Ontario. The other day, for example, I drove past a Pentecostal church with an immense cross on the front lawn, a huge Mosque, some Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, and a Hindu temple—all within 45 minutes of each other.

In our travels through the Greater Toronto Area, I sometimes point out the non-Christian places of worship to my kids, in the quintessentially Canadian hope that they will be knowledgeable and tolerant of other faiths. However, I never stop the car. It’s not our faith, and it’s definitely not our church, so I keep my foot on the gas.

And that’s why I found Bishop Patrick Yu’s recent book, Being Christian in a Multi-Faith Context, so refreshing. Finally, here was a book, written by a Canadian for a Canadian audience, that helps us explore that most sensitive of subjects—just what do we Christians think about other faiths?

The book was originally Bishop Yu’s doctoral thesis, written back in the late 1990s and now issued as a paperback, with an up-to-date introduction and postscript. Although the events and discussions described in the book happened more than 20 years ago, they are very relevant today.

Bishop Yu, who is the area bishop of York-Scarborough, is perfectly positioned to write a book such as this. Born and raised in Hong Kong, he converted to Christianity as a young teenager and came to Canada at the age of 17.

As a boy growing up in Hong Kong, his family practiced a mixture of Buddhism and Chinese folk religion. “My childhood memories were filled with rituals of offering to local deities, the veneration of ancestors, as well as colourful stories and art based on legends and mythology,” he writes.

He studied chemistry in university and then switched to religious studies in his third year. Although a passionate Christian, he became fascinated by other religions. “I became enchanted with the problems they tried to tackle, the courage of their adherents, and the contributions they made to the quality of life around them. I knew I would never be content with facile dismissals of them from simplistic Christians.”

He found that the study of other religions helped him to articulate his own faith. “It was as if the study of what I was not, religiously speaking, helped define what I was. Paradoxically, my appreciation of Christianity grew hand in hand with my appreciation of Buddhism, Taoism, etc.”

In 1990, he became the incumbent of St. Theodore of Canterbury, a small Anglican parish located in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood in north Toronto. Within close proximity were synagogues, a Buddhist temple, a mosque, a Hindu temple and several New Age centres. The congregation was multiracial and many members were first- or second-generation Christians with non-European roots. There were some interfaith marriages.

As a parish priest, he found that his parishioners often commented on their interfaith experiences. “The issue of Christian relations with other faiths came up regularly in my pastoral practice—in baptism, interfaith marriages, discussion of religious formation of children, teaching and spiritual direction. Most of these interactions were cordial, but sometimes there were tensions.”

Responding to the pastoral needs of his parish and his own interest in the subject, he began a four-year doctoral study that led to the writing of his Doctor of Ministry thesis, which became this book. The heart of the study took place from November 1995 to July 1996, when a small group of parishioners took part in an educational program that explored their faith and their attitudes toward other faiths. The study also looked at how their opinions and beliefs changed as a result of the program.

The findings were illuminating. The study revealed that since the Anglican Church itself didn’t teach or talk much about other faiths, the parishioners tended to adopt attitudes that were readily available elsewhere.

The study also raised questions about Canadians’ cherished ideal of tolerance in a multicultural society. Although everyone in the group said they were accepting of other faiths, specific tensions and conflicts soon started to surface. “The Canadian multicultural ideal is like a soap film—very pervasive but very thin,” said Bishop Yu in an interview after the book’s publication. “You put your finger on the top and it’s very easy to penetrate it. When you take your finger out, it covers right over again.”

Many of the group members were so willing to be tolerant of other faiths that, rather than risk causing embarrassment or anger, they simply chose not to talk about faith at all. Society’s imperative to get along with your neighbour overrode any desire to talk about their faith in public, let alone to share Jesus Christ with others. As one participant wrote, “I believe in respect for people of other faiths and their right to choose their own religious beliefs.”

As the Anglican Church thinks about how to invite others to church, it would do well to consider the societal pressures its members are under to be tolerant. This book would help start that discussion, either at the parish or diocesan level.

It is important to note that the events and discussions described in this book took place before Sept. 11, 2001, the day that changed the religious landscape forever. Canada has also seen a massive influx of immigrants and their faiths over the past 20 years. But that’s what makes this book more important than ever. If you’ve ever felt uncomfortable about the latest non-Christian temple being built down the road, it might be a good time to pick up this book.

 To purchase copies of Being Christian in a Multi-Faith Context, contact Bishop Patrick Yu at 416-363-6021, ext. 253 or patyu@toronto.anglican.ca. The book is expensive but would be a valuable addition to parish libraries.