Introducing Rev. Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr, Ecumenical and Interfaith Officer of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan and Rector at Christ Church Cranbrook

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Like many, Rev. Danaher came into faith through the process of transcending his own personal difficulties. As a teen, he says, he struggled with some depression and decided to try praying.

“I became aware that my life was a gift,” says Rev. Danaher,” and the best way to handle that gift was to give it back to God.”

“I am from New England, and I grew up in a small, industrial town that was struggling to acclimate to different economic conditions — much like the cities and towns in this area. My father was a recovering alcoholic and, in those days, the prevailing wisdom of the recovery community was to stay in one place so that members could do the hard work of living down their reputation. This meant that many people knew my father’s past when they met me, and this past often haunted these interactions. My father was a larger than life person, even after he stopped drinking. One of the stops he encountered on the way to sobriety was serving a short sentence in a Moroccan prison, where he was placed — for safety — in a cell with a Russian spy who had been trying to defect. I share these seemingly tall tales my father told, because he always seemed to land on his feet with the help of his friends. His friends in Morocco, for example, visited him and brought him food while he served his sentence. Also, he took the spirituality of his recovery program seriously, which meant that he was continually looking for ways to increase his conscious contact with God. In many ways, his life and experiences have profoundly shaped me — although, I should add, I don’t drink and I have never served prison time. But I did learn to look for spiritual lessons and to learn them from anyone. I also learned that there were many ways for people to worship their God that could help me along my own spiritual journey.”
“Although I have an Irish name, my upbringing is better portrayed as Italian — I lived next to my Italian grandparents, and my extended family worked hard to live near each other and spend time with each other at major holidays. This sensitized me to issues of difference, because I realized that my family followed customs and ate food that many other people in my small town did not. My first exposure to people of another faith was with the Axelrods, a Jewish family that lived next door to us. Later, a relative brought a friend for Thanksgiving, who was Muslim doctor from Pakistan. When she learned that I was spiritually inclined, she took off her necklace to show me a small pendant that contained verses from the Qur’an. My father was an airline pilot, and, in those days, that meant we could fly nearly free. So, we spent many of our vacations abroad — wandering ruins in Greece or climbing the stairs of Corcovado in Brazil. These and many other experiences made me aware, at an early age, that not everyone lived like I did. Instead of instilling fear, these encounters made me curious.”
His parents were “mildly practicing Catholics,” but he had teachers who were Episcopalians priests. One of his teachers had served in British intelligence and was a Harvard graduate.  He taught theology and political thought, and, says Rev. Danaher, “I thought he was just the coolest guy.”

“All of these people I looked up to belonged to this church,” says Rev. Danaher, of the Episcopalian Church. “I loved the Catholic worship and I loved the element of protestant criticism.”

Before coming to Christ Church Cranbrook, Rev. Danaher served as the Dean of Theology at Huron University College, which is affiliated with the University of Western Ontario. He participated in annual conferences on Scriptural Reasoning, which is a practice where Jews, Christians and Muslims gather in small groups to read together the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an.

“I have found this collaborative work incredibly rewarding and revealing, because it is so inspiring to encounter a new perspective on your own Scriptures voiced by someone of another faith,” says Rev. Danaher.

“As a member church of the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church gets its inspiration regarding other faiths from the Church of England. From its beginning in the sixteenth century as it broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England fostered relations with other protestant denominations then forming as well as other branches of Christianity. This quickly carried over to an engagement with other faiths as it tried to live out its evangelical mission to make disciples of Christ throughout the world. For example, the first chair of Arabic at Oxford, founded to facilitate engagement with Islam, was established in 1636 by William Laud, then the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Over the centuries, this engagement with other faiths has become progressively constructive, even as it followed the reach of the British Empire. Even the most strident missionaries were trained to be culturally sensitive and knowledgeable. Edmund James Peck, who founded churches among the Inuit between 1894-1905, compiled careful studies of local languages and cultures that are still used by anthropologists today.  Prominent Episcopalians were involved in the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, and in the early ecumenical movement that culminated in the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1949.

This history of mission and ecumenism continues to inform the generous and inclusive way that today’s Episcopal Church carries on its interfaith engagement. The current emphasis is an unabashed, yet welcoming and inclusive, proclamation of Jesus Christ. This means that dialogue and mutual understanding are placed at the center of what we believe and practice. The purpose of dialogue is not, as an important church document written in 2008 states, “compromise, but growth in trust and understanding of each other’s faith and traditions.” Consequently, effective dialogue requires “gentleness, honesty and integrity,” because Christianity is “a way of life rather than a static set of beliefs.”

Rev. Danaher was instrumental in raising $2 million to establish the first chair in Islamic Studies at a Faculty of Theology in Canada. The chair is currently held by Dr. Ingrid Mattson, who has an international reputation in interfaith dialogue. He will be working with the IFLC as a member of the education committee, planning new courses to raise the level of adult religious literacy. And he is currently developing projects that bring together the artistic and religious communities around shared projects in social transformation.