By Bishop Todd Townshend
For seven straight Sundays in the season of Easter, we’ve heard a passage from that unique book in the bible, The Acts of the Apostles.
Like the book of Genesis, it’s a story of new beginnings. Jesus has lived, he’s died, he’s been raised from the dead, he’s appeared to his disciples in many ways, and now he has ascended to the right hand of God the Father, the Creator of all. The book of Acts begins with the Ascension story and the people of Jesus waiting for the coming of the promised Holy Spirit.
Willie James Jennings, in his commentary on Acts, says that this isn’t really about the birth of the church, as we sometimes say, it is more about how the disciples of Jesus were drawn into the disrupting presence of the Spirit of God. The stories show the willingness of God to invade their every day and every moment to send them, and lead them, down pathways they never imagined. Acts teaches how people of faith can yield to the Spirit—how people of faith can yield to the life and movement and disturbances of the Holy Spirit of God.
This implies at least two things. One, it is possible to come to know the Spirit, and is possible for us to follow in the way of the Spirit. Two, it will require some discipline. Discipleship in the Spirit requires learning, practice, discipline.
By one definition, “to yield” to something or someone, is to give up possession of it, or your claim on it.
a: to surrender to the control of another: to hand over possession of something physically
b: to relinquish one's possession of a position of advantage or point of superiority
c: to submit (oneself) to another
In our case, it is to surrender our possession of, to relinquish our position over, to submit ourselves to... God. Yielding to the Spirit can be a beautiful thing.
Or more simply, as we travel around on foot, on bike, or in a car, we learn when to “give way” to others, to the flow, or to a force that may overpower us. And again, in the case at hand, the “other” is powerful, and unpredictable Holy Spirit. The penalty for failing to yield is the loss of relationship to the power that drives the universe and the frustrating inability to know and experience the fruits of the Spirit, which are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and other excellent things.
To yield to the Spirit is to actually believe in God the Spirit. To trust that the Holy Spirit is trust-worthy. To know that this is not just any spirit, this is the same Spirit that moved over creation, that moved in the patriarchs and matriarchs, in the prophets, in Mary—by whom Jesus was born—the Word, now in the flesh, who sends us the Spirit. This Holy Spirit is the very breath of God who brought you into existence. The same Spirit that helps you in your weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought—we do not know how to do anything as we ought—but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. This is the wind of God that powers the world... every molecule, every atom, every super-string of vibrating energy in the cosmos... the One who brings us real hope, and a real future.
So, we make-way for that Spirit. We do not want to yield to the spirit of the times, nor to the spirit of our own will, but rather to seek the direction of the Holy Spirit of God, the giver of life, the one who makes all things new.
Again, this is not as easy as it sounds, the movement of the Holy Spirit can be hard to see sometimes, it takes practice.
Some of you may know that my studies over the years have focussed on Christian Practices. What are the practices of the Christian church, how do they work, why do they work, and what do they tell us about this God in whom we live and move and have our being?
I believe that our inherited, in-culturated, incredible Christian practices—seasoned and shaped by the Anglican experience and its wisdom—are all we need right now as a central “strategy”. Practices like: Prayer. Fasting. Study. Worship. Confession. Forgiveness. Sabbath. Scripture. Sacraments. All of it leading us to love and serve the poor, the weak, the lost, in Christ’s name. God is found in these practices. Or better, God finds us in and through them. In every generation we learn and re-learn them anew and we practice them together. These activities shape us, then we go deeper into them seeing that they become richer and richer as you go, and we find that we are drawn into a way of being in the world that allows us to live more fully and abundantly in Christ. It’s one of the ways that God makes us “new”.
If there is a way though all of “this”, it will by mediated by our participation in the simple, central, Christian activities that have proven, over time, to make disciples. I think that’s what we need to focus on right now.
And, as I said last fall, we will need to make room, make time, make space for these practices to take on central importance in our life together. Which refers to that idea of “shifting the centre of gravity”of the activities around which our common life revolves.
