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Too old, too tired and too few: the contemporary Anglican lament

By Rev. Dr. Grayhame Bowcott

What sets numerically growing congregations apart from others that are experiencing exhaustion, discouragement, membership decline and perhaps even the possibility of future closure? This was my starting question when I began my research into membership trends among Anglicans in Huron.

In my fifteen years of ministry in our beloved Church, I have managed to collect a claim to fame that no Anglican would ever wish to boast of: I have been present at the deconsecration of more Anglican churches than any other layperson, priest or bishop in our Diocese (and perhaps even throughout the national Church). Fifty-five deconsecrations, to be precise. The vast majority of these have been in our Diocese.

I was once asked if I “got a kick” out of attending church funerals. This comment was made by someone who had noticed that I seemed to be present wherever the doors of a church were being closed. My response was this: there is nothing that I despise more in my ministry to the Church than witnessing the final chapter of a congregation closing its doors. However, in my past ministry serving as a Domestic Chaplain to our bishops, some of the services that have been most common throughout the Diocese in the last decade have been those of church deconsecrations.

At first I remember being told by senior clergy in the Diocese that there were more churches than had ever been sustainable; that the decades marked by Bishop George Luxton, the “building Bishop,” in the 1950s and 60s were unrealistic in their enthusiasm of maintaining a church in every neighbourhood in Huron.

Some of the first churches to be deconsecrated in our Diocese were buildings within spitting distance of another church building. Amalgamations allowed for two separate congregations who were struggling to afford the upkeep of their buildings to combine in a way that would reposition them for future sustainability and ministry possibilities.

“There is nothing that I despise more in my ministry to the Church than witnessing the final chapter of a congregation closing its doors.”

However, the trend of church amalgamations eventually began to change as a trend of membership decline began to persist across all congregations in our Diocese. In my travels with bishops Bob Bennett and Terry Dance, and then bishops Linda and Todd, I began to see deconsecrations of churches where there were no close neighbouring congregations to amalgamate with.

“Too old, too tired and too few to carry on,” is a common response among the remnant of worshippers. Instead of experiencing ministry as a joy, a calling and an act of giving thanks to God, it has been described as a burden, a responsibility and a detriment to the personal faith of the faithful few who remain to turn the lights off before the final service that closes the doors.

I have come to name this feeling of being “too old, too tired and too few” as the Contemporary Anglican Lament because it is an experience not only indigenous to our Diocese but to Anglican churches across our country. This shared experience is also deeply theological as it demands: where is the future hope for our faith and tradition if these trends continue? Where is God in all of this… closure?

This new monthly column endeavours to wrestle with these questions. Having experienced the Contemporary Anglican Lament in so many ministry settings throughout our Diocese, I have dedicated my personal ministry to seeking out the places where congregations are “bucking the trend”! Join me as I share the results of four years of doctoral research, exploring the stories of some of the most vibrant, growing Anglican churches in the Dioceses of Huron and Toronto and what they have to say about the future direction of our Church. Journey with me in the months ahead as we celebrate the people and places where our particular expression of the Christian faith is alive and well and dare I say… growing!

Rev. Dr. Grayhame Bowcott is passionate about fostering congregational relationships and sharing our Anglican vocation with others. He serves as rector of St. George’s, The Parish of The Blue Mountains.