Interview with Rev. Helen Tervo – Vicar, St. Andrew’s Anglican Church

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

I wanted to explore some of the world of different Christian leaders, small and big. However, I wanted to report less on those and more in their own words. These will be published, slowly, over time.

This, I trust, may open dialogue and understanding between various communities. Of course, an interview does not amount to an endorsement, but to the creation of conversation, comprehension, and compassion. 

Reverend Helen Tervo is the Vicar of the St. Andrew’s Anglican Church at the time of the interview, conducted in 2018. As she noted to me, she is not speaking on behalf of the Anglican Church at any level in this interview.

Here we talk about her life and views.

*Audio was not perfect. Some information or sections may be inaccurate.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is family background? What is personal background?

Rev. Helen Tervo: I am 67-years-old. I have been married for 45 years. I have three grown daughters and five grandchildren. I came to ministry later in life. I was in my 40s when I finished my Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in philosophy.

Then I moved onto seminary and graduated when I was 47-years-old. I enjoy music of all kinds, except rap. I could even, maybe, move there in a bit. I am reading less the older I get. But I have always been a voracious reader. I like Netflix and Facebook.

I have a strong heart for social justice and for healing. I always enjoyed working in tougher ministries, prison ministry and palliative care hospitals and nursing homes – working with people who are dementing. It is an opportunity to be present and friendly with them when they may be the most vulnerable.

Jacobsen: When it comes to prison ministry and palliative care ministry, what are the pluses and minuses of prison ministry? What are the pluses and minuses of palliative care ministry?

Tervo: That is a very good question. I never planned to work in prison. I was between jobs, as they say. That is something you say when you do not want to say that your soul has been scraped over.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Tervo: The position opened to work in a forensic prison. I was under, at least, a moral obligation. If I knew about it, I had to employ it, as I was not a politician. I applied. It was a short time. I realized this was something that was a calling.

I could put this in secular terms. I was very comfortable in the environment. One of the things I liked about prison ministry. I could be direct and honest. I could be compassionate but not gullible. Although, I am sure that I was gullible from time to time.

This was a place where people had real issues. For example, in ordinary white bread churches, you hear the words “love your enemy.” That has all sorts of intellectual turning around. Whereas, in prison, there is a guy three doors down who is his enemy.

How does he come to terms with that? That ideal. How does he come to understand that having to live side by side with someone who wishes to do him harm? It was that kind of depth that really drew me. That I wasn’t simply working on the more superficial levels.

I really got to work in the deeper zones with people. In palliative care, gosh, it is – to be with someone who is dying – where the masks are peeled off. In the face of dying, it is strange things that people have to resolve.

They are not things they have had to resolve, but they are the things that come forward. The times when they weren’t kind, when they failed their child. So, to bring about some level of understanding and compassion and peace, to create a space where that is possible, where people can find some sense of acceptance of their own lives, the downside of palliative care: people die.

It is over, right? You can have a relationship that is very deep but that ends. It might also be what is attractive about it. You do not have control over it. The downside of working in the prison. If you talk to people who work in prison, they will say that they have a tough day.

That is the least of it. The inmates are usually the least of the problem. The problem is working in system that ups the ante for working against itself. It makes it very difficult to work in that environment.

Jacobsen: For an analogy, for people who want a more closed society or sub-culture, they can look to prisons. People change with more restrictive behaviour.

Tervo: I do not believe that they do. I believe people will change if given a real choice and make the choice to change it. The change comes when someone gets angry and then they don’t smash the person across from them to bits.

They can maintain it. They can express themselves in a positive way.

Jacobsen: You mentioned anger. Anger amounts to the sole emotion men feel permitted to express in Canadian culture. All emotions become filtered through anger. When I hear “anger,” I assume men. With that anger expressed, I would assume guys’ mask for the rest of the emotions.

Tervo: It can be. What I learned from the Cognitive-Behavioural staff, it is a secondary emotion. It is a mask. You will not allow yourself to feel afraid, sad, or broken. It is anger. It is not only acceptable but also where you feel the strongest.

If you feel weak, anger is a good way to answer that. But it is a mask. It is the genuine feeling.

Jacobsen: As a man, it is okay. I have felt broken, and sorry, even apologize based on that.

Tervo: [Laughing].

Jacobsen: I have felt heartbroken and sad. All these things. They are part and parcel of life.

Tervo: What really surprised me, it is with people on the street as well. The emotional vocabulary of the 21st century person is incredibly limited. To not be able to speak of an emotion except happy and so on, there is nuance to every emotion.

There is a whole range of emotions. I had a list of emotional words. Rather than asking someone if they were angry, I asked if they were disappointed. “Did you resent?” I tried to nuance out the emotional life.

