We can accept that we shall have no ultimate choice but to let go, and in that letting go, give room to what’s there around us – to the sheer impression of the moment, to the need of the person next to you, to the fear that needs to be looked at, acknowledged and calmed (not denied). If that happens, the heart has room for many strangers, near and far.
-Rowan Williams, reflecting on 9-11 in Writing in the Dust
We held two separate Town Hall Meetings in two of our St. Catharines’ Anglican Churches on September 11th. “I’m not sure that it doesn’t feel ominous to hold the meeting on that day,” one of our parish leaders commented to me. Indeed, I began my sermon at St. George’s that morning with these words, “I remember where I was fifteen years ago today.” We all do. All of us over a certain age remember where we were when we heard the news of the attack on New York City, when we saw the images of those planes and the twin towers. It was a full Sunday at St. George’s, quite apart from the Town Hall Meeting. We also had three baptisms taking place, scheduled months before this meeting date was set – one child and a father with his baby daughter. Despite the busyness of the day, though, we felt it important that, after a summer of coffee hour and parking lot discussion about the potential partnership between our parishes, we get the formal conversation underway.
As it turns out, God is good at working with the schedules we think we need. It wasn’t ominous that our Town Hall was on September 11th. It was helpful. It has remained helpful as anxieties have begun to emerge, as I and the other leaders have responded, as I have recognized mistakes that I have already made and have looked for the grace to get back on track… as I have had my breath taken away by the grace that does emerge whether I am looking for it or not. September 11th will always represent the fragility of life, the brokenness of our world, the need to pursue the way of Love with courage and compassion, and our fundamental calling to pray for and work for peace. If we know these things to be true, if we believe that part of how God responds to these truths is through the Church, then we know that the ministry of the church matters and matters very much. We know that any conversation that asks for how we can strengthen our capacity for responding to the work God has us doing is a conversation that we need to pursue with hope, and with an expectation that amazing things will happen.
Our formal conversation started with compassion. I am touched and inspired by this. I have been at St. George’s for only two years and feel, already, a deep love for the place—for how this physical place has been formed by the prayer and service and community of a people. Every voice that has spoken with that same love for St. George’s understands that the love we have for St. George’s is meant to be opened wide to welcome others. Every voice that has recognized how hard it is for the Grace community to be facing the possibility of leaving their beloved building to move elsewhere reminds me of our God-given capacity for putting ourselves in the shoes of another and that, as my wise friend Michael Thompson says, there is a special premium on the gift of kindness. We held our first meeting for the appointed parish representatives from each congregation the night after the Town Hall (the “Dream Team” meeting, as we’re calling it) and a St. George’s rep, Jim, spoke of being in the Grace space and considering how their treasured items of worship could find a home at St. George’s. His words moved several of the Grace members to tears and set a tone of collaboration and friendship for the rest of the meeting.
Kevin Block, our appointed Dream Team Facilitator, had a clear agenda for our discussion, including prayerful reflection on “The Great Commission,” a code of conduct for our meetings, an outline of the overall process and communication plan, and a time for reporting on our respective Town Halls. But he also encouraged us to consider this an opportunity for deep Christian friendship. “You are going to get to know one another. You are going to share things that are very important to you and your faith journeys. You are going to pray together. And at the end of this conversation, you will make a decision. I encourage you to become committed to friendship with one another regardless of the outcome.”
Along with Kevin’s invitation, the other key “take-away” for me from the meeting was a helpful reminder from one of the Grace team members: “we’re not trying to sell this to people.” Right. Not my will, but your will be done. This is a prayer as much as a conversation. I am the Martha who wants to get tasks done and achieve particular outcomes. I want other people to share the same sense of possibility and vision that animates me. But ministry isn’t a sales pitch. There is no idea to sell here. There is a possibility that we have committed to exploring together. There is a question at the heart of that exploration: what is God calling us to do?
The measured and compassionate tone of those first meetings was accompanied later in the week by anxiety. I have been at St. George’s long enough to understand the culture, and yet I continue to get lulled into the complacency of thinking that the vocally supportive voices speak for everyone. In our church, the pushback happens later. If we were on Sesame Street, then by mid-week, we would have Big Bird telling us that “today’s show is brought to you by the letter C.” Capital C for CHANGE. “People get anxious about hearing that we have to change when it’s not clear how we have to change or why,” one trusted leader in the congregation shared with me. I am deeply grateful for the way in which concerns have begun to emerge at St. George’s. They have been voiced with insight and respect. The Dream Team has asked our congregations to be honest, and of course, this honesty is exactly what our process needs.
