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Stereotyping’s the thing

Antipathy toward clergy runs pretty deep in a post-religious society

By David Wilson

Last fall I saw a production of Ghosts, a play by the great 19th-century Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen. Set in the drawing room of a manor house on a rain-swept fjord in western Norway, the play is about the conflict between old and new ideas, and the double standards in which this conflict often finds expression.

Much of the drama unfolds around a character named Pastor Manders, a minister and self-styled community pillar who’s more than willing to tender moral, financial and personal advice to the other characters. Ibsen had deep misgivings about the church; in Ghosts, Manders is a vehicle for those doubts. He’s weak, self-interested and intransigent — seemingly more concerned with his own well-being and status than with saving the souls of those who seek his counsel.

Ibsen wanted to shake up audiences, and it’s not hard to imagine late-19th-century theatregoers squirming in their seats at the spectacle of this unsavoury character. I can’t even begin to imagine how they would have reacted to the portrayal of Manders in the recent production I watched. I suspect they would have been horrified. In the century that has passed since the play was first performed, Manders has been transformed from an ironic character to an object of ridicule. His weaknesses are now played as farce, his self-interest expressed as rank hypocrisy.

What’s more, the audience gets it — effortlessly. What once prompted squirms now elicits derision. Manders’s lines are offered and received as sneering comic relief. Conditioned to the excesses of televangelists and sickened by the stain of clergy sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups, the modern audience assumes the worst of Manders, not because of who he is but because of what he is.

I found myself wondering how all of this would go down with real ministers who may have been in the audience. They’d be entitled to feel a little wronged. This wasn’t a harmless bit of theatre; this was stereotyping with a mean streak.

As unsettling as the performance may have been, it was also revealing. It’s no secret that clergy no longer enjoy the status they once did. What’s not always clear is how deep the antipathy toward organized religion actually runs in some quarters today. The audience’s reaction that night seemed proof that it runs very deep.

At the moment I was watching the Toronto production of Ghosts, Rev. Michael Webster of Saskatoon was in the midst of an experiment. We’d asked Webster if he’d consider wearing a clergy collar non-stop for a month and then write about it. In an earlier era, the clergy collar spoke of ministers’ prominence in the community and of the church’s stature in society. Now hardly anyone wears a collar outside of Sunday worship or official functions like weddings and funerals. We wanted to see if wearing an overt symbol of the Christian ministry would change the way people reacted to Webster, or if it would affect how he thought about his own vocation. A former magazine editor, Webster smelled a good story and signed on.

You can read what he discovered in this month’s cover story, “Collared!” I won’t give away the plot, but suffice to say you’ll be surprised by who gave him the most static for making this particular fashion statement. The experience gave him pause to reflect on what being a minister and a Christian today really means.

Maybe you’ve had experiences of your own that drive home the realities of these secular times. It’s sobering to realize that people of faith are increasingly outsiders in our society — and that the challenge of staking a claim for religion in a post-religious culture may be bigger than we imagine.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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