St. George’s rocks – Another reflection on Anglican parish vitality in Canada

We arrived at St. George’s; a long time Anglican Parish situated beside the waters of Victoria’s Cadboro Bay on a sunny January morning. It is a parish I know well having led and attended events, worship services, youth conferences, Cursillo weekends, ordinations and synod meetings there over many years. (My mother and I tried to train our Beagle, Shelley in the old hall, rather unsuccessfully.) I have known many lay and ordained leaders from the parish through the years — the parish produced two bishops, many partners in mission, along with a number of influential diocesan leaders over the years. For me, St. George’s is familiar if not home territory (I grew up in the neighboring Willows area of Oak Bay). So in my never-ending quest to observe Canadian Anglican Parishes, I was curious to see how St. George’s was faring in these somewhat challenging days.

Approaching the church from the west along Maynard Road, the first thing we noticed was the long line of parked cars along the street. Arriving at the church parking lot there seemed ne’er a space to be had. (When I snuck outside during communion the lot seemed less congested; possibly early-service attendees were still on site when I arrived – or a local towing company enjoyed good business this morning.) The parking lot was packed with very nice cars indeed, so many I thought we were at the wrong church.

Moving into the building through doors at the back of the well-appointed sanctuary, it took a minute to locate a seat. Once seated, the announcements continued with an introduction to today’s special Focus on Ministry service. Worship today was not a so-called instructed Eucharist, but an explanation of who does what at this church and why they continue to do it. While likely a helpful recruitment tool, the service was more than a hustling for human resources. It made visible the efforts of many in an encouraging and inviting way. Somewhere around twenty speakers responded briefly to what must have been two questions: What do you do around the congregation? And why do you continue in this role?

Now St. George’s is an affluent parish in a most comfortable residential neighbourhood of a very wealthy city, Victoria. It is proximate to the local University of Victoria; many congregants are active or retired professional leaders, practitioners, entrepreneurs, and content creators. Their volunteer pool is the envy of any congregation. Historically they have been graced with resources of all sorts. So it would be surprising to think they needed to recruit from the ranks.  In today’s news in other places however I read that the Penticton Triathlon has been rescued from obscurity by a local running club. In other news, both the Vancouver Folk Festival and Merritt Country Music Festival are ceasing operations given the aging of volunteers. And of course, it is rare to find a local Anglican community amply supplied with volunteer labour these days.

Now the details from this morning. Fabulous music led by a talented performer, arranger, producer and sound engineer, Marlon Narciso who is more than capable on organ, piano and guitar while leading a strong fourteen-person choir (nice balance between higher and lower parts – though the world always needs more tenors). The ensemble led the singing congregation in traditional and folk congregational song giving familiar tunes a lively bounce. The presiding priest, Don Walls (a longtime friend and colleague) is blind; he led the service in a gentle and quiet way – possibly a little too quiet — I must say that having left my hearing aids at home, most voices were rather too quiet for me. Something to consider friends.

The rector, the Rev. Christine Conkin is new to St. George’s. I loved how during the singing she often swayed from side to side in an appropriate Anglican swagger. We plan to meet soon as she had heard of A Path Forward, a report of future structures originating from the Diocese of Kootenay. Her role today was minimal given the focus on broadly-based ministry; her role was one of coordination. I want to return to listen to her preach – she comes highly recommended by a former rector of the parish, now a retired bishop.

We met in a building constructed in the so-called golden age of the church, the 1950s. It has been renovated many times including recently, where a compact thought very effective narthex with kitchen and washroom facilities was added. No more walking next door to the old hall (at which point many would simply return home). Bathed in January sun in a lively interior acoustic, folks engaged in the lives of others encouraged by a marvellous hospitality. And as the Ship of Fools Mystery Worshipper always asks, how was the after-service coffee? I would say nine out of ten. My craving typically commences immediately following the reception of communion.

So where should I locate St George’s in the congregational life cycle? Things look and feel pretty good presently. They enjoy ample resources, though the average age is still quite high. Children are delightfully present though at least today, not abundant. Worship is broadcasted online while enjoyed in-person. Their clergy and lay leadership remain strong. I have no idea of their financial state; back in the day they always had two FTE clergy on staff (one doubling as the Anglican University Chaplain), but those days are likely now gone. I wonder how their parish committee (now titled “governance group”) would react to the structures report.

Above the altar, suspended from the ceiling is a cross in a cage. Former Rector, the late  McCalman described its design to me many years ago. The cross is boldly and starkly displayed. It is encompassed within a cage. The challenge as he saw it was for the church to burst out of the cage. A good conversation point for St. George’s folks would be to ask if this still happens. What then is the balance between what they do inside the building, and how they connect outside.

To use the words of Richard Rohr, who suggests that we are all containers of life, vessels that can latch onto Grace, St. George’s is a congregational container for an experience and practice of God’s mission in the present messy, though creative space we call Creation. It is well placed to face the challenges before us all as Canadian Anglicans. There is however, even here, work to be done.

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