Ontario priests’ podcast from pub explores faith in the public square

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Canon Kevin George, left, and the Rev. Rob Henderson, right, talk with academic and writer Michael W. Higgins. “I think that we need people to be engaged with us as equals—not as some sort of self-righteous, higher or holier-than-thou people,” George says. Photo: Contributed

If you’re looking for conversation about faith and spirituality, you’ll find a pretty wide variety of options, each with its own flavour and atmosphere. Weekday evening Bible study might be quiet and contemplative, while academic conferences offer staid but rigorous discourse on theological questions. You may find yourself pulled deeply into one-on-one prayer in your rector’s office, or immersed in a thoughtful sermon on Sunday morning.

And then there’s the pub: a place where people talk about God, the problems of the world or today’s ups and downs. (And sports.) Such conversations are a regular occurrence at Crossings Pub & Eatery, in London, Ont. There, at one table, you’ll find a few priests, a few pints and some interesting friends, and their conversation moves comfortably to and fro. You’ll hear the kinds of things that friends say when they’re at ease—sometimes the banter is salty, boisterous or profound.

Like most pub conversation, it often cuts right to the chase.

“Probably one of the most boring things on the planet is to go to a meeting with priests. My God. I would rather stick a pencil in my eye. Because it’s boring, it’s self-serving, it is just insipid,” the Rev. John Marsh, priest in the diocese of New Westminster, tells the table during a visit to London. “When you get together with a bunch of priests, and they’re all sitting there, you know: ‘How can we do this, and what should we wear, and how should we process, and how should we do this, and what about this program, and what about that program?’ And I’m going: ‘Has anybody paid attention to the damned world? What the hell is going on in your parish?’”

Marsh’s voice rises on those questions—he’s clearly worked up—but then his tone relaxes into sincere curiosity. “Like, what’s going on? What’s happening?… What’s happening in your area? What are the issues? What are the questions that are being birthed? What are the needs that are starting to come up?”

Or there’s the time that Helen Butlin, a psychotherapist, comes to the table to talk about wisdom. “Wisdom, disembodied from persons, becomes knowledge,” she shares with the group. “If it’s not lived and embodied, somehow you lose the quality of wisdom.”

While there, Butlin quietly reads “I am wisdom,” a poem she wrote by assembling interviews from three women living with ovarian cancer. “I am quiet, invisible. I am so close you don’t see me. I live between the black and white where things cannot be seen. I am navigating. I am being in the present moment. I am doing a fresh take. You don’t give yourself credit for how much you do inside.”

You don’t have to go to Crossings at any particular hour to hear these conversations. There is a zero-drink minimum to listen in, and you don’t need to pull up a chair—you can listen from bed, a beach lounger or on your next road trip. In fact, you don’t have to go to the pub at all. These conversations are all part of the Vicars’ Crossing podcast, an audio show stored online and accessible at any time, from wherever there’s an Internet connection.

“Good morning, good afternoon, good evening—wherever and whenever you may be listening,” the Rev. Rob Henderson, a former radio announcer, intones into the mike at the beginning of every episode.

Henderson, together with his friend Canon Kevin George, have been doing the podcast from the top floor—“the upper room”—of Crossings since last October.

Henderson, rector of the Parish of Holy Trinity-St. Stephen’s Memorial, and George, rector of St. Aidan’s Anglican Church both in London, say the Vicars’ Crossing is all about exploring the intersection of faith and civic life—which is why, for them, it’s important to do the show in a place where people gather for conversation.

“We always say the church [today] is not the church of our parents, and we have to find different ways to connect with our culture and our community,” Henderson says. “Our call is not just to box ourselves in our parishes and hope everybody shows up. Our call is to go outside of that…just as Jesus would do, right? He just kind of shows up and starts engaging with people.”

Shows run roughly 50 minutes, and each features a special guest, who may be Anglican—or not. The Vicars’ Crossing has hosted Anglican clergy including Linda Nicholls, bishop of the diocese of Huron. But it’s also featured London rabbi Debra Dressler, Roman Catholic academic and writer Michael W. Higgins, Muslim poet Najwa Zebian and nurse and spiritual journeyer Kasia Kalarus.

The common theme is faith, says Henderson—even if it’s not always expressed as such.

“The real focus is to try to highlight how our faith shows itself in the public square, and how the people that we bring in to talk about their faith—or even those that say they have no faith—how that actually lives out in their lives,” Henderson says. “You realize that their story is one of actually connecting with lives and doing the things that we talk about wanting to do as Christians.

