By Rev. Canon Keith Nethery
It dawned on me on Christmas Eve that this was the 25th Christmas in a row that I had preached a sermon.
Now, compared to my friend Archie Skirving, who has passed 60 years in ordained ministry, I am still a newbie. My Assistant, Hana Scorrar, who has yet to reach her first anniversary in ministry, might look at me more as a grizzled veteran.
All this got me to pondering about how ministry has changed over the last two and a half decades. It should be said here that I started in the Diocese of Calgary, in the southeast corner of Alberta in Medicine Hat/Redcliff. While there are some agricultural similarities between that area and Huron, the culture is somewhat different and so too was the Anglican Church in that Diocese; or maybe that should be that Huron is different to Calgary?
While that was an important consideration, I was surprised as I thought it all through, that really things haven’t changed that much. And that is a problem. The January edition of the Anglican Journal showed us ten ways to Sunday that things on the ground are in a precarious position. That doesn’t mean we are done (despite the headline.) I believe I tagged a recent column by asking the question, “Are we done or are we just getting started?” I would want to argue strongly for the latter.
But here’s the rub. If we have known (and we have) for all 25 years that I have been ordained that what we have been doing isn’t working: shouldn’t we have seen radical change in what we do?
Now I must say that there have been changes; especially in the area of social justice ministry and outreach. However, fundamentally, the job description of a parish priest has not changed a whole heck of a lot. While the world around us has changed at breakneck speed, we are still sent out to small groups (getting smaller it seems) that we call parishes, and asked to look after ministry. We are somewhat on our own islands and that can be very isolating.
Jump back to my first parish in Alberta and for much of the first year or so I was there as Deacon in charge, there wasn’t another Anglican priest within an hour in any direction. It was a lonely feeling. And in some ways that lonely feeling continues today because our model focuses us on our parish, and while I might be uncomfortable putting it this way, it’s worth trotting it out for discussion: Our success depends on the success of our parish. We are geared to growing the local community, which is out of step with a world that seeks growth across the board and uses technology that offers the opportunity to reach through boundaries with ease. And it is dramatically out of step with God who wants us to include all people all the time.
So, I wander along, still looking after a parish, putting together a sermon, visiting people, developing liturgy and programs for one group in one place. Despite the fact I’ve been suggesting for most of the 25 years I have been doing this, that the model on which we are basing ministry is broken and we need to make radical changes. I’ve even made some suggestions, sometimes more than once about ways that I think we could and should go forward. Yet here we are doing the same old and expecting different results.
Some have been critical of the way the Anglican Journal covered the recent statistical report to the Anglican Church of Canada. People have suggested it puts the Anglican Church in a bad light and doesn’t talk enough about the things we are doing to make a major impact in the life of the church. There is some validity in that, but I think we also needed the shock value of just how far we have fallen.
It’s time my friends that we make change, that we tear away the old and broken model and come up with ideas that will inspire. We can’t do that in small groups hunkered in church buildings on Sunday morning. We have to drop the blinders, engage the exciting ideas that are being suggested. We need to educate, read, learn, and digest.
I hope that Hana can write a story about me still proudly an Anglican priest in my eighties (but long since retired and cheer leading from whatever kind of building we might employ) as she welcomes an assistant. It will only happen if we all turn our eyes to Jesus, and then turn our ears and our minds and our hearts and understand that we must all roll up our sleeves and walk straight into the scary unknown that lives outside our walls, where people are in need of love and care and value and strength and encouragement and that list goes on.
Before I was ever ordained an Anglican priest in Edmonton, George Morris asked a group I was in, this question. “Are you in or are you out?” He said this was the question that shaped his ministry and he asked it of himself often. I’ve never forgotten the question and as I write the final words of this column, I am again asking myself: “Am I in or am I out?” Well, I’m in, how about you!
Rev. Canon Keith Nethery is the rector at St. James’ Westminster, London.