Jacobsen: I can give a good example. I apologized to people who I inadvertently offended years ago, who then came out to bully me. I apologized them years later for the inadvertent offense. It became a relief for them and myself.

This seems like a core aspect of the Christian aspect. In a way, one can not be a Christian while acting within the code of ethics of accepted by Christianity.

Tervo: That’s true. Christianity for me gives the framework to understand the human impulse for forgiveness. The human impulse for forgiveness. The impulse for all that. It gives a framework for that. I can understand my life through that.

I do not think you have to be a Christian to understand that. You can be a different religion. You can be no religion. It can be different lenses. We choose our limitations.

Jacobsen: Now, what sect or tradition was seminary for you? What sect or tradition preaching in now?

Tervo: Historically and personally, I was baptized as a Christian. Basically, I developed this until I was 18-years-old. I got really angry at God, angry at the church. I stepped away for another 18 years.

Jacobsen: Why?

Tervo: Those were personal reasons. I had a nice family growing up, when I was younger. Alcohol took one of my family members. The promise hadn’t been fulfilled. It wasn’t until I started dealing with alcoholism. I went to Al-Anon meetings.

I approached alcoholism as a family event. Everyone in the family is affected by it. I realized that my response was to try and have as much control and to exercise that control over everyone that I knew. Most notably, my husband and three kids; I started to challenge and let go of that.

Spiritually, that led me back to a sense that I could relax, because there was something else in charge.

Jacobsen: What do you mean a spiritual change to a healthier state?

Tervo: Is that an anathema to you?

Jacobsen: No! No, I want to pin down or narrow the definition. In British Columbia, we have the SBNRs, the spiritual but not religious. These folks dominate. But much of the non-religious religiously affiliated here.

They claim spiritual status but with widely divergent definitions. People bring up the definition. I do not know necessarily know what they mean. I can assume some things. But I do not know for certain.

Tervo: It is such a slippery answer. Because, for me, I would say, “My spirituality takes place within the context of my religion.” I make a commitment to my religion because it gives me a framework to practice my spirituality. I need that framework.

I cannot walk by a river and feel as though I have really connected with my higher power – whatever that is. That amorphous blob of being. That does not do it for me. It is also self-serving. One of the things that my religion and many religions does is call us out of our self-serving impulse, into being drawn into making the world a right place, making the world a better place, addressing problems of racism and sexism.

My religion gives me the way to do that.

Jacobsen: If I hear you right, your religion gives a framework to interpret spirituality, which amounts to metaphors, the allegories, the language in other words, of spiritual experience, in order to practice out some of the “social justice” work, that is built into some modern faith practice, whether sexism, racism, and so on.

What does a typical Sunday service look like for you?

Tervo: I am an Anglican Christian and a priest. I am out the door at quarter after 7 in the morning to drive to my church. We have an 8 o’clock service. It is a common Anglican book of prayer, last edited in 1962. It is very old-style King James language. It is a small congregation of 12 and 20 people.

That is the first service. We follow the book. I preach a short sermon. It is a 10 to 14-minute sermon. We share communion together. Then the service is over. We get coffee. We get ready for the second service, larger and more contemporary. It has hymns and music.

It is more of a family welcomed service. We share communion at that service as well. I preside at community.

Jacobsen: In terms of theology, the formalities of the faith or the articles of faith. What differs in the Anglican tradition compared to some of the other ones, e.g., Baptist, Evangelical, etc.?

Tervo: Anglicans are born out of the Catholic church as a Protestant response. It is much like a Roman Catholic service. You could go to an Anglican service and not be able to tell the difference. We are a liturgical tradition along with Lutherans.

The thing I love about the Anglican church. There is high and low church. There are Anglo-Catholics. It is bells, whistles, and smoke. There are very Protestant Anglicans. There are simple services with more Evangelical components.

The thing I love about the Anglican Church. We are a church of discourse. We are a church where we have a climate. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the first among equals. We do not have a structure that is authoritarian such as the Roman Catholic Church.

It is much more communal and born out of an understanding of local differences between us. We tend not to be literalist when we read scripture. We tend to be more open to the ways God speaks with history and scripture, in poetry, in metaphor rather than seeing it as a history book of facts, which I think is a modern deviation from what has been the understanding.

Most Anglicans would – I may be shocked – see that evolution is probably true. Anglicans tend to be more tentative in their descriptors and more tentative in their theology. So, we would say, “It is probably true. This is the way I see it.” It is more relativistic.

I have problems with relativism. It is not the core. But in the best terms, we would listen to each other. We would exchange views knowing that the other would disagree with us.