I continue to believe that our Strategic Goal: is to shift the centre of gravity in our practices from an emphasis on operations to an emphasis on renewal and new creation, better revealing the marks of mission by becoming: a learning church, a just church, a diverse church, a new church.
The KEY: to be willing to go more deeply into the practices of the church, fully open to God’s desire for us and for the world, focusing on Jesus and yielding to the life and movement of the Holy Spirit.
How we operate, how we function, is very important. So, the operations of our churches can be renewed, too, as we keep our eyes on our primary mission. Most of what happens in our church happens locally, in the congregations and parishes and in your lives at home, at work, at play. I’m asking you to imagine ways to shift the centre of gravity there. But this Synod concerns itself also with the working of the Diocese of Huron as a whole. So, I’d like to focus now on some of the ways we will begin to renew operations and shift energy to Christian practices in our diocesan structures.
As I learn more about how we operate as a diocese, I am both grateful for the incredible work that people have done, and continue to do, and I’m recognizing that much of the current system or “platform” was designed to serve another time. Some of it still works very well. Some of it does not.
We need to go back in time a bit to see how much the things around us have changed. Think back to about 1950.
After the trauma of two World Wars, a corporate structure evolved fairly quickly to serve the dynamics of a stable, growing, post-war church. Coming out of the chaos and violence of war, and all that loss of life, and the realization that technology had “progressed” to the point that we could actually annihilate one another and the planet, there was a strong desire for stability, belonging, religious structures and, especially, peace. Not in everyone, but in most people.
The 1950’s and 60’s were a time of settling, and building, and expanding in the Diocese of Huron. Some of you lived through these years and will remember it. As Canadian society settled into the post-war boom, the church thrived. Some of us think of those days as the “norm” for church—the golden era of church—but I don’t. When compared with two thousand years of Christian life, those years were not normal. They were an anomaly of sorts, a blip on the long timeline.
Most of our parents or grandparents in faith did this work in good faith according to their time. My grandfather was highly involved in this diocese over those years. He had been Diocesan Commissioner and then Secretary Treasurer of Huron when in 1955 he was elected to serve as suffragan bishop. Bishop Luxton’s vision at the time, and it would it have been mine too, I’m guessing, was to build the church out into every direction possible. They came together and built schools, houses of worship, parish halls, gyms, offices—and they gathered the people in.
They did it. It was an incredible accomplishment, and we are the inheritors of that. We have inherited incredible assets, spiritually and physically. However, some of these assets were built for a different time. A time of stability and growth when the church was one of the central places in society and in the neighbourhood. It was a buffer against anything that smelled like the chaos and death of a World War.
Today we do not live in a stable, monocultural, peaceful, growing church-society relationship. Some have spent the last forty years recognizing that and lamenting it. Some have even felt the burden of responsibility for this so-called “decline” of the church. The leaders over the past forty or fifty years have been just as good or better than the leaders of the church in any other time. It’s just that the entire milieu, the environment, had changed and continues to change. More and more of the people in our churches do not recognize—and do not desire—the 1950-1970 Anglican Church of Southwestern Ontario. I’m an old guy—a grey-beard bishop —and I don’t remember that time. Never lived it. I was three years old when it was effectively over. Which, if that’s true, means that for fifty years we’ve been simultaneously living a kind-of-death and a kind-of-embryonic-developing-new way of living and being.
Some people call a season like this a liminal time. It comes from the Latin limen, meaning “threshold”. Something is ending and something else is beginning and the two exist overlapping and at the same time. Already, but not yet. It’s still the same faith, we still carry out the same practices in community, but we slowly begin to practice them in new ways and in new places. This is potentially transformative—for good or for ill. That’s the scary part. The outcome is not pre-determined.
