George Grant and the Anglican Church of Canada: A 20th Century Prophet

“But there are remnants left around me…vey strange remnants…in this case the Anglican church which has in it some of the ancient truth and therefore I will live within it.” 

-George Grant

Liberalism was, in origin, criticism of the old established order. Today, it is the voice of the establishment.”                       

-George Grant

George Grant was Canada’s most significant public philosopher, meaning that his public was Canadian.

-Graeme Nicholson

The Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) in its liberal and conservative tendencies never quite knew how to deal with Grant. He was much too conservative for the liberals and much too classical and tory for the conservatives. In fact, Grant in his love of the Whole, transcended such simplistic either-or categories. This essay will ponder Grant’s larger vision of faith and the dilemmas he created for those who only think in liberal-conservative and left-right categories then and in our cancel culture wars now.    

The inside flap on the most recent book of collected essays about George Grant, Athens and Jerusalem: George Grant’s Theology, Philosophy, and Politics (2006), says this: ‘George Grant (1918-1988) has been called Canada’s greatest political philosopher. To this day, his work continues to stimulate, challenge, and inspire Canadians to think more deeply about matters of social justice and individual responsibility. However, while there has been considerable discussion of Grant’s political theories, relatively little attention has been paid to their theological and philosophical underpinnings’. There is little doubt, in short, that Grant was the most important Christian public intellectual in Canada in the latter half of the 20th century, and for those who take their faith with some intellectual seriousness, much can be learned from George Grant the prophet, theologian, philosopher and engaged thinker. And, it is to such a journey I will now turn in this initial essay that tracks Grant’s emerging religious vision to the 1970s and Grant’s questioning of the trendy yet compassionate liberalism of Archbishop Ted Scott, Scott, in many ways, bringing the liberal Trojan horse into the Anglican camp. Much that had been simmering pre-Scott became more overt and explicit in Scott’s tenure. Grant saw, all so clearly, the deeper issues that neither liberals nor conservatives spotted well or wisely. This failure led to the formal fragment in the Anglican Church of Canada in the early years of the 21st century.

Athens and Jerusalem walks the extra mile to highlight the deep theological well where Grant turned to slake a thirsty and parched soul. There is more to Grant, though, than the theological and philosophical underpinnings for his public vision. George Grant was an Anglican, and, sadly so, his Anglicanism has often been ignored. In the midst of the culture wars in the Anglican Church of Canada, Grant can offer us a way through and beyond the theological and ethical tribalism of left and right, liberal and conservative that so besets, bedevils and divides us these days.

There is a form of Christianity, well lived and articulated by Grant, that might be called the Classical Christian tradition. Such a read of the Christian drama can come as a corrective to the liberal, conservative and fundamentalist versions of Christianity that often compete for dominance in the house of faith today. Grant’s classical understanding of the Christian and Anglican way can still teach us much about the esse of what we need to conserve.

George and Sheila Grant became Anglicans in 1956 while Grant was teaching in the philosophy department at Dalhousie. Bishop William Davis brought the Grant family into the Anglican Church, and it is significant that it is Bishop Davis’s son, Arthur Davis, that is editing the 4 Volume Collected Works of George Grant. It was also Arthur Davis that edited George Grant and the Subversion of Modernity: Art, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, and Education (1996).

Grant completed his DPhil Thesis at Oxford in 1950 on ‘The Concept of Nature and Supernature in the Theology of John Oman’, and in 1951, his article in the Massey Commission, ‘Philosophy’, stirred a hornet’s nest in the philosophic Sanhedrin in Canada.  Grant began the essay with these words: ‘The study of philosophy is the analysis of the traditions of our society and the judgment of those traditions against our varying intuition of the Perfection of God’. He also argued that authentic philosophy was about contemplation of God rather than an analysis and description of God. Grant was decades ahead of his time in this suggestion.  Such challenging words about the ‘Perfection of God’ and contemplative philosophy and theology did not please those who were neither interested in perfection, contemplation or God.

In 1953, Grant delivered a paper, ‘Two Theological Languages’, to the Presbyterian and United Church clergy. The original paper and various additions are basic to Grant’s approach to doing theology in a post-Christian world. There is no doubt, though, that Grant was very much grappling with the relationship between theology and philosophy in this timely and telling essay. Grant sought to discern, in ‘Two Theological Languages’, the differences between the language of revelation and the language of reason. The language of revelation is appropriate within the life of the church, but, within the larger public world, it is the language of reason that dominates.

What is reason, though, and how are Christians in a post-Christian world to address their culture in a way that their culture understands? It is of little use, in short, to use the language of revelation in a culture that does not accept revelation as a form of authority. Grant was, in short, calling Christians to be fully bilingual; they had to know how to speak both the language of revelation and the language of reason if they were ever to communicate meaningfully to the church and the world. But, much hinged, of course, on what is meant by reason. It is this issue that led Grant to Plato and Heidegger. Their views of reason were quite different from the scholastic, empirical and Cartesian notions of reason that had so thinned out the older and deeper classical notions of reason as a contemplative and mystical faculty and organ at the seat of the heart and soul.