Jacobsen: In that way, it amounts to a buffer against fundamentalism. It is not a relativism or other forms of relativism, but more acceptance perspectivism centered on fundamental truths. So, the Golden Rule, the birth-death-resurrection of Christ, all these amount to fundamental truths to the faith.

However, we as a community speak about different issues of the community centered on those fundamental truths of the community. It is an ecclesia.

Tervo: Right, we are always negotiating where we stand on things. It can seem wishy-washy. I went to college with a guy. We were in Saskatoon. We were in three different seminaries: Lutheran, United Church, and Anglican. I always wish I had the certainty of the Lutherans.

Because they really knew where to hang their hats. But I appreciate that when you get used to living with ambiguity, it is a very creative place to be.

Jacobsen: What do you see as the problems of the contemporary church in general in a Canadian context?

Tervo: I think the church is in the process of making significant changes. The biggest problem is no one is at church, very few people and very few young people. I am not sure that will always be. I think there are certain things the church needs to express itself on more boldly.

One of the things that made the church a difficult place to be: women went back to work. There was no one to do all this heavy lifting around the church.

Jacobsen: For free.

Tervo: Absolutely, for free, it made the church a harder place to be. The relationships started to crumble. But! I remember speaking to a young woman with a young family who came back to church. I said, “I apologize for more young people not being here.”

She said, “I was at the church where everybody was the same as me. I was surrounded by the same. I am so happy to be in a place where people are older. I can get to know them and understand their perspective.”

It is interesting having this conversation today. Did you see the wedding?

Jacobsen: I saw the facial reactions to the preacher [Laughing].

Tervo: [Laughing] You only saw some of the facial reactions because the media edited it. 2 billion people watched it. Many are watching the sermon. Michael Curry is the Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church in the United States.

He has been ordained for 40 years. He socked it to them. It was a very interesting event. I was watching the event live. Because I do that kind of thing. It is one of my quirks. Within minutes, the internet was like, “Who is this guy?! This is amazing.”

He has a way of preaching the Gospel. Christians have not been honest enough in what we believe. We have been presented as one little tiny fundamentalist faction of the Christian Church, which has only existed in the last 150 years and comes out of the Southern United States.

It has a very whacky view on the world. I think that is seen as the norm.

Jacobsen: The wackiness tends to come from the cultural overlays. Some of the Southern United States has wackiness.

Tervo: The right-wing dogma too.

Jacobsen: Some of it.

Tervo: I can take shots at it. It is not how I see the world. I really resent the people who I respect; the thoughtful and interesting thinkers of the church are being sidelined for the Franklin Graham’s and others, or Liberty University. The Jerry Falwells and the Pat Robertsons, they are not speaking of my Jesus.

Jacobsen: To make it ancient, they seem to speak from a Constantinian Christianity rather than a non-Constantinian Christianity.

Tervo: What do you mean by that?

Jacobsen: Emperor Constantine in the Roman Emperor made Christianity the state religion.

Tervo: Exactly.

Jacobsen: In other words, if the religion becomes a religion of the poor, it does not become a state or empire religion. If it becomes a religion of the rich and the state, then it becomes a Constantinian Christianity.

Tervo: The whole idea of the United States as a Christian nation is not true. Most of them were Unitarians. They wanted to flee from religious persecution and authoritarianism. That’s what it is about.

Jacobsen: In their defense, they can say it is a majority Christian nation.

Tervo: If you ignore the people you took the land from. They totally ignore them. Even these days, when the whole question of racism, you cannot ignore the question in the United States. They ignore the population of the United States.

Jacobsen: We should bear in mind. If you look at Canada, the general population identifies as Christian: split between Protestant and Catholic. If you look at the Indigenous population, not necessarily identical sub-Christian numbers, but similar general numbers.

Terry LeBlanc and Richard Twiss are, maybe, mixed race or not. They took the Indigenous spirituality of their heritage and adapted this within a Christian framework and formed an Indigenous Christianity.

I do not want to take a view, which is, in fact, a minority, that Christianity is at odds with, standard Christian theology.

Tervo: I have worked with elders and others. It is compatibilism. But the church has done damage in the community. We have much to atone for in that. We must listen. We must hear where we have gone wrong.

I think the onus is on us to do that for a few more generations before the balance comes up, before we can honestly together in some sense of being together in one place.

Jacobsen: Also, we have trends in those coming decades. In developed countries, most often, those amount to or equate to North American and Western Europe. They will become liberalized even further in their religion, or further non-religious.

