Be not afraid: In dark days, the Light shone for a new parish

Photo by “Pearl”, Lightstock

Photo by “Pearl”, Lightstock

By Rev. Bill Crosby

It is a reality for those who serve the Anglican Church that, in the coming years, more and more of us will be called to navigate the waters of parish reorganization, revitalization and renewal. The forces initiating the need for change are many: changing demography, aging buildings, and social structures that question the church’s reason for being.

It is our duty and joy to address such questions in a way that is timeless and relevant — by sharing the Gospel of unending love and salvation, by being living examples of what Billy Graham once described as “the only Bible that somebody might ever read.”

As the people of St. Augustine of Canterbury, Windsor, we have a story to share of parish evolution, of “good tidings” for this and all seasons.

It’s a story of individual and collective fears experienced by a Christian community confronting change. It’s a story of organizational and spiritual trials and of the leadership needed to confront those challenges. It’s a story authored by a group of people who never have all the answers.

Our story begins in 2004-2005 when St. Barnabas’, Windsor, was no longer capable of supporting a full-time incumbent.

Up to that point, self-denial had been plentiful. A professional for many years served as a kind of Sugar Daddy, writing a significant cheque at the end of every year to balance the books. Other parishioners offered repayable loans to balance the books.

The physical church, affectionately known as the Barn, was built in the 1950s when energy was cheap, its cavernous nave symbolizing an era when big was beautiful. It had an old boiler that could blow at any time and insulation that was minimal and riddled with asbestos.

With the arrival of a part-time rector in 2007, the mood was set to examine the future. Early on there was little sense of direction but a growing feeling that the immovable object of past practice was about to meet the irresistible force of future sustainability.

Long-standing members saw no reason to depart from historical practice, whereas for others the need to set a new course was urgent. Rifts in opinion and factions began to emerge; there was no limit to the blame game with respect to the motivations behind a need for change.

A parish can easily become a people who walk in darkness when collectively it forgets that God’s guiding hand is always near and that he is perpetually calling us to new vistas. This was the light the parish needed to open its eyes to see.

As the community struggled with important questions during 2010, somebody had the idea of convening an “away day” inclusive of all factions and opinions in the parish.

Led by an experienced diocesan congregational coach, it was a raucous session. But toward the end, there arose an “aha!” moment when the majority embraced the truth that the future of the parish was in our hands, that we authored the current situation and only we could chart the path forward.

Denial was gone, the pointing fingers were gloved and there descended a collective understanding that we not only could but also would move on behalf of our church.

We also conceded affairs to God — a “take our hands off the wheel and let him drive” moment that imparted a sense of peace and determination. There can be no doubt the Spirit moved among us that day.

As if God didn’t do enough for us on that away day, new opportunities were about to be given to us.

There unfolded a difficult time for the diocese as St. Aidan’s, Windsor, which had ties to the Anglican Network in Canada, severed from the episcopal oversight of the Diocese of Huron.

There ensued a long and expensive legal confrontation that was resolved in the diocese’s favour, after which a bulk of the St. Aidan’s congregation left their church premises.

It was an attractive facility, passed into the hands of a parish body much diminished in size and energy.

At the same time, the position of a diocesan director of ministry and mission was established and staffed by an experienced senior priest, Ven. Richard Salt, who provided us with guidance.

It seemed God was beckoning us with an invitation. So the parish with a renewed sense of purpose in a crumbling facility proffered a question to the diminished parish in its wonderful facility: Do we belong together?

There followed a series of “get to know you” events involving both parishes, conscious of the fact that no marriage can succeed in the absence of relationship. Joint services, joint social events, and pulpit exchanges were all engaged. The fit felt increasingly right.

Negotiations were undertaken with the diocese. Good will was in the air and confidence grew between the two parishes.

In the end both parishes approved the consummation of the relationship, although ties to the past did bubble up and needed to be addressed. Principal among these were personal affinities to a building. Some things needed to be taken to the new location, others left behind.

At a special vestry meeting in mid-2012, the move was formally approved by a strong majority of the parish and relocation undertaken in the fall. A few stood to angrily declare they would never make the move, but quietly did in the end. Others said little or nothing, and quietly disappeared despite attempts at follow-up and support.

An important piece of work was to strike an identity for the newly merged parish — a key for future evolution. It seemed clear the new parish needed to leave behind its dualistic past and the names of both former parishes had to be abandoned.

Submissions for a new name were invited from parishioners and five were chosen with episcopal oversight and approval.

One Sunday morning, the candidate names were inked in tall letters on five pieces of newsprint around the walls of the parish hall. The community gathered in the centre of the room, and individuals were invited to walk and stand before the name of their choice. At each round, the least-populated name was dropped to eventually reveal the new name and identity: St. Augustine of Canterbury was thus born.

Here we are, more than three years later, watching for and grasping those opportunities God presents to us as a community dedicated to him.

We don’t have all the answers, and we still struggle to find the right balance between our liturgical, spiritual, and social traditions and the highly diverse world around us. There is a need for the Gospel message out there and there may well be a degree of inculturation required to make connections that will be heard — as our rector, Rev. Colin Pearce, is wont to say, “to scratch where people are itching.”

We haven’t fully gotten there yet — probably just like you. But we’re hopeful and we’re working at it — probably just like you.

And that’s the story. The story is one of seeing the light and the revelation of what God has in store for you, as his bride and his greatest love.

May you be so blessed with that invitation, as were we.

Rev. Bill Crosby is a vocational deacon at St. Augustine of Canterbury, Windsor.