On Monday, the city halls of St. John's and Mount Pearl hoisted something called a "Christian Flag" to mark the beginning of Holy Week and to express solidarity with persecuted Christians around the world. The next morning, the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial government did the same at the Confederation Building in St. John's.
Less than 24 hours later, the flag was removed from all three locations after a number of people complained it had homophobic connotations. But the Liberal government is refusing to address the controversy it created.
This flag fiasco forces us to ask an age-old question: what in God's name is happening in Newfoundland?
NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN
This is not the first time that the so-called Christian flag has been raised over the St. John's metro.
Two years ago, the St. Stephen the Martyr Anglican Church in St. John's started lobbying local governments to fly the flag during Holy Week. In both 2014 and 2015, the Progressive Conservative government of the day refused to raise it. (Although last year, the flag was raised at Mount Pearl City Hall and the St. John's City Hall without raising much of a racket from anyone.)
Steve Kent, MHA for Mount Pearl North, was the Minister Responsible for the Office of Public Engagement at the time. "The flag didn't fly in the past because it did not fit the existing flag raising policy," he told The Telegram. "We committed to reviewing and updating the old policy." But in the meantime, flags had to be non-religious, non-political, and not controversial.
This year, despite acknowledging that the standard practice meant that so-called "courtesy flags" had to be non-religious, Premier Dwight Ball–who is Pentecostal–ordered that the flag be raised anyway. "The request came in asking to fly the Christian flag during Easter Week, during Holy Week. That request was granted," he told CBC. "This was about being tolerant and open to the views of all people in the province."
But according to Kent, this is not the message he heard when he consulted faith groups about the flag last year. "Local leaders of numerous faith communities concluded that the flag should not be flown. We are talking about a flag that does not represent all Christians. It's actually a rather controversial flag."
The contemporary use of the flag would seem to back that up. Although the flag was designed by American Methodists in the early 20th century as a flag to represent all Christendom, it has been most popular among evangelical protestants and more fundamentalist churches.
This seems to fit the profile of the group from St. Stephen the Martyr Church who has been lobbying the provincial government to hoist it for the last two years.
THAT OLD-TIME RELIGION
Separation of church and state has always been blurry in Newfoundland and Labrador. The province's official motto is "Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God," presumably because you need the assurance of divine comfort in order to live somewhere with weather this bad. The provincial anthem ends with a rousing chorus of "God guard thee, Newfoundland," and up until very recently, religion dominated public life in the province.
Pre-Confederation,virtually every public position in the Dominion of Newfoundland was allocated along denominational lines and there were semi-regular outbursts of sectarian violence. All public education in the province was administered by churches until a referendum ended denominational schooling in 1997. (Personally, as an Anglican who wound up at a Catholic school, I'm glad that no one who came up through the system in the last 20 years had to spend their communion classes in quarantine with the other hell-bound eight year-olds.)
Obviously, not everyone is happy that things have gone modern. The St Stephen the Martyr Anglican Church is one of them. On the church's website, they include links to homophobic gay conversion therapy organizations like the NARTH Institute.
Tolson Chapman, the organizer of the flag raising campaign, wrote an open letter in The Telegram last year venting his frustration that "God [was] not welcome at Confederation Building." He was particularly troubled by the LGBT "rainbow flag":
"Christians in Newfoundland and Labrador make up about 80 per cent of the population. The LGBT community make up about one per cent of the population? However, this PC government denied 80 per cent of the population an opportunity to fly a Christian flag during Holy Week. Yet one per cent of the population were permitted to fly their flag. (…) I would advise the 80 per cent of Christians in Newfoundland and Labrador to think carefully where you place your X in the next general election."
But Chapman was in a much better mood this year. He told CBC at the flag-raising ceremony in St. John's that the flag is "just to remind us that the persecution of Christians is ongoing daily. And we just want to remind the citizens of St. John's to look up. There's something up there that's very important, and that's Jesus Christ."