In the rest of the world, the number of the religious will increase. By which I mean, those who identify with a religion and those who practice a religion, globally. Into 2060, Pew Research says the numbers of the non-religious affiliated will go from 16% of the global population to 13%.

That is already with a massive increase of the global population. If you look at the raw numbers, it is about the same proportion of people. It is the numbers of the religious who will increase, which changes the proportions.

Tervo: We, basically, met with stability and the numbers will grow proportionately?

Jacobsen: The number of the population will increase. The rate of the global population growth will begin to taper around 9 or 10 billion, maybe.

Tervo: It is 4 billion more than the Earth can sustain.

Jacobsen: With current technology, yes, Canada and the United States (before they existed) had 18 million (Ed. high estimate) Native American people. Now, the populations of these countries have 360 to 400 million people. In general, you have the general trend of the global population increase, the global population growth rate decreasing, and the non-religious globally decreasing as a proportion of the global population, but you also see the non-religious increasing in the developing nations into 2060, probably.

So, there will be those developments worldwide because 5-6% of the global population will be identified as Indigenous. The conversations are more upfront in New Zealand, Canada, and America, and so on.

In Canada, the number of religious may be along those lines of the increase while the number of non-religious may be on the decrease.

Tervo: What I see, the churches become unnecessary to a lot of people. It becomes something demanding something of them without giving something back. They believe their lives can go on without the church. I think there is a possibility this could change.

There is a place where, for me, church community can give things, which you cannot get anywhere else. You get intergenerational friendships. You get acceptance. You get people sharing their lives together. It does not happen in a Rotary Club or a Kinsmen Club or a fishing group.

It happens when you are sharing something within a spiritual zone accepting some greater power outside of you and focused on the greater power than you. You get things that you do not get anywhere else. I think that may become something people look for.

But given the genuine experience, 15 years from now, I will be in my 80s. You are going to have a completely different world than I had. I do not see us preparing for that. I do not see us trying to understand what that is going to mean, to even get plastic.

Plastic straws, we are having to have this legislated. We are going to have to make some decisions that are going to be very hard. I think there can be some value to deep community. People will need this. This individualist culture will not help us survive. We need to have a sense of connection to each other.

For me, it is a connection to God too.

Jacobsen: I see a future for both. In this sense, a rational form of enlightenment or a rational form of individualism would include respect for the person while also where they are embedded. It would amount more to a systems analysis of the individual embedded in a society and how they relate to that society.

Some people can do plumbing better than others. They are part of a union. They are still a person. They could leave as an individual; the union can still exist. They can leave their family; the family can more or less exist.

Tervo: Absolutely, we are afraid of the communal sense because we think we will lose our identity. However, I do not see this as a necessary expense. People will still be people. But we need to learn to rely on each other and to find places where we can support and love each other through difficult stuff.

Jacobsen: There are secular churches, atheist churches, oases, and Sunday Assemblies.

Tervo: God bless them. There is the Church of Consciousness. This is a church. I walked past it. My grandkids live close by in Victoria. It looks like it is about consciousness and mind rather than religion. It is probably not a God place.

Jacobsen: It seems like one of the places saying, “That’s religion.” One thing I notice in terms of the demographics. Women, globally and in Canada, tend to be more religious. They attend more. They adhere more. The churches, currently, seem to appeal to them more.

In this sense, they will provide free child care. It seems to me, globally, the churches have a problem attracting men into the community. What is being done? It must be a part of the discussion. What is being done to solve, what is probably seen as, a problem?

Tervo: It is difficult for men to be vulnerable. Those are not acceptable for men to speak up with other people. It is a struggle for men to find that in there. Men also are more comfortable with financial support of the church and those things.

Do not ask them to pray aloud, there is a lot of pride there too. I am not quite sure what is the issue. In my church, that is an issue. Most of the time, I am there. We have a female deacon. Our assistants are all female. There is a real women overload of the Sunday services.

That is an issue.

Jacobsen: There is something. I want to share. It has a touch of humor to it. If you look at the Evangelical community, the academic style theologians, and if you look at the Intelligent Design community, if you look at the New Atheist community – in other words, the Firebrand and Militant Atheism community, what are the chances? You find one common trend.

You find a lot of men. You find a lot of men of European descent. Something is going on there common among very different groups of people with very different ideologies. Somehow, it is filling a need for a very narrow demographic of people.

Tervo: Do you think men feel disempowered and this is a place for them? The fundamentalist persuasion, the black-and-white thinking, this is a refuge for men. It is right, or it is wrong.

Jacobsen: If you look at the timbre of William Dembski, he seems gentle. He is one of the founders of Intelligent Design. If you look at Richard Dawkins, he is a mix. If you look at Christopher Hitchens, he seemed like an alcoholic to me, seemed aggressive to me.

