Word quickly reached me through several sources that the Flamethrower, Stuart Coles had suddenly died—very appropriately in Holy Week. I very quickly contacted his dear friend Bill Dunn and told him “ my legs would be praying for Stu” on Good Friday. This of course was a riff on the great Rabbi, Abraham Heschel who described his walking in a public way for justice causes as “legs which were praying.”
Stuart had just celebrated his 96th birthday with Bill and his family and his legs could not be praying anyway. The last number of years it was Bill who ferried Stu around the Stations of the Cross every year. For decades Stuart had been an integral part of this ecumenical Good Friday service begun by a few of us in 1979,as an antidote to the terrible theology liturgized in local Catholic churches.There was absolutely no understanding of the social dimensions of Christ’s suffering. It was all a private memorial with little connection to contemporary wounds of the Body..We set out to change this bad theology which always led to bad practice.
Stuart Coles had long been a part of our public witness adding his own “depth theology” long practiced as a Presbyterian and United Church clergyman. His life reads like a blazing endorsement for evangelism and justice, active on so many social fronts. stuart became too “hot” for his own Presbyterian church so in 1969 he became a United Church minister following in the steps of another dynamo Gordon Domm.The latter was known to mine from my childhood as a Catholic kid who grew up in the basement of that very church. Domm was just one of the dozens of Protestant clergy which served as role models for my own immature Catholicism.My formative years was replete with good priests but almost all had never evolved from charity to justice. My own life was more influenced by Protestant giants who took the gospel to the street—Crarke, McDonald, Lois Wilson, bothe moderaors of the United Church, Anglican bishop Ted Scott and others who had come out of that powerful Spirit movement of the Student Christian Movement.
Stuart Coles ministered at Bathurst Street United for 19 years, always putting flesh on what discipleship meant in an urban context.In 1980 Stuart after wide consultation put pen to A Dream That is Not for the Drowsy: A Working Theology for Presence and Future-Building In the Metro Core Across our Country a prophetic 40 page document which dealt with the phenomenon so widespread today of dwindling congregations, aging church buildings and the role of the church in an urban setting.As we are moving from religion to spirituality in the broader world this was an important initiative approved at the 1980 Halifax General Council of the United Church.
In 1985 Stuart played a big role in founding FoodShare Toronto an attempt to at dealing with poverty and social and economic justice, then he was off help the church’s response to urban blight in the troubled Regent Park area..And so it goes.Tireless to the end,Stu always showed up on Good Friday greeting me and others with a big smile..
There were simply no Catholic clergy like Stuart Coles in Toronto.Many good men, some dynamic nuns but Catholic Toronto’s priestly “leaders” were way behind their Protestant counterparts—and they srtill are despite their often triumphal protestations to the contrary.
We give thanks to a brother Christian like Stuart Coles, ample proof at this time of the resurrection.