Now praying: Oscar contenders become sermon material at this Vancouver church
Every year, Very Rev. Gary Paterson and Rev. Dan Chambers of St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church look for films with self-evident themes, asking themselves and each other: Will it preach?
The sun was pouring through the stained-glass windows, bringing relief from the Vancouver rain, but making it a little difficult for the congregation to view the trailer for The Shape of Water – projected onto a large screen at the front of the church. The crowd of 200 or so had just heard a scripture reading about Jesus speaking with a Samaritan woman by the well. After belting out the hymn Like a Healing Stream, they settled back into the pews for the main event.
Very Rev. Gary Paterson, wearing a white alb, bright blue stole and Janet Jackson-type headset microphone, stood on the chancel steps at St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church and launched into the first of the church's annual Oscar sermons. He began this year's series with Guillermo del Toro's film, which leads this year's Oscars race with 13 nominations. Shot in Toronto and Hamilton, The Shape of Water stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute woman who works as a cleaner at a top-secret U.S. government facility and falls in love with a water creature from the Amazon, who has been captured and imprisoned there. The men in power call him a monster and contemplate killing him; Elisa feeds him hard-boiled eggs and wants to dance with him.
"Jesus was one of those who I think would have fit right into the film … always reaching out to those who are on the edge, to those like us who are less than perfect," Paterson said in his sermon.
The downtown church has been preaching the Oscar gospel for about a decade, starting back when there were five best-picture nominees. Now, with a longer list, Paterson and the church's lead minister, Rev. Dan Chambers, choose four or five films, depending on the number of Sundays available. They look for films with self-evident themes, asking themselves and each other: Will it preach?
"Any great film raises existential questions, even theological questions, though those are not always explicit," Paterson says, during a weekday interview at the church's offices. "I think people are actually doing theology at the movies, but they would never call it that. They are doing existential wrestling. It becomes a springboard for the kind of exploration of those existential questions. And we just found it allowed us to raise issues in a fresh way."
Paterson, a former moderator of the United Church of Canada, got the idea from Rob Oliphant, who used to be lead minister with Eglinton St. George's United Church in Toronto. Oliphant, who is now the Liberal MP for Don Valley West, told The Globe and Mail that the idea came after he noticed attendance was sparse around this time of year.
"I [was looking] at a way to spark some interest in going to church instead of going to brunch on a Sunday morning or going to the ski hill," he says. A film buff himself, Oliphant decided to preach about the films nominated for best picture – using the art to illuminate a point from the Bible, rather than the other way around. It worked. "A lot of people came to church," Oliphant says. "That's the shocking part."
In Vancouver, Paterson and Chambers select scripture readings and other elements in the service to complement each week's chosen film. This year, when Chambers preached on The Post, he paired it with a reading from the Book of Esther. In the Bible, Queen Esther – who, unbeknownst to the king, is Jewish – risks everything to tell him about a government official's plot to kill all the Jews. In The Post, publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) risks everything to publish the Pentagon Papers, which revealed ugly, top-secret truths about the Vietnam War.
"It's a film about having a dangerous story," Chambers explained beforehand. "And then it gets us to reflect as a Christian community: There's this story that's a dangerous story, the story of the Gospel, the Bible. It's not a story that says everything is just fine, just leave it status quo. It's a story that probes and challenges and threatens people, often who are in positions of power. So what do we do with that?"
During the service, the scripture reading was followed by a hymn, Hush! Hush! – an instruction both Kay Graham and Queen Esther ignored. Then the sermon tied the brave decisions of these historical women to the present.
"Shift to 2018. In a world where a [U.S.] President calls journalists the enemies of the people, I hope The Post serves as another wake-up call," Chambers told the congregants, some of whom nodded along in agreement.
"At such a time as this, what is our role?" he preached. "After all, we have a dangerous story on our hands. It's the story of Esther daring to reveal the truth to the king, it's the story of Moses going before Pharaoh and demanding that his people be freed from slavery; it's the story of Jesus, the one who turned the tables in the temple. And once you've heard these accounts, a dangerous story has landed in your lap."
St. Andrew's Wesley is a block away from a multiplex, and it is a joy for the ministers to duck across the street to catch an Oscar-nominated film and devise a sermon around it. The Big Short offered an opportunity to preach on crime and punishment (or lack thereof); Arrival on the fear of the other; Brokeback Mountain and the animated film Up offered different perspectives on heartbreak. In a sermon about The Dark Knight, the Joker became a stand-in for the devil (every now and then, the ministers choose to preach on a film that isn't nominated specifically for best picture, especially if they feel it offers something important to address).
When Paterson preached about Moonlight, he pointed to a baptism-like scene in the film and a metaphorical communion at the end. "He actually said, 'Bring the wine,'" he points out. "And you think, 'Okay, I think that's deliberate.'"
Contemplating his sermon for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Paterson determined he would explore the drive for vengeance and how that slides into hate and anger. "And where does justice float in that?"
The fourth sermon this year, on the morning of the Academy Awards, will examine Darkest Hour.
The year that Spotlight, a film that dealt with abuse in the Catholic Church, was nominated, Paterson saw an opportunity to apologize on behalf of the United Church. "We have our own dark history with residential schools. We were abusers," he says.
"I found out later, much later," he continues, "there was a stranger, a visitor to the congregation, sitting in the back, who had been abused and just found herself in tears and profoundly touched by the apology. She didn't speak to me, but we heard via an e-mail that came months later, saying: 'You don't know, but that was a turning point for me: to hear somebody in the church stand up and say we did terrible things and that needs to be said publicly.'"
Paterson is a gifted orator. He spoke on The Shape of Water for more than 15 minutes, without notes, and brought not only Jesus into it (Moses got a mention as well), but also tied in a number of threads related to the calendar and current events: It was the last Sunday of Epiphany, a few days before Valentine's Day, and two days after the controversial not-guilty verdict came down in the Gerald Stanley murder trial in Saskatchewan.
Paterson pointed out that while the Bible tells us to love thy neighbour, the instruction to welcome or love the stranger – or enemy – is repeated far more often. The Shape of Water, Paterson explained, explores the importance of seeing others around us, but also seeing "the other" – people who look different from us or come from a different place.
"I wonder if that would have made a difference in the trial of Gerald Stanley, the killing of Colten Boushie," he said.
He titled that sermon "Love Colours Outside the Lines," borrowing from the title of a hymn the congregation rose to sing immediately afterward.
"We'll never walk on water if we're not prepared to drown," they sang. "Body and soul need a soaking from time to time."