“My core beliefs haven’t changed,” Michael Coren says. But “I can’t imagine who I was spiritually eight years ago.”
The landscape of personal faith can change over time. Scandal, abuse, disillusionment and burnout are just a few of the deconstruction triggers prompting Christians to re-examine what we believe and why. It’s a process that usually happens in private.
Typically contrarian, Coren deconstructed as publicly as possible. You can track the faith shift of this British-Canadian writer, clergyman and former TV host with a quick scan of his book titles, from Why Catholics are Right (2011) and Heresy (2012) to Epiphany (2016), Reclaiming Faith (2019) and The Rebel Christ (2021, reviewed in CC in May).
His Damascus moment, or, as he calls it in Epiphany, “conversion on the road to the rainbow” (39), was incremental. “For me the journey was first emotional and then academic and then theological.” Once the champion of the conservative Christian world defending Scripture against the pressure of society, Coren now calls the Christian right out as homophobic and argues that Jesus would march in Pride parades. Peter Schuurman and I interviewed Coren to find out more about his move away from Catholicism into the Anglican church.
The wedge issue
Coren spent years supporting the Catholic position on homosexuality, arguing that the Church shouldn’t change its views for the sake of popularity or because our culture emphasizes feelings over Biblical truth. There’s “no room for ambiguity” in Scripture, he wrote in The Future of Catholicism (2013).
But that book is no longer listed on Coren’s website; in fact the only book it links to currently is his most recent one, The Rebel Christ, though “there are elements of the other books I would stand by,” he adds.
What prompted his departure from Catholicism?
“Several incidences,” he says, some of which “will sound superficial” – but they boil down to polarization and vitriol from Christians. “It was really the gay issue that was the wedge for me,” he explains. “I was exposed to conservatism in a way I never was before. [In 2014] World Vision issued a statement saying that people in same-sex couples were allowed to work for them. And World Vision do very good work. And within hours – not days, but that day – there were statements from leading evangelical leaders, pretty reputable people, saying ‘If you stand by this statement, we have to reconsider our partnership with you. We won’t give you any money; the lifesaving work you do in the developing world will be hindered.’ I couldn’t reconcile this with a Christian standpoint. This really got to me.”
That summer Coren wrote an article for The Toronto Sun suggesting building bridges between Christian and gay communities, and “it was like the gates of hell had been opened up,” he says – that’s how strongly his Christian audience at the time reacted against him.
“How could I be part of this faith movement?” he started asking. “My position had always been civil union but no to marriage because of the sacramental aspect, and I thought that was the position of most Christians. But I was wrong. The Christian right is homophobic. Patriarch Kirill just blamed the war on gay people.”
“I started to think that either you move away from this belief system, or you have to adapt it enormously.”
You can track Coren’s faith shift in the titles of his books, from Why Catholics are Right (2011) to Epiphany (2016) and, most recently, The Rebel Christ (2021).
Adaptation is nothing new for Coren, 63, who was born in Essex, England and has lived more than half his life in Canada. Yet he keeps close ties with the UK, where he spent his formative years. While we’re talking, Coren keeps one eye on an English football match where Tottenham take on Everton. “Most of my closest friends are still there,” he says.
Raised secular, Coren’s first denominational home after his conversion in the 90s was evangelicalism. He became Catholic in 2004 but decided a decade later, in 2014, that “I couldn’t remain Roman Catholic. I was too tired. I wanted a place where I could be the Catholic I wanted to be, which ironically is a church founded on the Reformation – the Church of England.”
Once Coren started writing in support of LGBTQ issues, he says he was called into the office of the president of Sun News, where he worked at the time, and told “You’re confusing the viewers.” He was let go. The market for his columns and speaking engagements also dried up; “it’s never completely recovered,” he says now. “I used to speak 40 times a year, now covid means none. Half a dozen, maybe. I laugh when people say ‘he did this for the money.’”
Coren eventually went back to school, completing a Masters of Divinity at Trinity College in the University of Toronto in his mid-50s. He was ordained as an Anglican priest last September, a vocation he now combines with writing.
“The litmus test for many Christians is not whether you believe in Jesus Christ; it’s whether you oppose the rights of gay people,” he says. “On the one hand I was attacked; on the other hand, I received these letters from marvellous people in the gay community. People say, ‘he’s changed on every issue.’ But on the most fundamental issue – absolute belief in the Christian narrative – I haven’t changed. On political issues, I haven’t changed. I oppose the death penalty. I support debt relief for third world countries.”
The art of listening
I asked Coren if deconstruction is the right word to describe any part of his faith journey. “I didn’t decide to deconstruct,” he says, “it was accidental. I resisted it. I didn’t sit down at any point and say, ‘this is what I’m going to do.’ I was deconstructed.”
Now he spends two to three days a week as an Anglican priest and the rest of his time writing: “I’ve never been happier, more fulfilled as a Christian. My faith has deepened,” he says.
“I took 12 funerals last year; I spent a lot of time in ICU. I could tell you every inch of Intensive Care in Joe Brant Hospital in Burlington [as] I sat with the dying, the suffering. It’s a beautiful, wonderful thing to do; it really does bring you into the Christian world close up. A lot of what you do as a priest is just to shut the hell up. I probably discuss Downton Abbey more with people than I do the Bible, when I go to visit them. They’re all lonely. They’re all broken. You’re not there to tell people about the Christian story, you just listen.”
A static faith is not healthy, Coren says. Challenges strengthen and stretch it.
“If you don’t change when you come across an experience of suffering, there’s a problem.”
Angela Reitsma Bick, Editor of CC, interviewed Michael Coren with Peter Schuurman as part of a book she is writing with Schuurman on deconstruction in the Canadian context.