If you believe that you can be spiritual, but not religious, you are fooling yourself.
That’s the message of The Rev. Canon David Smith as he temporarily takes up the reins at several rural Anglican churches in the area until a successor to Rev. Nancy McLeod can be found.
As the pews of organized religion empty out, Smith has heard the New Age mantra from many people that they “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.”
“It’s a cop out,” said Smith of that line of thinking, during an interview on Wednesday, Nov. 14. “We are all spiritual beings. Our real self is our spiritual self, we can say.”
While science can teach us a lot, it cannot answer all of life’s important questions.
“How do you measure love?” he asked. “How do you measure responsibility? Courage? Science has given us such incredible strides,” he added, citing the moon landing in 1969 or how scientists can manipulate genes now.
Various atheist books, like The God Delusion (2008) by Richard Dawkins and God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) by Christopher Hitchens, have all been best-sellers, and even until his recent death – as outlined in his latest and last book Mortality - Hitchens’ told followers not to believe any supposed death-bed conversions. But their lack of faith, to Smith, shows that even they possess the very human need to believe.
“I would say that is their religion (atheism),” said Smith, especially since they hold to it so stridently. “It is based on a belief. Well, God bless them, but they are wrong!”
However, Smith acknowledged that attendance at Anglican services in this area has been declining over the years, and that things are difficult for many mainline Christian denominations.
“We are living through a secular age, where institutions such as the church are no longer given the same respect as they used to. (It is a time) where God is considered irrelevant by the population,” said Smith. “I believe that the time will come… that there is a reaction to every action and the pendulum will swing (though) not in my life time. But people will realize that people cannot build a society without God and the lesson may be a painful one.”
Smith is the interim priest-in-charge of the churches that make up the parishes of Maberly-Lanark (within the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa) and Parham-Sharbot Lake (within the old-school named Diocese of Ontario, headquartered in Kingston), though both parishes fall under the jurisdiction of Ottawa for now, until a full time replacement is found, when it reverts back to the Kingston-based diocese.
Smith takes over from McLeod, who had served in her role for about five years, before being appointed to a new church in Kitley, and he took up his duties on Thursday, Nov. 1.
“The hint was made to me that this would last until the middle of January,” said Smith. But he’s been a priest long enough to know how, despite the best of intentions, things sometimes take longer than they might be promised. “This could go on to Easter and beyond,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve been around a bit.”
Interestingly, Smith was the interim priest previous to McLeod, during the time before her arrival but after the time of the Rev. Doug Richards.
Smith was born in Belleville, and his father and grandfather were both Anglican priests. Not only did he continue in the family tradition, he also ended up in many of the same churches where his ancestors had preached. His grandfather, Rev. Thomas Austin Smith, upon graduating in 1898, went to Sharbot Lake to lead worship. His father, a graduate of the divinity program at Trinity College at the University of Toronto in 1926, made Parham his first stop as a deacon that same year.
“I’m treading on holy ground here,” Smith said. “He (my father) was engaged to my mother and he wanted to get married…but his stipend wasn’t enough to get married.”
So, he was promoted and moved to Athens, and with the move came a raise in pay.
Like his father before him, he too graduated from Trinity with an arts degree in 1956, followed by a divinity degree in 1958. He became a deacon in the May of 1958, and a priest that same December.
His first appointment was to the Diocese of Algoma in northern Ontario, where he served at St. Luke’s Cathedral in Sault Ste. Marie. In time, he was moved to churches in Thunder Bay (twice), North Bay, before moving back south to Bancroft, and retiring in 1999.
During his time in the Ontario northland, he was sent to St. Augustine’s College in Canterbury, England, from 1963 to 1964, the central college of the Anglican Communion. Upon his return, he served as the chaplain at Trinity College from 1964 to 1968.
“That was a great experience,” he said. “I had to lecture. That was a ghastly experience! But I learned so much.”
He admitted that while being a lecturer and a preacher have similarities, one draws from academic texts, or the great works of antiquity, or more technical works, but preaching draws from The Holy Bible, and a priest has to speak “so that people are moved to believe and respond, but also to do it intelligently, not just (as) an emotional response to an inner longing, but an intellectual response to intelligent questions.”
After his retirement, he moved to Perth where he is associated with St. James’ church, even serving as the interim priest there following the time of Rev. George Bruce.
“It’s very much like a doctor,” said Smith. “He tries to keep his hand in… he putters along with his stethoscope. (Similarly) once you are a priest, you are always a priest.”
Mindful that his time leading the churches in the area is short, he is not planning any major new initiatives.
“The goal is to keep this parish alive and well,” he said. “It is filled with good people. My responsibility is to look after the priestly duties.”