Grant’s lectures for CBC, Philosophy in the Mass Age, were published in 1959. It is obvious in these compelling lectures that Grant is grappling with the tensions between Plato and Hegel. Plato had argued there is an eternal order that we attune ourselves to, whereas Hegel argued that history is about the unfolding of our consciousness of liberty. Hegel is the grandmaster of emerging liberalism, and Plato of the ‘moving image of eternity’. Grant saw where the thinking of Hegel led, and he came to side with Plato, and the tensions between Plato and Christianity, Socrates and Christ. ‘Christ, What a Planet’ was delivered in 1959 on CBC, and in this provocative reflection, Grant ponders the previous year and the future of the globe. He pulls no punches about the injustices in the world, but Grant’s understanding of the reasons for global injustice and a healing of such tragedies are quite different than the liberal tradition.

Grant was one of the first professors to be hired at York University, and he was the first to resign in 1960 for the simple reason that Plato and Christianity could not be taught in a positive manner. Grant was invited by St. John’s Anglican College in Winnipeg to give the Convocation address in November/1960. It is impossible to miss in the Convocation address Grant’s passion for Christianity and the dark clouds he sees on the religious, educational and political horizon. Grant saw in the 1950s-1960s many of the dilemmas Anglicans struggle with today, and he thought through the issues in a way that can still instruct and teach us.

After Grant left York, he was hired at McMaster University. The Grant family attended the local parish in Dundas near Hamilton, and George/Sheila were active in parish life. George was fondly called the ‘Bishop’ in the area, and his review of a book on the parish, Fountain Come Forth: The Anglican Church and the Valley Town of Dundas, speaks much about Grant’s interest and grounding in the Anglican way. Grant addressed the McMaster Divinity School in October 1961 on Jesus and Pilate, and by the late 1960s, after publishing his controversial, Lament for a Nation, he pondered the meaning of the Eucharist in ‘Qui Tollit:  Reflections on the Eucharist’.

Grant began a most engaging correspondence with Derek Bedson in 1956 (when he became an Anglican), and between 1956-1984, twenty-eight letters were written by Grant to Bedson. Bedson, like Grant, was an Anglican, and in these letters, Grant pondered the meaning of Anglicanism in the Anglican Church of Canada.

Grant found Pierre Berton’s The Comfortable Pew a shallow and thin book, and it is significant that Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (that was dedicated to Derek Bedson and Judith Robinson) and The Comfortable Pew: A Critical Look at the Church in the New Age were both published in 1965. Much hinges on whether Grant or Berton is followed down the Anglican path after these two missives were published. Grant points the way in Lament to a deeper and older conservatism, and Berton points the way to a trendy and ideological liberalism. Much of the Anglican Church of Canada has followed Berton’s lead, and, sadly so, most conservatives who see themselves as Orthodox, have ignored Grant.

It is pertinent to note that in June/1966, Adrienne Clarkson (another Anglican and future Governor General of Canada) interviewed Grant for the First Person series. Grant makes it quite clear in this article that he thinks Western Christianity, for the most part, is near the end. Most forms of schismatic and fragmentary Protestantism have been totally co-opted by modernity, but the ‘Anglican church has in it some of the ancient truth and therefore I live within it’. Grant saw in the time tried Anglican way ‘strange remnants’ of an older, deeper way that was much closer to the heart of Christianity.     

When Ted Scott became the tenth Primate of Canada (1971-1986), Grant saw the writing on the wall. Scott, in many ways, merely fleshed out Berton’s shallow liberalism. There is no doubt that Scott was a compassionate man, but the intellectual underpinnings of his thought were thin and meagre. Scott, in many ways, moved the Anglican Church of Canada further down the liberal path and trail. Grant was quick to see in Scott and tribe an uncritical attitude in the Anglican Church towards liberalism, and he also saw the consequences in the ethical and political realms of this attitude.  Grant not only saw it, but he analysed the problem at the core and foundation levels: none were doing this at the time.

Most conservatives in the reign of Ted Scott were reacting to issues and symptoms but not probing the deeper philosophic roots that produced the worrisome fruit on the tree of the church. Much was masked and hidden, often, by Scott’s seeming compassion and desire for dialogue. Grant saw through all this, and called it for what it was. Ideas do have consequences, and Grant perceived, clearer than most, decades ahead of most, the corrosive nature of liberalism.

It is not very liberal of a liberal not to question liberalism, but the ideological liberalism of Grant’s day (and ours) had to be doubted and interrogated. Grant did this both in the Anglican Church of Canada and the much broader Canadian culture. He was often a lone voice, but he was a prophetic voice to both the Anglican Church, Christianity and Canadian culture.

I will, in the next article, discuss how liberalism further unfolded in the church and the world, and how Grant dared to challenge this reigning intellectual monarch that resisted opposition and dethronement.

Ron Dart         

Grant was, in short, calling Christians to be fully bilingual; they had to know how to speak both the language of revelation and the language of reason if they were ever to communicate meaningfully to the church and the world. But, much hinged, of course, on what is meant by reason. It is this issue that led Grant to Plato and Heidegger. Their views of reason were quite different from the scholastic, empirical and Cartesian notions of reason that had so thinned out the older and deeper classical notions of reason as a contemplative and mystical faculty and organ at the seat of the heart and soul.

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