Article from the EC News, Autumn 2014:
In ecclesiastical Latin, the word pulpitum—from which the term pulpit is derived—refers to a stone screen in a church separating the choir from the nave. The secular use of the word, however, more commonly refers to a theatrical stage or platform used for public speeches, recitations and plays.
Malcolm Sinclair Emm 7T0 and Emmanuel College’s most recent Distinguished Alumni/ae Award recipient is no stranger to the pulpit as a stage: “I’m basically an entertainer, a player,” he says when referring to his preaching style. Alongside his preaching, many of his interests revolve around performance too: he is a member of the Royal Canadian College of Organists and is Padre to the 78th Fraser Highlanders, York Garrison. His friend and colleague, Rev. Mark MacLean, describes this “bearded bard . . . this kilt-wearing performer” as a talented tenor who loves singing, composing hymns and poetry; he is charismatic and gregarious; he is funny and has a keen sense of the absurd.
Maclean says that just as the myth—the external persona—of Malcolm Sinclair “The Player” is genuine, so too, is his faith. So while Sinclair is not averse to engaging his congregants through various dramatic devices, he takes his ministry and his preaching seriously. “People sometimes approach the church, or a minister, with an empty plate,” he says. “They come to service on a Sunday morning and expect this plate to be filled. If they’re underwhelmed by the preaching, they’ll come back with a smaller plate next time, or they won’t come back at all.” For Sinclair, a good sermon, a transformative sermon, begins in the gut; if he can move people from the gut, then they can be similarly moved intellectually. Although Sinclair describes himself as a “natural believer, always open to the possibility of the goodness of God,” he remembers experiencing a visceral reaction to the church. As a child, he sensed that there was “something significant, something stirring about that figure in the black robe,” and it was this that drew him to ministry as a career.
Born in 1945 in Toronto, Sinclair grew up attending Simpson Avenue United Church in Riverdale, now Metropolitan Community Church, where he was fascinated by the church as a sacred space. Following the service, he often stayed seated to enjoy the smell of extinguished candles, to hear the postlude and to otherwise revel in the ambience of church life. Entering the ministry was a natural choice for Sinclair. He received a BA in 1967 from Laurentian University in Sudbury. Immediately following, he joined the MDiv program at Emmanuel College.
Sinclair recalls his days at Emmanuel College with a distinct feeling of insecurity: “I was quite certain that when I walked down the aisle for graduation, someone would step out in front of me and say, ‘not you.’ For me, studying at Emmanuel was a vulnerable time.” Sinclair was always struck by the low, dark and grey hallways and ceilings of Emmanuel College and, for a long time, felt that they were a metaphor for his experience there—not that it wasn’t rich, but it was hard; the academic rigour required was intensive and he often felt that he was playing “catch up” with his studies. He had to take a few “‘desperate runs’ at E.C. Blackman’s New Testament Greek lessons,” likened William Fennell’s Vic 3T9, Emm 4T2 class on systematic theology to ‘climbing steep hills’ and jokes that C. Douglas Jay’s Vic 4T6, Emm 5T0 class on Christian ethics “hurt [his] head.” And yet, in spite of “too little library time and too much time around the ping-pong table,” he completed his degree requirements and was ordained in 1970.
At the time, ministers could be ordained to further study and so he enrolled at the Royal Conservatory of Music to study voice, piano and theory, while also serving at Woodbine Avenue United where he stayed until 1974. For the next 10 years, he worked at Victoria Village United (now part of Jubilee United). It is also where he married his second wife, Elspeth, with whom he has three sons, two daughters and nine grandchildren, combined from their previous marriages. Four more challenging years at Trinity St. Paul’s United followed, where, Sinclair believes, he was not a good fit for the congregation.
In 1986 at age 40, he received a DMin from Drew University, New Jersey. The experience, he says, was enriching: “I was really ready to learn. Everything I learned at Emmanuel years before was ripening so that I was able to make good connections.” In 1988 he was invited to preach at Metropolitan United Church: “As soon as I walked in there, I felt like I was at home.” Although his friends told him that “the Met would never hire a ‘nobody,’” he was asked back to preach again and this eventually led to a long-term ministry. As of October 2014, Sinclair will have been preaching there, full-time, for 26 years. “My life in ministry has been a wonderful gift,” he says. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Over the years, Sinclair’s memories of Emmanuel have softened to an afterglow. “As a student in the middle of it,” he jokes, “I was trying to keep from being burned to death so I’ve only recently grown into the ambience of the College.” He notes that he now has a much deeper appreciation of his professors and what they were teaching. He is “thankful for being taught the discipline of preparation, reading and the value and intentionality of ministry done thoroughly.”
Victoria University celebrated Sinclair and his ministry formally with an honorary Doctorate of Divinity in 1997. At the time, it was noted that while all Christian denominations in Canada were losing membership, membership at Metropolitan United Church stood against the tide and was actually increasing—in some years by over 50 new members. It is, without doubt, his characteristic enthusiasm for preaching and for liturgy that congregants and church visitors find so compelling and it is what drives Sinclair’s ministry. He is adamant that good preaching is what will drive the future success of the church at large.
Strong, public worship has the power to bring change, argues Sinclair: “I’ve heard enough great preaching and felt enough great liturgy to know that ministry has the power to transform individuals from the inside out.” Mark MacLean agrees and believes that one of the reasons Sinclair is such a great church leader is because he offers “an unquestioning vision, a clear and strong voice in the midst of crisis and uncertainty. . . .[Sinclair] is lyrical, whimsical and yet he is theologically rich, a master wordsmith and expert of the craft. He has mastered the basics of preaching and his sermons deeply and profoundly engages God’s word.” Emmanuel College Principal Mark Toulouse describes Sinclair as “a minister’s minister. He embodies the rare combination of a shepherd’s heart, a poet’s voice and a prophet’s commitments. Near the top of any list of Canada’s best preachers over the last 100 years, he’s also provided a model for integrity in ministry for the next generation to follow.”
Sinclair maintains that preaching and church life can be rich, affirming and worthy. “Life is a mystery,” he says, “and we have no idea what it means,” but “good preaching can satisfy that basic human desire to try and figure out how life works, how and where individuals fit into the world at large.” Sinclair uses the Christian story to help people with this human quest, to transform from the inside that which prevents people from acting in ways that are harmful, hurtful or even sinful. As he demonstrates each Sunday, a good preacher tells a story that gets under people’s presuppositions, beyond their biases and vested interests, and tells a story deeper than a culture to change the way people respond to life itself. Sinclair has a natural gift for performance, but his preaching and his ministry were nurtured at Emmanuel and the College is proud to recognize him as one of its truly distinguished alumni.