In a busy October, bursting with reasons to give thanks: the spirit of togetherness surrounding our Toronto Blue Jays, the sense of monumental change with the election of a Liberal Federal Government and the stirrings of movement within the Worldwide Anglican Communion, I have found myself giving thanks for a particular ministry that certainly won’t make big headlines around the world, across our country, or perhaps even in my own diocese. This October I am giving thanks to God for the tiny congregation of St. Anne’s Mission in Port Franks.
This Thanksgiving marked the fourth year that St. Anne’s Mission has been reopened for ministry. Reopened, in a historically earth shattering event that most people in the Anglican Church of Canada were probably unaware of. If you’re thinking: what makes the congregation of St. Anne’s so special? (as I know you probably are,) the answer is this: they are the first church that has come back from being closed, disbanded, disestablished and deconsecrated. To my knowledge, and to the collective wisdom of my colleagues in ministry, this has never happened before in the ACoC.
Simply put, churches don’t come back from the dead. Decline is the norm. Resources are almost always dwindling. At the end of the day, another set of doors will likely be closed for mission and ministry. Forever. But does that always have to be the case?
Four years ago, I met with an angry remnant of Anglicans from the village of Port Franks, Ontario. There were six of them. Six voices who wished to express their despair that after generations of ministry, the Diocese of Huron had made the difficult decision of closing the doors of The Church of St. Anne. For good. With a building that was unfit for worship, a congregation that had been buried with thousands of dollars of debt, and a rural community that was devastated by the effects of depopulation, there seemed to be no other choice.
Despite these hard truths, I found myself sitting down with six individuals who were passionate about their faith, and open to starting all over again, if only I could answer their question: is it even possible for a deconsecrated church to have a second chance? At the time I didn’t have an answer for them, for there had never been a precedent. But I made a promise to them that together, we would find out!
Since that time, St. Anne’s Mission has become a place of spiritual renewal and, dare I say, congregational resurrection. After receiving the blessing of our diocese to launch a missional pilot project, a movement that began with six members in the summer of 2011 and has since grown to include dozens of regular and summer parishioners. With the help of the wider community, the church facilities, which were unfit for ministry, have been completely renovated and reopened for community use. Where once, worship services had been hit or miss depending on the availability of summer interns, now St. Anne’s Mission is part of a Regional Ministry (a grouping of three congregations) that allows for its doors to be open each Sunday. The entrepreneurial nature of the congregation that has developed in Port Franks has almost become a running joke in our diocese as they cause us to keep asking the question: what are they up to now?
Reflecting on how far they have come, I remember asking the advice of one of my senior colleagues in ministry whether or not there would be any merit in trying to reopen a closed church. His response five years ago was: “Why would you waste your time? What’s done is done.”
Five years later, I am glad that I did bother, and that six angry Christians were willing to give resurrection a chance with me. I am also thankful that the leadership in my diocese was open to the possibility that God’s work was still ongoing in the village of Port Franks, even when the original Church of St. Anne was no longer sustainable as a ministry. This October I give thanks for the people of St. Anne’s, who took a second chance and worked remarkable ministry with the opportunity that they had been given. While they may not have made national headlines by their achievement of restoring ministry to a small community, they have set a new precedent across our country. St. Anne’s has taught us that wherever people are open to new ideas and flexible in their faith, there God’s work can achieve remarks things!
In my upcoming blogs, I look forward to sharing the principles of St. Anne’s Resurrection and hope to encourage other communities who may be discerning a call to missional ministry even in the midst of decline and disestablishment. The truth that I have experienced in my own ministry is that sometimes a Church needs to die in order to rise again in the Spirit.