Last year, Michael Coren went public about leaving the Roman Catholic Church — a faith he had for years defended as a writer and broadcaster — since then he has often written on his change of heart about issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion and more.
This change, outlined in his new book Epiphany, has had a few effects, including a strong backlash from previous supporters of Coren’s work and, as he describes, “new and wonderful friendships” with people who may previously have been stridently opposed to his ideas. One of those people is community activist and writer Andray Domise, who has recently left his place of worship.
TVO.org asked Coren and Domise to talk about meeting each other, the nature of changing faith, and what it means to talk publicly about religion.
Michael Coren: Andray and I made contact on Twitter a few months ago. For the longest time I think he’s regarded me as on the wrong side of, well, almost everything — and to an extent, he was probably right. I know I’d blocked him on Twitter. Then again, I’d blocked quite a few people over the years.
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They’re all unblocked now. Not that I don’t have critics, many of them abusive and nasty, but they’re on the Christian and secular right these days. Over the past two years I’ve experienced something of a religious and political metamorphosis. One of the consequences has been new and wonderful friendships.
I asked Andray out for lunch, and we chatted about various issues. I’m not sure how religion came up — I’m careful not to proselytize — but we started discussing faith and how we’d left our respective churches, his Pentecostal and mine Roman Catholic. Our reasons were similar: both churches were very conservative on numerous moral and sexual subjects. Andray said he’d like to come to my church, an Anglican denomination. Frankly, I didn’t think he would, but the following Sunday, there he was.
Andray Domise: I actually grew up listening to Michael Coren’s AM radio talk show. My mother and I would tune in during our drive home from work and school, and I was consistently infuriated at what came out of his mouth. I once called in when he had Ed the Sock on as a guest, and they roasted me pretty good — Ed even asked if I’d hit puberty yet.
I don’t recall why Michael blocked me on Twitter, but I’ve been blocked by a good number of social conservatives. This usually happens when they veer into commentary on race and racism and I have strident objections to what they’re saying. Being a smart-mouth myself, I’m not surprised Michael blocked me.
In late 2015 Michael published some moving pieces in the Toronto Star. Using faith as a compass, he outlined why voting for the Harper Conservatives was not the Christian thing to do, why the Catholic Church needed to stop obsessing over sex and sexuality, and why Canadians need to welcome refugees. His thoughtfulness forced me to consider how little I really knew about the man.
After he unblocked me, I reached out to let him know his faith was the kind of Christianity that inspires me. I’ve been a bit of a church orphan since leaving my own last year. A sermon on abortion rights and same-sex marriage destroying Canada’s moral fibre crossed the final line for me. I was raised by a single mother and a family of strong, determined women. My own mentor and father figure is a gay man in a loving relationship. If I had brought any of them to church that Sunday, I would have left feeling ashamed of myself.
During our lunch, I mentioned to Michael I was looking for a new church, and he invited me to Sunday mass with him. It turns out his church is a short distance from me. I was nervous about going (and ended up late because I couldn’t decide what to wear), but when I found him in the pews all of that fell away. I felt like I’d found home again.
Coren: You looked great! But seriously, I know what you mean about being a church orphan. I’m not anti-Roman Catholic, and know some wonderful Catholics — my wife included. But for years I found myself as part of an institution rather than part of the body of Christ. I know many people reading this will dismiss or even have disdain for this aspect of faith, but to believers it’s central. It would be like being in a loveless marriage, just going through the motions.
Domise: I understand what you mean about being in a loveless marriage with the church. I’ve always been taught that church is the facilitator, not the gatekeeper. And yet, feeling the deep discomfort that I had about our pastor and guest speakers discussing homosexuality in terms of condemnation and not grace, well, it got to me. For a while after I stopped taking the sacrament and stopped attending, I also stopped saying grace, and even praying. Prayer is still difficult for me; I’m often unable to find anything beyond the standard Lord’s Prayer to speak out loud.
It also became distressing to me to see a white pastor speaking to a mostly black congregation on issues mostly related to moral purity. I don’t ever remember a sermon on local poverty, on issues with youth (aside from preaching abstinence), and especially not on police harassment and carding, which was a rampant problem in the neighbourhood. Not that a white pastor is incapable of speaking to these issues — I know many who do so quite adeptly — but that these conversations were left out altogether. It spoke of a type of faith more suited to a mausoleum than a living, breathing congregation.
Coren: When I reversed my position on equal marriage, it was as if a supporting brick in a wall had been removed. It obliged me to speak and write about other issues: migrant justice, social welfare, reproductive rights. What might seem paradoxical to some was profound to me: the stronger my faith became, the more liberal or socialistic I found myself. It’s an empowering and frightening experience, and the hatred thrown at me by social conservative Christians in response was and still is shocking. They attacked my family too, which is something I must – but find difficult to – forgive.
If I have a vocation now, it’s to present Christianity to a cynical (and rightly angry) world as the compassionate, tolerant and revolutionary ideology it is, and not the stale, frightened conservatism of Ted Cruz types. When you speak of home, Andray, you are so correct. From being lost to finding home, from wandering to sanctuary. It’s been a startling, often painful, but ultimately vital and liberating two years for me.
Domise: Until recently, I didn’t have role models or healthy means for having open, public conversations about Christianity. The same way I don’t speak about my day job or bank balance, I don’t speak openly about my faith. I worry about how I come across, because proselytizing was very much a part of church traditions I’ve been raised with. When I lived in Florida during my teens, I remember one church guest speaker discussing her experience with conversion therapy, better known as "Pray the Gay Away." After her talk, the congregation cheered and spoke of her bravery for taking the therapy. I remember thinking: "These people have put this woman through hell, and they’re proud of it." But being a teenager who already had a hard enough time fitting in, I didn’t say anything.
I would never sit silent and watch this happen today. But the experience did inform the way I discuss my faith. Watching Michael over the last few months has been very instructive for me.
Coren: The most common narrative is, I suppose, for people to lose faith altogether. Simple, done, over. But I think that’s a little facile, and in my case incorrect. I am my faith; it’s part of me. As it deepened, it forced me to change. It’s always difficult to discuss this publicly because people assume piety, holiness and all it implies: namely, awful movies about meeting angels or parochial small-mindedness.
Faith is intimate. It’s also been hijacked in the public sphere by a certain type of Christian to the extent that many people, especially if they’re on the left, are embarrassed to come out. My children have long left organized religion but our eldest daughter was delighted when I embraced equal marriage. In fact, I dedicated my new book to her.
Domise: I look forward to reading it.
Author and columnist Coren's new book is Epiphany: A Christian's Change of Heart & Mind over Same-Sex Marriage.
Andray Domise is a community activist and writer.