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From politics to pulpit

Green party leader Elizabeth May plans to become Anglican priest

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She’s known nationally for her passionate preaching on the environment, but these days Elizabeth May is considering a more traditional pulpit for her message of saving the Earth.

As the leader of the Green Party of Canada prepares to hit the pavement for an anticipated fall federal election, she’s also quietly planning for life after politics by studying to become an Anglican priest.

"When I finish being prime minister, I’m going to be ordained," she says with a laugh.

But theological studies are no joke for the longtime environmentalist-turned-politician, who is planning to run for Parliament in a winnable seat in the next election. She won’t say where, except that it won’t be in Central Nova, where she lost to incumbent Conservative Peter MacKay in 2008.

"The course work itself is enormously fulfilling and it uses a part of my brain that wasn’t used in politics," says May, 55, interviewed during a recent visit to Winnipeg. "It is expanding my consciousness and my depth of understanding and my faith and my intellect."

May juggles the demands of her day job with part-time studies at Ottawa’s St. Paul University, where she’s been enrolled in an Anglican studies program since 2004. She generally manages one course a semester, carving out three-hour blocks from her political work to attend weekly classes, and cramming term paper research into small slivers of time in her busy travelling schedule.

"I often go to theology (classes) straight from the airport or go to classes with a suitcase" before catching a plane, says May, who packs her books on long train trips to study en route.

The recipient of three honorary doctorates, May is about one-third through a bachelor of theology degree, begun before she entered politics to facilitate a possible career move from law and environmental activism to parish ministry.

"I think I would find it personally more fulfilling to be an Anglican priest than a leader of a federal political party," says the author of seven books, the latest on the crisis in Canadian democracy. "I draw a lot of strength from my life of faith."

The process of becoming an Anglican priest generally takes several years, and includes recommendations from a bishop and short internships in a parish as well as a theology degree. May hasn’t yet gone to her bishop for that discussion, and for now is content to take the occasional course as she concentrates on her work in Ottawa.

"I’ve always had the sense you’re supposed to make a difference in the world," she says of her inner call to environmental activism, and now perhaps the priesthood. "My sense of calling in religious terms — why would I want to be a parish priest — is to live a life that’s as close to the Creator as possible."

That drive to make a difference is the only sort of motivation that makes sense for a person of faith working in politics, says Tim Sale, a former NDP provincial cabinet minister and ordained Anglican priest.

"You have to be really clear if politics is a means or an end," says the former health minister, who retired from politics in 2007. "As soon as you think it’s an end, you’re in trouble."

Sale says some of political life can be essentially pastoral if an elected leader takes the time to listen and show compassion to people who have been abused or badly treated by the system.
"One of the great dangers (of political life) and the one thing I was acutely aware of was the temptation to distance yourself" from people, says Sale, who describes politics as dealing with many shades of grey.

Insistent on the separation of church and state, May also asserts that all politicians are influenced by some sort of value system, and perhaps Canada’s state religion is what she dubs "econotheism."

"We worship the economy. It has its own dogma, its own precepts, and its core theology is selfish individualism," says May, who describes herself as a devoted Christian committed to working for the common good.

She finds her Christian faith strengthened by her church — she attends St. Bartholemew’s in Ottawa and St. George’s in her hometown of New Glasgow, N.S. — and through the rigorous academic study of theology.

The Order of Canada recipient is so passionate about her theological studies that she intends to learn Hebrew and Greek someday so she can read the original biblical texts.

"The notion of life-long learning is really important to me," says the single mother of a recent high school graduate. "That thirst for knowledge is rekindled every time I take a course."

Meanwhile, she’s putting her studies on hold in order to campaign, and is open to the possibility that her mission may well be on the national stage instead of in a parish, depending upon the Canadian voters.

"I’m not happy with the idea that certain things are beyond my control," says May of her failure so far to be elected.

"Obviously it would be a wonderful thing to have a long life in politics as a Green member of Parliament, and possibly forming the government."

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