According to Ashley Bradley, a graduate student in theology at Queen's College in St. John's and an aspiring Ordinand in the Anglican Church of Canada, the church's obsession with LGBT issues is an ongoing theme.
"[St. Stephen the Martyr represents] an ultra-conservative 'Bible-based' approach to Anglicanism," Bradley told VICE. "They're the new home of several former priests from the Anglican Church of Canada who left the ACC because of views regarding the ordination of women bishops and LGBT issues."
According to Bradley, St. Stephen's use of the term 'Anglican' is somewhat contentious. "Basically a whole bunch of Anglicans who were super pissed off about the blessing of same sex unions and the ordination of women bishops decided to give up on the Anglican Church of Canada because it was becoming so 'heretical' and 'outrageously liberal' and they went and formed their own diocese [called the Anglican Network in Canada]."
The rector of St. Stephen the Martyr Church, Rev. Howard Hynes, echoed Premier Ball's insistence that raising the Christian flag is about being open and tolerant to everyone's religious views. He seemed genuinely shocked at the public backlash.
"Frankly I don't understand why, when we raise a flag with a cross on it or we raise a cross, that it incites such a visceral reaction from people who say all kinds of nasty things about us or about others who raise the flag," he told CBC. "It seems like, as Christians, even in this part of the world, we're facing more and more opposition and hostility."
Bradley believes the Reverend Hynes doth protest too much. "The people at St. Stephen's say [this flag] represents 'all Christians everywhere' but it doesn't," she told VICE. "It's raised as a response to the Pride flag being raised. It's like, 'government buildings let Pride put up their flag, if they don't let us put up ours then it's persecution.'"
"Persecution is the word they're using, which in my opinion diminishes the real persecution Christians are facing in other parts of the world."
A LAMP UNDER A JAR
Because this is the provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the whole situation was handled as clumsily as possible. Despite the fact that raising the flag contravened standard protocol and immediately generated an uproar from the LGBT community and secularists, the Liberals spent all of Tuesday insisting the flag would stay. On Tuesday night, Confederation Building waslit up with rainbow lights, presumably to assure everyone that the government was still totally cool.
The next morning, the flag was removed. Both St. John's and Mount Pearl city councils publicly acknowledged their mistake in raising it in the first place.
Meanwhile, the Premier's office issued a statement saying that in light of the terrorist attacks in Brussels, all provincial and national flags would fly at half-mast, which meant all courtesy flags would also be removed. The government failed to actually address any of the complaints about the flag, concluding its statement by doubling down on the "tolerance" line:
"Our Government operates on a policy of tolerance and believes we must be respectful to all groups, regardless of their religious, racial, sexual or gender identities. This flag was raised by various municipalities, to acknowledge Holy Week."
Premier Dwight Ball's simultaneous involvement in and silence about the Christian flag controversy is bizarre. The man is famous for saying nothing out of both sides of his mouth in order to avoid antagonizing anybody. This was basically the entire Liberal election strategy last November, and it continues to be his government's modus operandi heading into what is guaranteed to be a devastating provincial budget.
And yet here he is, overriding protocol guidelines designed to preserve government inoffensiveness in order to fly a sectarian flag, and then refusing to back down or justify this decision, relieved of the pressure only by the black day in Belgium.
A person's religious beliefs are a private matter until they start to impact the behaviour of a public office. When it came out in 2014 that "premier resignate" Frank Coleman was an anti-abortion activist, it rightly became a public issue. Likewise, Premier Ball owes the LGBT community and the province as a whole an actual explanation for why he personally insisted that this flag go up.
Why is his office equivocating, on the grounds of "tolerance," the province's LGBT community with a fringe church who believes that homosexuality is a disease to be eradicated through therapy?
Given the gaffe-prone nature of Newfoundland and Labrador politics, it will all come out in the wash eventually anyway. As a great Rabbi once said, "nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light."
God guard thee, Newfoundland, indeed.
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