At the beginning of July, an announcement was made in two of our St. Catharines Anglican churches. St. George’s and Grace Anglican Churches will be entering a time of intentional exploration through this fall and winter as we look at the possibility of joining our congregations together in a new expression of ministry. Very little about this partnership has been fleshed out. We are opting instead to consider all of the potential questions of structure and logistics together, though we do know that a partnership would see the Grace community leave their building to join at the St. George’s location. We know that their physical property would be in some way re-purposed. Whatever the eventual outcome, at the start we know that there would be a painful goodbye, a move, and a need for one community to make space and welcome for another.
There is much to say about why we are entering into these talks and what we hope might emerge if a partnership goes forward. Because there are churches all across the continent going through similar sorts of changes, amalgamations and upheavals—and plenty more that will in the future, and because we see this possibility as so potentially life-giving for the church, my intention is to offer an ongoing series of blogs reflecting on our journey.
But before the nitty gritty of Town Hall Meetings, committees formed, and a facilitator beginning to lead us through a process, I want to start my reflections merely by talking about friendship. I want to talk about friendship, and more particularly I want to talk about Christian friendship.
Because of a variety of factors, including my “line of work,” I have been the new girl in town a number of times. In each new place, I have come to place tremendous value on the individuals that I meet who make room in their lives for a new friend. This is a rarer quality than I initially realized. I meet a lot of nice people. We have pleasant conversations. I remember, for example, a long conversation in the driveway of my daycare provider in Orillia with a fellow Mom—we discovered we had gone to the same university, in the same program, at the same time, we had many acquaintances in common—and being new to Orillia, my heart soared after that conversation. It was a similar feeling to the wild hope I occasionally felt when I used to be out in the dating world: this is going someplace. The fact that this particular relationship didn’t go anyplace confused me at the time. But I’ve become familiar enough with the dynamic since. I see it in every new community I move into. People come to feel that their friendship circle is complete. There just isn’t room for someone new.
I get it. I get how we become busy, distracted, comfortable, complacent. I get fear, too. I understand how the unfamiliar, the unknown, can sound those little instinctual alarm bells. In each new place into which I have gone, I have felt a natural reticence in encountering the new world before me, in the risk of trying to meet and befriend new people. It is easy to get lost in our own insecurities. It can be hard to reach out beyond the comfort of the familiar.
Which brings me back to that tremendous sense of value I have now come to place on the remarkable few that I have met along the way who have made space for me in their lives, who have offered friendship when I needed it the most. Many of you reading this will have had a similar experience of being new someplace and the sadness of saying goodbye and moving on. You may be calling to mind those remarkable people who made a difference in your life, gave you that soft place to land. It is an awesome thing to be welcomed into another person’s heart.
Here is the flip side of the coin, however. It is not just important to be welcomed. It is also of critical importance to learn to be welcoming. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave a lecture a number of years ago on our societal approach to educating and forming our children into adults. He began by inviting people to consider the qualities that are needed in a mature human adult. Among other qualities, he suggested this:
A human adult is someone who believes that change is possible in their own lives and the lives of those around them. An adult is someone sensitive to the cost of the choices they make, for themselves and for the people around them. An adult is someone who is not afraid of difference, who is not threatened by difference.
It is, in fact, essential to our spiritual, emotional and mental maturity to be able to stretch outside of our individual spheres of busyness, distraction, comfort, complacency and fear in order to make our hearts receptive to the stranger, to be willing to have our lives stretched and changed by the new thing, idea, situation, person, we might encounter.
This goes beyond just the beauty and the challenge of our individual interactions with one another. There are global implications to these marks of human maturity. We have only to make a sweeping pass of national and international issues in our world today, and across the span of history, to note the harm and hurt that is caused when not just individuals, but whole groups, whole countries, become closed off to the other, when it is built into politics and policy to direct care and concern and welcome only to those who already belong, only to those who are considered part of the right group, when those various factors that lead us to be closed off actually turn into a stance of hostility toward those who are perceived as outsiders.
We are called to a very high standard of friendship as Christians. It is our responsibility to bear witness to a way other than the one that promotes distrust and hostility between people. It is our responsibility to move outside of our comfort zones because the Christian community that many of us enjoy today is the result of two courageous human movements: the movement that sees people go out as strangers for the sake of sharing Jesus’ love and power with those who haven’t yet heard of it; the movement that sees these people being welcomed in by those they meet along the way. As Jesus’ fame and power began to spread, he was drawn toward the power centre of his day, Jerusalem, and he made his long and winding way there. Along the journey, he taught and equipped his disciples, his students, to be able to do the work of God’s kingdom too. Their group faced a great deal of opposition and rejection along the way. And at times, and sometimes in the most surprising of places, they met the welcome and openness of the stranger. Miracles, healing, forgiveness, friendship and possibility flourished in these rare instances. Everyone discovered that there was enough food and provision and love and blessing to go around.
The road to Jerusalem is also our road today. The road to Jerusalem is, in fact, the same road that the people of God always walk in the long and faithful history of Jesus’ people, a history which formed him into the Saviour he would become for us all. We have to be prepared to get a move on. We have to be willing to welcome the new voice who comes into our lives. We have to be attentive to the Stranger along the road, because in the Stranger, in the welcome, in the journey, we meet God.
We have had one official meeting so far between our two churches. It took place between a small group of leaders from St. George’s and from Grace in the basement of Grace church just before we shared the announcement with the congregations. We have had the summer for the news to be shared, for ideas to be generated and questions to be asked through the informal channels of Sunday morning Coffee Hour (or Lemonade Hour through these warmer months), the phone calls and conversations that inevitably take place between parishioners. All of this informal conversation provides a foundation for the more formal Town Hall Meetings which will take place in each of our communities on September 11th. These meetings will launch us into the clear, transparent and responsive process we are committed to offering as we discern God’s will for our communities.
But in that first meeting, I saw a touchstone for what I suspect, what I hope, will actually make it possible for us to move forward in the hope and promise of God’s abundant life. The St. George’s group was welcomed by the Grace group, and a lavish spread of delicious food and hot beverages were put out as a visible sign of that welcome. The meeting was led by Michael, the Rector of Grace, and by me, the Rector of St. George’s. We agreed that it was a far better meeting for both of our voices contributing than it would have been if it had just been one of us. And when inevitably there were tears shed—the tears of faithful and courageous people who are being called to the excitement of something new and in that new thing are being asked to say a painful goodbye—we all felt that those tears were holy: signs that we had already begun to open our hearts to one another, that we were meeting each other with honesty and with compassion, that we were making room to receive and welcome and care for the other.
Our two churches ask for your prayers as we anticipate our September 11th Town Hall Meetings. By God’s grace, we will have a story to share with you as this journey unfolds—a story of courage and blessing, of newness and welcome, and most importantly of Christian friendship made visible in our midst.