This is why yielding to the power of the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, is a good focus for today. We are in a time of following, of trying simply to keep up, not really seeing where we are going. We can make some educated guesses about our likely trajectories, but we are always stepping into an unknown future—we walk by faith, not by sight. At some point, even travelling in a fog, we decide that we are going to put it into gear and really get going with the Spirit. And as we follow the Spirit and watch for her movements, we keep up the work of preparing ourselves, pruning our branches, and cultivating whatever seeds God sows into our soil.
Our “soil” is fertile in many places, thanks be to God, we have been given many assets. We have two kind of assets. The first is people, wonderful people. In them we see the divine-human relationship coming to life in faith and action. The assembly gathered for worship. The disciples sent out into the world. People.
I’ll come back to this.
The second kind of asset is physical. We have land, buildings, vessels, the scriptures, water, bread and wine. All of these non-living physical assets are simply “media”. Each of them is a medium in which, or with which, God relates to us. We consider them holy, but they are only holy because God brings them to life as “a means to an end”. The “end” is you, me, us—the living—and our relationship with God.
Physical assets are the means by which God will reach out and embrace us. They are necessary. They are crucially important. We need to make sure that we are using the best media possible. We know that God will use any means necessary to love us. It’s the nature of God, who has no physical body, to kindle life into matter, to breathe life into clay—or whatever else is at hand—and to love the creature infinitely.
Right now, we are beginning pour some of our energies and focus and money into developing digital media spaces for communication, community building, and Christian formation. That’s another “land” we can inhabit for the sake of the Gospel. Over the past fifteen months, we’ve seen that God makes good use of it for meeting, learning, seeing and hearing one another.
As we go, we will challenge ourselves to hold the physical assets lightly and to think of them as a beautiful, cherished, means to an end. Not the end itself. We also remember to hold the creaturely, living, assets closely. We will challenge ourselves to cherish the expansion of the human. We will challenge ourselves to grow disciples of Jesus. To expand the number of people who are good disciples and good disciple-makers. And only then to consider what physical structures we need to support that activity. We will remember that structures are meant to support and uphold us, as we are faithful. Not the other way around.
We are disciples now and therefore stewards so we will take great care in this as we are open to the Holy Spirit’s leading.
In this time, perhaps any time, the ministry of a bishop is to receive the Holy Spirit, and to stir up the grace of God, without fear. Ours is spiritual work, in service to Christ, who loves us into loving the world, by the power of that same Spirit.
I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that our work together is spiritual work. As I was saying yesterday, spiritual work happens in physical, fleshly, people and places. How can we open ourselves to the leading of God when it comes to the spiritual use of our assets and our operations?
First, I think, we do this by being brutally honest with ourselves about some of the biggest challenges.
1. Physical Structures: property and buildings
What percentage of your overall budget goes to the maintenance of your church buildings? We live in Canada, we need a roof, walls, windows, plumbing, electrical, and heat. Some of our communities have inherited a building already paid for, others have mortgages, all have maintenance. We have some serious challenges in meeting the demands of these buildings with declining budgets. A lot of us face huge barriers because of the cost of our buildings.
This year alone, the insurance increases on those buildings—the increase to the premiums alone—took another $625K out of the system across our diocese (on average, a 92% increase). Altogether, our buildings are insured for over $440M. This assumes that we would replace our buildings just as they are, should there be a total loss. How many of you would actually do that? I love, love, love church buildings, they are holy and often beautiful. But we don’t need $440M worth of them—for ourselves. Because there is only one insurance company left who will sell us insurance, we are setting up a task force to do the research and to negotiate some new options. There are options, even with this one company. Please stay tuned.
This points to a critical issue. These buildings were not built to weigh us down and put us out of business. They were built to serve communities.
Twenty-five years ago, we had 250 congregations. Now we have about 170. That is down about a third. Several groups that study this stuff anticipate that one-third of existing churches in Canada will close over the next ten years. Let’s say it’s not quite that bad, and we are left with 125 church buildings in 2031, when I’m about to retire – about half of what we had when I was first ordained.