“When they share their stories, we can point and say there’s faith living in the public square that you might not have even noticed…. That’s kind of the idea behind it.”

With its friendly opening and closing music, cheerful banter, off-the-cuff jokes, trivia questions and sports talk, The Vicars’ Crossing sounds a lot like professional radio—which perhaps isn’t surprising, since Henderson worked in radio, mostly as an announcer, for 15 years before being called to the priesthood. But the issues it treats, George says, aren’t typical for a lot of existing Christian radio: the role of LGBTQ people in the church, and medical assistance in dying, for example.

One of the podcast’s goals, the two say, is to convey the feeling of ordinary people talking about their faith in ordinary places. And if the conversation sounds relaxed, it could have something to do with the fact that George and Henderson have been friends for a dozen years—and have spent much time, they say, over a meal or beer talking about the same issues the show deals with.

“It’s not really highfalutin, and we don’t really get into deep theology and church history and all that kind of stuff,” Henderson says. “It’s like if you were to overhear a couple of guys talking at Tim Horton’s or the pub about things—that’s what we hope comes across on the podcast.”

“We want it to be fun as well, and we want it to be an opportunity for people to get to know a little bit about our personalities and who we are,” says George. “Most of my ministry has been spent trying to be more authentic, and to give people a more authentic look at what it is to be a priest. I think that we need people to be engaged with us as equals—not as some sort of self-righteous, higher or holier-than-thou people.”

The idea for the podcast was George’s. He says he had been thinking of doing something like it for a while, but it wasn’t until last September, not long after Henderson moved to London, that The Vicars’ Crossing began to take shape.

“The more I prayed about it and thought about it, the more I thought it’s going to be a boring venture if it’s just me nattering on,” he says. “Rob and I often sit at pubs and talk theology and clutch our pearls about what the church is doing or not doing in the public square, and so I brought it up to him. I said, ‘Rob, I’ve got this idea and I’d love to have you join me in it, because you’ve got the chops for it, and because I know you and I can carry on a conversation about these things, in, I think, a halfway intelligent manner anyway.’ And he was game.”

Neither of them, George says, knew much about podcasting—but this did not prove to be a problem. George approached Iain Stevenson, a parishioner, 17 years old at the time, well-versed in technology, about joining the team. Stevenson accepted, and is now the show’s producer, as well as an active participant in the podcast conversations.

George purchased the microphones and other equipment Stevenson recommended, and then approached Crossings Pub & Eatery about a deal. Crossings agreed both to provide the venue for the show and to sponsor it, and it is acknowledged for its contribution in every episode.

Before long, Stevenson had downloaded the software necessary for the show to begin—and composed and produced its theme music. George and Henderson also had a Vicars’ Crossing logo designed and ordered some merchandise. Since the show first hit cyberspace in October, they’ve been podcasting roughly once a week. They’ve also taken the show on the road with a podcast from the diocese of Huron’s synod, which took place May 26-28.

Estimating the total number of people who listen to the show, George says, is not easy, partly because it’s accessible at a number of places—YouTube, SoundCloud, Buzzsprout, Spotify, Google Play and iTunes—and partly because “hits” will continue to accumulate for a podcast long after it’s made available; a podcast that has garnered 75 hits one week after it’s put up might have 250 a few weeks later, he says. The level of current listeners, he says, is “meagre,” but both he and Henderson are hopeful that it will grow.

One of the challenges The Vicar’s Crossing has faced, George and Henderson say, is hosting guests from outside the London area; the podcast has no travel budget, and the idea of interviewing guests remotely has not entirely seemed to fit with George and Henderson’s desire to recreate the feeling of an in-person pub chat. But both say they’re interested in exploring ways of hosting more high-profile guests, possibly from outside the city, in the future.

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

3 COMMENTS

  1. At about 35 minutes in to the Part 1 of the synod visit recording, they use the Hallelujah chorus to celebrate the fact that one of their guests knows that which NHL team had moved from one town to another. Cheapening the faith in a deplorable manner. The very best of Christendom’s music deserves better.

    • Oh dear
      I’m just glad you made it to the 35 minute mark. Thanks for listening to our work. You can’t hear it, but I am currently playing the hallelujah chorus in celebration of the fact that you listened! Hope that I’ve cheapened the Faith even further.

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