“Consider the ministry. You will have lots of time for reading, and will be able to run your own show by thirty.” Such was the claim made by the Rev. David Ashforth, coordinator of the West London Chaplaincy, an ecumenical student ministry at various colleges in West London (UK), including my own Royal College of Music, in the late 1970s. His hope was that at least a few of us students might consider post-graduate study in theology and possibly ordination. Most would continue in sciences, mining, engineering or as with myself in the arts. David made his appeal at a time when many churches in Western Europe and North American still had buildings and could financially support the staff to run their programmes. There was an inkling however, even then, that things were about to change.
Today in Western Canada the consequences for churches — of declining membership, diminished wealth, of less social interest and leadership — are clearly evident. Ours is anything but a Christian Age – “Spiritual but not religious” is a common mantra. The reputation of all Christian churches is marred by abuses of power — the number of inter-personal boundary violations by ordained and lay leaders are too many to count. Institutional systemic racism plagues all denominations. Archbishop David Crawley told a clergy conference in the Diocese of BC in 1990 that “the legacy of the residential schools will change the face of the Canadian Church forever.” He was right. Numerous sociological studies describe the huge influence of neoliberal individualism. Church attendance is less motivated by institutional connection and loyalty. The new consumerist model looks more like pay as you go, and pay only when you go, if you go at all.
The Anglican Diocese of Kootenay has just released a report, one of many such products developed in other places and at other times, which demands a critical review of how we do ministry as Anglicans in the Southern BC interior. In this important review of our structures, the report takes a diocesan-level view of our shared community life, which includes individual parishes such as my own here in Summerland.
St. Stephen’s is a lovely 1910 field-stone building that takes as its visual colonial identity the shape and style of a particular English parish church. God save the King. Joined to a modern and well-designed hall/Christian education centre it is located at a prominent downtown location in our little town of some 11,000 residents. As I mentioned above, I was both priest and rector here in times past. I inherited a congregation then fixed in tradition, fed by a stable though rigid experience of being church, unable at that time to engage a new generation of faith community seekers. My challenge was to balance what was familiar and life-giving to many, with a progressive and dynamic engagement with God-in-Christ. From where I sat, Prayer Book people needed to become (in Archbishop Michael Curry’s words) Jesus people.
To accomplish this task, I had to become entrepreneurial. In my use, an entrepreneurial approach manages and assesses risk in a way that does not accept the status quo as fixed, and most importantly in faith communities, it knows that some beliefs and practices must either be corrected or abandoned. Here in Summerland I had to use all the intuition, imagination, creativity and guts I could muster — some days were better than others; some days I got things right, other days less so. We performed musicals in the park; we celebrated Eucharist atop a local mountain; we practised civil disobedience around indigenous treaty negotiations; we gathered the community following 911 with proclamations at City Hall and candlelit vigils in Memorial Park. The parish joined me over time in re-considering our place within creation. The national conversation around human sexuality and the church figured increasingly during my time. Amidst all this activity, some left the church; others dropped by to have a look . . . and a few stayed.
Fast forward to today, and in response to the Kootenay Structures Report, I would suggest there is one thing missing. The report rightly mentions the need for leadership training in order for parishes to fully welcome and embrace new structures. Whether clergy or lay, nothing happens without leadership. New training however is too often named rather than defined. To make training available describes what work is to be done, though not how such work is done. Quite important also is what language is used. The age of chaplaincy (the leader responds to those already within the tribe) is over; the present age is one of mission (the leadership extends and expands the ministry outward beyond the tribe).
So how do we invite, welcome and shape the next generation of entrepreneurial church leaders? And where do we find them? Many are born – so be intentional in searching for them. They won’t come to us; we must sense something in them and draw them out and into community. Many Pentecostals and evangelicals have Anglican roots. They tell me however that their own particular hutzpah found no fertile Anglican soil.
Another group which continues to leave parish ministry are friends and colleagues now happily ensconced in chaplaincies – in universities, in health care settings, in prisons and in schools. So many colleagues tell me they did not find “a good fit” for their skills, nor do they see a future for themselves in parish ministry. Others have followed the allure of academia, and still others have pursued special projects.
I do not mean to challenge the ambitions or discernment of any of the above, but again I ask, given such losses who will sustain leadership in the parishes? Will all leaders be lay leaders? Now retired myself, it looks lonely out there. If I wonder aloud who will provide leadership in the parishes, I will go one step further to suggest that the parish as a gathering place for the curious and the committed will simply disappear.
Lest I sound too pessimistic allow me to mention three success stories, one historic and two contemporary; two are parish-shaped and one is an extra-parish entity.
In 1977 as a music student in London, England I first met the Rev. Bob McRae in the basement of All Souls, Langham Place. As the new rector of St. John’s, Quadra Street in Victoria he was returning from Geneva where he wrapped up his work with the World Council of Churches. He became a mentor to me for literally decades.
He inherited a strong ministry at St. Johns, but my word, he invigorated and amplified it. He quickly developed ways and means to take the ministry outside the walls. Choral evensong appeared on the CBC show Meeting Place. He initiated an international Boycott Nestle Project and created resources for single parents. He creatively developed the physical premises and expanded the staff team. He was the first priest I knew to write their AGM report on a laptop while at 30,000 feet. He was a force to be reckoned with for sure. In my own way I emulated his ability to take ministry out of and sanctuary into the public square.
Of Salal and Cedar I can only congratulate the Rev. Laurel Dykstra and their leadership team in their sustained cultivation of an intentional community devoted to the love of Creation in every aspect including wonder, awe, miracle and boisterous justice advocacy.
Of Valhalla, I thought to myself “wow, they do all this interesting community stuff, but what about the parish?” Well duh, the interesting stuff IS the parish, which still meets on Sunday mornings led by a half time professionally trained lay theologian.
What goes around comes around. As a full-time lay minister at an Anglican Church in Sidney, BC from 1984-87 I often thought to myself why couldn’t I take responsibility for a parish given my entrepreneurial abilities and interests, calling on locally available clergy for necessary sacramental work. I guess I was thirty years too early. Entrepreneurial ideas need accommodating structures.
As the Church, our Church, even our little Church here in Summerland, I hope it’s not too late. For the Diocese of Kootenay I hope it’s not too late. Ours is not a time for timid hearts and half-measures. We are custodians of a great tradition, the Church, God’s creation, which houses and shapes part of God’s witness. It’s a church however which needs a lot of house cleaning.
Can I get an Amen?