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Religion, and the allure and power of money

Some of you might remember Eleanor Clitheroe. Her 15 minutes of fame came in the early years of this century.

Some of you might remember Eleanor Clitheroe.

Her 15 minutes of fame came in the early years of this century. She was the CEO of Hydro One, our beloved provider of power in Ontario, and over and above being the highest-paid civil servant in Canadian history (still holding the record at $2.2 million a year), she had an additional infatuation with limousine services, managing to spend an astonishing $300,000 on them in her brief tenure. She explained it had something to do with not taking her pregnancy leave. This of course was not a good optic for a hopelessly mismanaged utility that had to be bailed out by the provincial government, with the taxpayers picking up a special debt charge every year for the rest of their natural lives.

It was an ignominious denouement for the Tory government at the time, which had started its march to power with the snappy marketing tag line, “The Common Sense Revolution,” and limped to the finish line with Eleanor and her merry band of pranksters at Hydro One.

Some of you might remember Ernie Eves, late of the Parry Sound district, who for his 15 minutes of fame became the premier of the province after Mike Harris quit. He fired Eleanor for her gluttonous ways and would have fired the entire board if they hadn’t quit first.

Anyway, there were no tears for Eleanor. She left, one hoped, a little older and wiser, and with a pension of $25,637.08 per month. Yes, I said “per month.” That’s $307,644.96 per year.

The next time I hear of Eleanor is on the CBC radio show Tapestry. The show is about spiritual living, religion and all the questions that emerge when we consider the conflict and joy of belief. It's on Sunday afternoons on CBC, if you are interested. Anyway, I am an atheist, but if I could get past the fact I don’t believe in God, I would enjoy the singing – if not the preaching – at church. Or perhaps not, given the record of organized religion, but you get the idea. I’m conflicted. I like choral music and I’m interested in religion as I am in the human condition. Who isn’t? But I digress.

I was driving from Sudbury to Toronto that day and I was frustrated with the interview with Clitheroe. Eleanor had become an Anglican Priest and this, it seemed, was her “coming out” interview, or more harshly put, her “branding event.” I didn’t blame Eleanor; you can see right through her. It was the interviewer that frustrated me and I felt that it was a disservice not to challenge her hollow words.

Last week, Eleanor was back. I walk into my kitchen and a family friend is sitting at the counter with smoke coming out of her ears, a gin and tonic in one hand and a letter from which she is reading in the other. Nicky, generally a mild-mannered Brit with a good sense of humour, is well-travelled (born in Africa, raised in the British isles and a Canadian resident for most of her working life), a volunteer to any number of organizations that truly help people, a writer of children’s television, and I take it at this moment either a lapsed Anglican coming to life or one in remission, but not for long. The letter in question is written to Colin Johnson, the bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto.

Nicky is outraged. Apparently, Reverend Eleanor is unhappy with her current pension of $25,000-plus per month. She wants the taxpayers of Ontario to pay her $33,000 per month for her stellar service to the province and has hired one of the top lawyers in the country to get it. Eleanor thinks it is just business. It is not.

For Nicky, the hypocrisy of standing in front of parishioners on pensions of $14,000 a year and passing a “collection plate” while demanding outrageous sums of money from the people of Ontario is more than perplexing: it is the seed of a decay far more vexatious.

To her, we are losing our way when this is okay behaviour from our religious leaders.

Notwithstanding the blatant hucksterism of televangelists from one end of North America to the other, the question is where can one reasonably look for moral leadership in today’s world. Not, it would appear, the Anglican Church.

We’ll see what Bishop Johnson has to say.

If you’d like to read Nicky’s letter to the church, we’ve posted it below:

Dear Bishop Johnson,

I am rarely moved to write on an issue. However, the recent news concerning Rev. Clitheroe of Smithville has caused me to question my faith in the principles of the Anglican church.

Her decision to take Ontario Hydro to court in an effort to increase her already outrageous benefit package demonstrates an insatiable avarice.

Although I feel a religious body cannot be held totally accountable for the individual behaviour of its ministers, I do believe there should be values and ethics that are common to all those under its banner.

If the news report in the Toronto Star is accurate, I'm deeply saddened that such outright greed would be demonstrated by a reverend. Unless a subsequent news release reports that Rev. Clitheroe is donating a LARGE portion of her pension to charity, I feel her actions bear no relationship to the Christian teachings I hold to be true.

A sermon is not merely about pontificating on the “right way” to live. It is about the minster demonstrating those words in the actions of their everyday life. Any words of wisdom that Rev. Clitheroe may utter from the pulpit would appear to have an empty echo.

In these economically fragile times, when is enough money enough?

How can Rev. Clitheroe witness a pensioner living on $14,000-$16,000 per year donating to the “collection plate,” then turn around and demand more that $33,000 per month from a taxpayer-funded agency? What an unholy mess!

Having worked with “street youth,” one of the most difficult issues we face is trying to encourage youth to make positive, honest, and ethical life decisions. With corruption and greed evident in both the corporate and political sectors, the values of the churches, synagogues and mosques usually provide a positive example.

In these institutions, we witness people working 'in the trenches' for little pay in the belief that working for the good of the whole makes for a better world. Happily, the by-products of this work are often strong community bonds and evidence that, no matter how small the contribution, we can all make a difference. Most church communities espouse this view; however, unfortunately it's often the negative acts that make the headlines.

In a world with “finite” resources (including money), greed on any level means that someone somewhere will go without. As a society, we cannot turn a blind eye to this fact and still hope to build strong, just and healthy communities.

I hope there is an internal church process whereby Rev. Clitheroe can be introduced to the principles of community service, and hopefully turn this sorry situation around.

Nicky Barton