Even then, if you took a person who was gripped by the Holy Spirit and trained in discipleship and ministry, and you said, “here you go, we want you to be the Anglican Christian presence in Southwestern Ontario, and you can have these 125 buildings, and these 25,000 or so Christians, and this bit of money in trusts and all that—to start a diocese—she or he would say, “Alleluia! The LORD provides!”
Ask any church planter, that’s a seriously good start. That’s not building from scratch. That’s a golden opportunity. Right now, we have 30 % more human and physical assets than that scenario. That’s a platinum opportunity. Not to mention that—the power of the Holy Spirit wants to clothe us with power from on high!
We’ve got to be smart with our physical resources. Many of these are very underutilized, because we are understandably tired. So, how can our home, our church building, become a community hub again? We will have to sacrifice and be generous. But we can do it. We have the opportunity to determine what we will leave as an inheritance.
Sometimes we behave as though there will be nobody around in ten years and we’ll just shut out the lights. Maybe that will happen in a few places, but not in most of them. Because of population shifts will continue to shift, and people will continue to be drawn to Christ, and humans will always need healthy spiritual communities, and even now there are young people who fully expect to be still be the church in 2050 and 2060.
We can do this. We have assets. They are God-given. Maybe this time of challenge will also liberate us for something new in these our communities.
By this time next year, I expect that the Diocesan Council and I will have found a way forward with policies, guidelines, resources, and training to support you in preserving, restoring, and repurposing our physical assets to serve our neighbourhoods in the name of Christ for generations to come. This will be your decision. I want to see church communities thrive, not close. So, I’ll do everything in my power to make sure we are looking at all of the options. There are resources out there and we will bring some of them together for you over the next year or so.
Another challenge and opportunity may be found in taking a close look at our,
2. Organizational Structures: the people and processes that make it happen, or not
In the many attempts I’ve made, over the years, to have a big strategy for reorganizing myself, my workplace, or my community, I’ve repeatedly learned the truth that management guru Peter Drucker made famous, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The diocese of Huron has a culture, is a culture, of sorts. Culture is simply the ideas, values, customs, patterns, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. It’s our habits, it’s our automatic ways of being, and it seems like the most natural things in the world—unless you’ve come from another culture. Part of the reason we’ve been able to be resilient in the pandemic is that part of our culture is very healthy and good. It serves us well.
Parts of it do not serve us well, however, and it’s hard to see what’s what. Therefore, we will have to experiment with some things, try them differently, experiment, assess it after a while and see if it’s better. If it is, great, keep going. If it’s not, try something else. This will create some discomfort and some conflict, but we can embrace that.
By this time next year, we will have had a close look at the following things to see if the current arrangement still serves us well: Diocesan Council, the committee structures, vocational discernment and formation, Deaneries and Archdeaconries, and the ways in which we exercise and share episcopal ministry.
In other words, we’re going to take a close look at how to make sure that our leadership groups and our leadership positions, starting with mine, can be set up to carefully complement the wonderful diversity of gifts that God has provided in the people of this church. We are looking for a more coordinated, complementary, collaborative approach. I hope that you’ll be part of the conversation.
Every organization has structures AND dynamics. They work together. What about the dynamics, the movement, the activity that these structures intend to support? Here, I’d like to comment on the four overarching priorities I laid out last September. These describe our activity, our dynamics, the forces that provide movement. Since September we have aspired to be a more learning church, a more just church, a more diverse church, and a church open to every kind of Resurrection “newness”.
A learning church
A disciple is a pupil of Jesus, learning of him and living in him. Well, I’m delighted to say that we are a church eager to learn. There has been a marked increase in study groups, workshops, speaker series, podcasts, reading groups, listening groups, EFM groups, and all kinds of learning and catechetical formation. Part of the reason is that we were restricted from getting together so we embraced digital media which, as it turns out for many of us, made participation easier.
There is still a very important place for gathering to learn in-person and in-community, but this has been a huge gift that will supplement what we have always done to support learning and formation. In the next year, we hope to provide more content, accessibility, pathways, and programs for being a continuously learning church. Stay curious about Christ, my friends!