I have made mistakes along the way. Already. I use the word ‘mistake’ intentionally and with hope, not to beat myself up or suggest that anything bad has happened. I use the word to take responsibility, to note my need to have my voice guided by the other voices that help me see what I have missed. Not surprisingly, I have fallen down on process. I have not been clear that the Dream Team, an appointed body within the church, reports to corporation and council and is not a decision-making body working on its own. I have emphasized the flexibility and responsiveness of our team meetings—we will respond at each meeting to the voices we hear in the congregation and report back. But I haven’t also shared the very clear outline from which we are beginning—the already carefully brainstormed topics and questions we need to address.
I forgot to be clear and pastoral about change. I forgot that at St. George’s, I have been seen as an agent of change, and for some people, that has been hard. Now, here I am, asking the congregation to change more. And yet, change is not what this is about, it is not what I am about, it is not what ministry is about. Change, impermanence, fragility, vulnerability… mortality—whatever word you use, this basic reality of our human existence is exactly the starting point for God’s reaching out to us in self-giving love. It is exactly the reason why God creates us to walk together—in order to get close to God, we have to learn to look after one another.
We aren’t trying to change the church. We are trying to better equip, differently equip, the church for responding to an ever-changing world. I come back to 9-11: we believe God has a stake in responding to the brokenness of humanity and leading us into the path of peace; we believe God asks the church to join in this stake-holding and that the church’s ability to do so matters deeply. We are not talking about two failing churches surviving. St. George’s is a healthy, growing parish. Grace Church offers a tremendous amount of vital community outreach and service. Both have a long history of leadership in our city and in our wider Anglican church. Now, the two churches are responding to a call to consider how each of our gifts may be strengthened by coming together in one building, how God might be able to do more through us because we have chosen partnership. This is an opportunity, not to put everything that we love about each church on the table for negotiation, but to be clear and passionate about those particular gifts God has given to St. George’s and to Grace, about how those gifts might be multiplied for coming together.
Our next Dream Team meeting is scheduled for October 3rd. Our first meeting felt rushed, as though there was too much to discuss in the time allotted. This next meeting will start earlier, and we’ll order in pizza to help nourish the conversation. In the meantime, we have ongoing work:0
- The overwhelming request which came out of St. George’s Town Hall Meeting was to hold a joint parish meeting with Grace, perhaps in their building, which would allow us to break into smaller groups and get to know one another and what gifts we see our communities bringing. While the Grace team felt that this would be too much too soon, we are very much aware that relationship-building will be crucial in allowing a partnership to potentially develop, and to do so in a healthy way. Invitations, therefore, are floating their way across our parish groups to join in one another’s activities. A significant group from Grace participated in the planning and leadership of our annual Neighbourhood BBQ, and we all agreed that the BBQ was infinitely more fun and successful because of that contribution. A 4pm Evensong service is scheduled at the end of October at St. George’s, and we have asked our joint facilitator, Kevin to be our preacher. We hope that this service, followed by a reception afterward, will give both of our congregations a chance to meet Kevin, as well as chance for relaxed fellowship with one another.
- Michael and I have also been given a piece of homework. Because our conversation comes out of prayer, it needs to be supported by prayer. We will each be asking our respective parish prayer groups to commit to holding our meetings in prayer as they take place.
- At our next meeting we will look at current challenges faced by each parish (apart from the question of merger), possible “deal-breakers,” and crucial questions that would need to be answered if the parishes were to merge.
You know that saying about, “the best-laid plans?” Sometimes despite our best-laid plans, things go off track anyway. But in the economy of God’s grace, sometimes despite our best-laid plans, God’s grace emerges doing more than we could ask or imagine. As I have been delving into processes, addressing concerns, recognizing my own shortcomings and missteps, and trying to communicate as best as I possibly can, the gift of Christian friendship has been blossoming. After our Neighbourhood BBQ this past Saturday, an email was sent out from Mary-Jo, one of Grace Anglican’s leaders. She talked about the experience of working with St. George’s on this piece of ministry. And in taking the time to express that experience, she reminded us all of why God might be leading us down this path, what lovely, strong, life-giving ministry God might have in store for us in coming together, and why this matters. I will let her words of hope and gratitude finish this blog instalment:
Back in June I never would have thought that attending that BBQ meeting would have such a big impact. I have developed so many new friendships with the people I have worked with. I have been so welcomed into this new family. I know that the others that helped out from Grace also felt very accepted and we are all very much looking forward to the next event when we will be able to work together. I’m sure some of us will still be in contact even without an event to plan.
I know in the months to come as we investigate a merger, many will be faced with the similar nervous anxiety and fear of the unknown that I faced back in June. While it is a step into the unknown, it is not scary for long. When you find such warm and welcoming people to help you investigate, the journey becomes easier. Thank you for this amazing journey, I look forward to what is yet to come.