Looking back with Archdeacon Peter Townshend

By Rev. Matthew Kieswetter

Archdeacon Peter Townshend, newly retired, recently answered a few questions from a newly-ordained transitional deacon, Matthew Kieswetter.

Here are some highlights from their conversation:

KIESWETTER: 1 Peter 3:15 speaks of knowing and witnessing to “that hope that is in you.” For you, what is the hope, the essence, of the Christian faith?

TOWNSHEND: I had a little fun with the congregation on my last Sunday. I started my sermon by saying I had a confession: that I had changed all the readings for the day. And I strongly believe in preaching from the lectionary, so that you don’t just do your own thing. But I wasn’t going to go out preaching on Jezebel, or on a legion of demons being cast into pigs and running off a cliff. So I chose a reading from Isaiah 58, one of his justice passages, which asks: ‘what is a fast acceptable to God?’ Clothing the naked, caring for the widow, and so on.

And I picked a passage from Ephesians 1. One of the great lines from that prayer: “with the eyes of your heart enlightened.” If we only could look at life in the way that God does, through the eyes of Jesus, we would have a very different understanding of our life and the life of this world, and what we are called to do.

And lastly was the Gospel, from Matthew, where Jesus speaks of the two great commandments. Those are passages that summarize my outlook on life and faith.

I believe strongly in the sense that God is a God of love, without putting limits on that. Core to my understanding of faith are those two great commandments: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and also to love your neighbour.

And I believe that in Jesus we see the full extent of God’s love for God’s people, in his life, death, and resurrection. We can get into all sorts of theological questions about what all that means: was it all necessary exactly the way it was played out… But that’s the way it was played out for the people of Jesus’ day, and what they would have understood from it, and that works for me.

What was it like being ordained in the early 1980s: the age of liturgical renewal and experimentation?

I think it was a really great time. We got to experience a lot of great liturgy at Huron College, with George Black as director of music. Everyone seems to think that The Book of Alternative Services is really new, but it was really just trying to gather together the best of a whole lot of experimental liturgies. I find it very interesting that I spent much of my ministry introducing the BAS. In some places it’s still a new book, but it’s been out since 1985.

But there’s still great value in The Book of Common Prayer. I love it, and when it is presented well it can be wonderful liturgy. Throughout most of my ministry I’ve been in places where I’ve sought to meet the needs of diverse congregations, and certainly that’s the case at Holy Saviour. I do think that the theology of the newer liturgy helps to draw a congregation together.

peter-webIs there a particular part of the liturgy that especially feeds you?

I always really enjoy when the liturgy fits together well, with all the people working together. I love music, so sometimes I can have a few moments to sit back and appreciate good music.

There are moments of connectedness, special gifts of grace that come through in the liturgy. It happens often with the children. And as a priest, a very special moment is administering communion. When you’ve been in a parish for some time you often know the stories of the people and the challenges they’ve been going through. That’s a special moment, and a way of remembering that we support one another.

Holy Saviour offers Morning Prayer and choral Evensong more often than many other churches, as well as a midweek Eucharist. How has that diversity of worship been an important part of your ministry?

When I came to Holy Saviour they had three liturgies every Sunday. Gradually the later congregation was reduced in size, with the choir outnumbering the congregation. So we shifted to two services, and in doing so, the 10 o’clock is always eucharistic, alternating between the BAS and BCP, though with a little more of the BAS. And I believe you try to meet the needs of the congregation. So we added a monthly 9 o’clock Morning Prayer, and also a monthly Evensong.

Interestingly, it wasn’t just the older congregation that liked the BCP. I had a family and they were concerned that their children wouldn’t be exposed to the BCP, because we didn’t have Sunday School at the original BCP service.

At both of our main services we have both our traditional choir and our Generations choir, which is more contemporary and includes everyone from children to grandparents. It’s a neat worship environment

I’ve heard a lot about a robust Sunday School at Holy Saviour, and some very involved young adults. What’s been drawing them and how do you engage them?

I think the main thing, especially with younger people, is that they will go to a place where they really feel welcomed. I’m really pleased with how young children and babies can make some noise here, but we don’t get negative reactions from the congregation. People understand. We have rocking chairs at the back for parents and babies. A lot of Sundays I do a children’s focus, and it’s my time to get to know the children. I’ve always felt, from the days of my theological education, that children need to experience worship. Their experience of church shouldn’t just be a school model; they get enough of that elsewhere.

And we have a good group of young adults, including on parish council. For some, they have a history in the Anglican Church, and this is where they feel home liturgically, but they also feel a sense of community here. I think that churches, moving forward, need to work on that sense of community. People also want to see that we are trying to do the work that Jesus calls us to do, especially if they have no previous church background.

In your ministry, what has energized you?

It’s a bit of a dichotomy for me. At the core I’m a people-person. I love pastoral ministry. To me that’s the heart of ministry: being with the people and sharing life experiences with them, both good and bad. I’ve often told ordinands that it’s such a privilege to enter into the lives of others. It’s what I call the sacrament of presence.

At the same time, I’ve been really involved in the life of the Diocese, right from my ordination. I think that’s important, to understand that we’re all the Diocese. So I’ve been on virtually all of the major committees of the Diocese, so I get viewed at times as an administrative person. I see my ministry as balancing both of those things: the pastoral and the administrative.

Back when I was in Leamington I was involved on the Postulancy Board for years, which some people might not remember. And through that I became aware of the Parish Internship Program. So I approached the parish council and asked them to consider offering a summer placement, which we did for a year. It was also in those days that the Diocese helped to support assistant curacies. I was able to share that knowledge with parish council because I was aware of the wider life of the Diocese, and so we had an assistant curate for a number of years.