A just church
Justice, in our religious tradition, is “to make right”, to put right. We seek to be a church that makes wrongs right and avoids injustice in the first place. What does God’s justice look like when it happens? What does it look like in the lives of faithful people? A just church prioritizes relationships and lives in right relationship with God, one another, and the natural creation.
Here, I would like to point to the work being done to learn and do more about dismantling racism, reconciliation with indigenous peoples, creation care, addressing economic injustices, equitable vaccine distribution, refugee sponsorship, and so on. These things can become more central for more of us and we can follow those in our churches who have been up to their elbows in the work for decades. A special thanks for the leadership given by the Justice League of Huron, the Refugee committee, and many the other justice-seeking teams and people in our church.
We also will have to exponentially ramp up our response to the climate emergency. When we can circulate again in relative safety, our eyes cannot veer from the two things that threaten us more than this coronavirus: inequality and environment degradation. By this time next year, we will have worked through ways to lead our communities in making a real, measurable difference in these areas. The work has begun and it continues and there will some updates about all of this work as we go, through videos and other means of communication. I look forward to that work.
I also look forward to continuing to work with Indigenous Anglicans as we partner in new and creatrive ways to be together in Christ. This is something Archdeacon Rosalyn Elm and I will be launching into more deeply both on-line and in-person this September. We seek God’s justice together.
A diverse church
In the feedback from last Synod and in the time since, this was the area where I seemed to cause the most confusion. It may have also revealed that not everyone wants diversity in the church. Some organizations, some churches, are affinity groups—based on shared characteristics and interests. We are drawn to people who are similar to us, who like the same things. That’s ok, it’s often good. It just can’t be all that we do. In some locations, it’s just the demographic reality that there is little diversity in the population. But even that will change soon.
I still maintain that if we want to see a beauty that we’ve never seen before in our churches, then we should foster a more diverse membership. The future of Canada is going to be multi-traditioned, multi-cultured, multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-gendered—and so needs to be the future of the Anglican Church.
Maybe “unity in diversity” will become our motto someday, when we are a more radically hospitable church, joyfully embracing difference and diversity.
A “new” church
In a liminal season like this one, we ready ourselves for new beginnings. Like the new beginnings we see in the Acts of the Apostles. A new beginning is usually a very satisfying reorientation, a sense that we finally found a new equilibrium, and a renewed sense of identity and mission starts to come better into focus. I don’t know if this will happen over the next few years or over the next few decades, but I believe it will come.
For those who love the idea of everything becoming new, this is fun. For those who dread it and are concerned for what will be lost, this is not fun. The “new” I’m referring to here is neither of those, merely.
This is the deepest, truest, form of “new” possible. The kind that is good news for all. It is the kind of “new” that we hear described in the creation stories. It is the kind of new that what experience at the empty tomb of Jesus. Sheer possibility. That is what our church is built upon. Faith in the possibility of a new creation, a new creation that is stretching out before us and that the Holy Spirit of God promises to lead us into. The whole history of the people of God has included liminal times like this. God always led them through—each and every time—to the new thing promised.
Therefore, we embrace it and continue to ask, in every decision, every grief, every opportunity, “could this newness be the work of God? Is this a possible place where God’s new creation may take root?”
Let us pray.
O God of unchangeable power and eternal life,
look favorably on your whole church, that wonderful and sacred mystery.
By the effectual working of your providence,
carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation.
Let the whole world see and know
that things which were cast down are being raised up,
and things which had grown old are being made new,
and that all things are being brought to their perfection
by Him through whom all things were made,
your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
181st Huron Synod: Popular Report
181st Synod of the Diocese of Huron - Opening Worship Service (video)
Bishop Todd's Charge to 181st Synod part 1 (video)
Bishop Todd's Charge to 181st Syod part 2 (video)
Bishop Marinez: Message to Huron Synod (video)