Sam Harris seems hit-or-miss in terms of aggression. If you watch some videos of Sam Harris, he talks in a calm tone. If you look at some of the things written, it can seem different.

Tervo: Did you see the Realtime with Bill Maher with Sam Harris and Ben Affleck? I note Maher backed off from it. He was anti-Islamic until Donald Trump came, who then out-Trumped him on that one. So, to align himself with Donald Trump on a topic like anti-Islam, he could not do it. He has backed right away from that.

Jacobsen: Bill Maher would identify as anti-religion in general.

Tervo: Yes, absolutely. But he is very critical of Islam, more critical of Islam than Christianity or Judaism.

Jacobsen: If I remember the video correctly, Sam Harris was trying to make a distinction between Islamists…

Tervo: …Affleck, God bless him, took them both on. It was very sweet of him to do that.

Jacobsen: I do not know. There is a problem in discourse. People use epithets to defame someone to dismiss them. I did not like the entire conversation as far as I saw it. Although, I did not see all of it.

If someone says, “I disagree with the ideas and beliefs of Islam,” then the person responds, “You’re racist.” The person was critiquing the ideas. But then the person is claiming it is racist. The person claiming this is racist is actually racist because they are assuming when someone is talking about the ideas of Islam are Arab.

Tervo: I do not think that is what was happening in the discussion. I think Affleck was saying you cannot paint all Muslims with the same brush as Islamists, terrorists. That kind of thing. You cannot. There are over a billion Muslims. There is a whole bunch.

There is a tiny pocket of whackos. You cannot condemn the whole religion for the sake of that group. I think that is very true.

Jacobsen: It is coming back to me. Harris, his example was concentric circles…

Tervo: …you have got a way better memory than I do.

Jacobsen: The inner circle was Islamists. People like those preaching in the Red Mosques in Pakistan. People who want to impose Islam as politics merge. In other words, the merger of government and religion. Something like a Christian Dominionist.

He was trying to make the distinction. I think Ben Affleck cut him off and said, “That’s gross. That’s racist.” If someone is casting aspersions, epithets, or invectives, the conversation did not even happen, really. That seems like a point of contention for me.

Honestly, I do not even know the full positions of those three people because it broke into an argument before the conversation happened.

Tervo: Yes, that is probably true.

Jacobsen: Affleck also shied away. He was on television screaming epithets. Sam Harris never got to make the full points. If I recall the early parts, one group was Islamists. He was making the distinction made by you. You may be agreeing with Sam Harris.

Tervo: I might be if he was saying that.

Jacobsen: But then, that’s different than ordinary Muslims. I talked to Imam Soharwardy, the Founder and President to the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada. We were talking about having Roman Catholic and Protestant homes.

You can have Sunni and Shia homes. Where the parents want the child to identify as Roman Catholic or Protestant, or Sunni or Shia, simply because the parents are that, rather than providing a basis for the child or the adolescent to develop critical thinking tools to question the faith; so, whether they believe it or not, they end up with a robust faith – I respect that – or they have reasons for not believing in the faith – I respect that.

Why? According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we all have freedom of belief and freedom of religion. So, if a parent, essentially, crippling a child from thinking critically, whether an atheist home or a religious home, I do not agree with that idea.

I agree with the premise that the parents’ duty is to provide the tools for a child to think critically in, at least, these circumstances.

Tervo: I would agree with that. I would hope to practice that, at least a little bit. I know few people who would practice it. That is idealistic when it comes to be a parent. It might be that I know more people the average who would do it.

Because I hang out with critically thinking people. I believe in critical thinking in lots of ways. I think that might be one of the challenges in any religious format. People get lazy in how they think; they get lazy in what they believe.

You can end up with people who are unable to pass that onto their children, because they are lazy and have not answered the questions themselves. They have not taken the intellectual or the emotional challenges and grappled with them.

There was an interview with Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop, and Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury. I think the question was, at one point in the interview, “Is this unconventional?” Justin Welby bounced around a little bit and said, “Christianity is not conventional. The problem is we get sleepy.”

We go to sleep with atheism as much as anything else. People will claim to be atheists because they cannot be bothered doing the other stuff. It will shut down a conversation why they uphold that structure. Christians do the same thing. We become unable to actually say what we believe, say what we think. It becomes posturing.

That is the challenge these days. It is being able to engage people in some way, where we can honestly espouse our beliefs – in a way that makes sense to us. We can also accept no matter what you believe; there are places where it falls and does not make sense. We can be generous with each other around that.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your, Rev. Tervo.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

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