29Outreach with a musical twist

“The Three Cantors” legacy would never have happened without Peter Townshend.
He was the rector of Grace Church, Brantford at the time:

“I responded to the challenge of Archbishop Percy O’ Driscoll that each parish should try to initiate one new outreach project.
The initial intent was to plan for one concert to benefit the Brantford food bank but it was quickly evident that
there was a lot of interest in the idea around the diocese, so we started to plan for a three-concert series
to be held in different communities with the proceeds to go to support the Huron Hunger Fund/PWRDF.
It was a full year of planning and working with sponsors prior to the first concert.
I did most of the practical organization and leg work, including transporting Grace Church’s digital piano,
for the first two years of concerts. It was a busy time, but I loved working with Angus, Peter, David and Bill.
It has been a great joy for me to follow ‘The Three Cantors’ throughout their twenty year ministry.”

I can see that connection to the Diocese coming naturally to you, with the historical association of the names “Huron” and “Townshend.” From your experience, what have you found special in our Diocese? And where would you like to see some growth or change?

My grandfather started studying theology in 1918 and was ordained in 1926. So there’s been an active Townshend in the life of the Diocese since then. When I was about ten I used to drive around the Diocese with my grandfather.

He also did that with Bishop Terry Dance! I really enjoyed that, seeing the diversity. There were usually two or often three services, and sometimes four. You’d go to one service at a small rural church, maybe in a small town outside of Chatham. Then the next service might be at a large urban church, like Church of the Ascension in Windsor. As a priest that diversity has been wonderful to observe. It’s a large Diocese, and that creates its own problems about administration. But as a priest, you can have a variety of ministry all in one Diocese.

Also, there’s been a closeness of relationship with the Diocese having its own theological college, and that’s a strength. And that relationship works well.

Some of the challenges of the Diocese don’t really seem to change. My grandfather had a line in many of his sermons: “beware the parochial squint.” And that is still an issue. The more we look at ourselves and our own parish needs, beyond the needs of our neighbouring congregations and the diocese, and if we don’t see ourselves as part of the diocese, then we’re in trouble. Moving forward, some of the ways in which we’re trying to adapt Canon 12, to allow for flexibility in models of ministry, is a novel thing.

It’s not about creating “marriages of convenience.” I’m convinced that moving forward we’re going to have to have a spirit of co-operation between parishes, and being proactive in doing that not just to make dollars work, but to see positives that come out of that style of ministry. In some places that will be the way to maintain a strong Anglican presence, while also maintaining the diversity of congregations.

The magazine The Christian Century used to feature a section called “how my mind has changed.” Can you identify a way in which you’ve evolved in your faith life over the years?

There are a couple of areas. I certainly don’t feel like I need to have all the answers now. As a young priest you struggle to feel confident, and have done the right studying. Studying is good, but it will never give you all the answers. I don’t want to put limitations on God. I think sometimes we work hard to understand God, and so we end up recreating God in a way that we think God should be.

One of the areas where I’ve grown is in the understanding of human sexuality. When I was a student I was very hard-line. And I suppose that’s where there’s been a big change in my understanding. While we might want everything to fit into a neat traditional mode of human relationships, that obviously has changed, both outside and inside the church. There is anxiety about [the then upcoming] General Synod, because no matter what happens, there’s going to be hurt people, and that’s unfortunate. Where I’ve seen people expressing fears about same-sex relationships, I haven’t seen those fears come to fruition. In my experience, what I’ve seen are just good, healthy relationships. So that’s an area that has challenged me the most, and has caused the most growth.

IMGP1760webWere there any surprises for you, coming out of seminary? And any thoughts on theological education in the present day?

I came out of seminary at a time when it was beginning to transition from more of an academic school to more of a professional school. We diverted from that for a little while, but I think the focus now is more on preparing people for what they’ll encounter. That’s my sense. I feel good because of that positive person at the head of theology right now!

One of the things I really appreciated when I was ordained was that the Bishop, right off the bat, asked us what committee we wanted to serve on. And he would do it! It gave you exposure to the work of the Diocese, and also said to the parishes that there was an expectation that the priest would be involved in the wider Diocese. It modelled how ministry takes place at different levels, and we’re all a part of that. I would encourage more of that to happen. When it doesn’t, apportionment just looks like a bill, rather than as outreach ministry to the broader church — and we all benefit from that.

If, with the snap of your fingers, you could make a much-needed change in the Diocese, what would it be?

This may sounds like it’s coming from my administrative side, but it’s really coming from my pastoral side. I wish that people would truly respond to God’s love with a fullness of generosity. Some of that is by a willingness to serve in ministries. But the reality of it is that some of it is stewardship of funds. As a priest I spent much time “trying to make the budget.“ I’m convinced that if we were really giving out of generosity, then many of our challenges as parishes and a Diocese would be non-existent, because we would have the resources to do the ministry we’re called to do. It can sound like I’m just asking for more money, but it’s really a deeper theological and pastoral issue.

It comes down to the basic issue that as human beings, we like to be in control. By limiting what we’re willing to give, the sense is that we’re exercising control. What I learned early on in my ministry is that you’re never fully in control. You try to do what you can, but you really need to remember that God is in control. And you need to have fun, and have a sense of humour. You can’t take yourself too seriously. Remember that it’s God who provides.

Also important is more co-operation: seeing that we’re all part of a large and wonderful church. Those two things would go a long way to alleviate many of our challenges.