Thursday, February 2, 2012

Leacock and Grant: Anglicans for all seasons - by Ron Dart


Stephen Leacock (1869-1944) is a Canadian icon, and most know him as our national court jester. Laughter does hold both its sides when Leacock’s many short stories are read and pondered. Fewer Canadians know that Leacock was a political economist, and he taught at McGill University until he retired in 1936. In fact, Leacock’s best selling books were more in the discipline of political science rather than his many collections in the genre of humour. But, fewer still know that Leacock was a committed Anglican, and, in many ways, he was the most public and best known Anglican in the history of Canadian political, literary and religious life.

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912) and Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (1914) are Canadian literary classics, and it is impossible to miss Leacock’s  Anglican and political  vision in these memorable missives. Leacock never flinches from asking hard religious, economic and political questions in these tracts for the times, but his satiric and critical bite is always tempered with plenty of humour and kindness. Leacock was as willing to doubt the dogmatism of liberalism as he was the reactionary nature of much conservatism. He did, in thought, word and deed, embody a subtle and nuanced via media.

Leacock stood for an indigenous form of Canadian High Tory conservatism that would not fit hand in glove with much that goes by the name of religious or political conservatism today. There is no doubt that Leacock viewed himself as a conservative, but his conservatism had a breadth and wisdom, a kindness and catholicity to it that is often lacking in many forms of conservatism these days.

Leacock had four books at the press the year he died. One of these books, The Case Against Social Catastrophe, is true to Leacock and the Anglican path. A middle way is proposed between liberalism and conservatism (both tribes have their strengths and limitations), and Leacock turned to the Beatitudes/Sermon on the Mount and guidance of Archbishop Temple’s public and social vision as his north star.

The disturbing fact that most Canadians only know Leacock as a humourist would annoy Leacock. The fact that less know him as a political economist would worry him. The fact that virtually fewer still feel his deep and throbbing Anglican heart beat would concern him. We as Canadian Anglicans do need to do a revisionist read of this genius of Canadian Anglicanism.

There is no doubt that George Grant (1918-1988) was one of the most important Canadian philosophers and political theorists. He was also a substantive Anglican theologian. Leacock was often in the Grant home when George Grant was a young man, and when Grant’s father died, it was Leacock that walked the extra mile to care for Grant’s mother and sister at McGill. Leacock’s son, Stevie, studied at Upper Canada College with George Grant in the 1930s. There is no doubt the Leacock and Grant families shared an older notion of the meaning of the Anglican way and conservatism.  

George Grant taught at Dalhousie University in the 1950s, McMaster University in the 1960s-1970s, and he returned to Dalhousie in the 1980s. The publication of Grant’s Philosophy in a Mass Age (1958) and Lament for a Nation (1965) placed Grant at the centre and forefront of Canadian philosophical and political life. Grant was a deeply religious man who understood that his faith had to have public implications and consequences. Grant, like Leacock, walked a tightrope and razor’s edge between liberalism and conservatism. There is no doubt that both Leacock and Grant were deeply conservative, but it was a form of conservatism that had ancient and thick roots in the soil of time.

There were times when Grant would be a darling to the political left when he chastised American imperialism, the military industrial complex, capitalism and corporate rule, but he would offend the left and delight the right when he questioned pro-choice, the deterioration of the family and euthanasia. Grant’s commitment to the wisdom and grandeur of the past (in a theological, philosophical and political way) tended to baffle both the religious and political right, left and sensible centre.

We live in a time, sadly so, when ideologues of left and right, liberal and conservative dominate the day. Is there a form of indigenous Anglo-Canadian Anglicanism that is capable of transcending the tribalism of these dualistic positions? There surely is, and Stephen Leacock and George Grant are the saints whose feet we should be sitting at if we ever hope to move out of our present impasse. If we dare to climb on their shoulders, we might yet see further still. Leacock and Grant are Anglicans for all seasons.

Ron Dart attends St. Matthew’s Anglican parish in Abbotsford. Ron is the political science advisor to the Stephen Leacock home/museum in Orillia, Ontario, and he has co-edited a book on George Grant, Athens and Jerusalem: George Grant’s Theology, Philosophy, and Politics, that was published by University of Toronto Press in 2006.  Ron’s Email address is:   

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