I had started to hear some of these stories previously from friends at Grace Anglican Church, from the leadership who have been part of various meetings around St. Catharines and most particularly from the Grace Church Dream Team members as we have been discussing potential partnership between Grace and the church where I serve, St. George’s. I have been touched and compelled by these stories – of family members coming to faith in Grace, of multiple generations of families growing up and serving in this community, of those deep and pivotal memories associated with the sacraments of the church, the sacraments ushering us from one part of life into another one, baptisms, weddings, funerals, of the meaningful and sacred and sometimes just fun traditions that spring up and are particular to a people who have lived together as family for a long time.
There was something different, however, about hearing these stories in the church sanctuary in the context of having just preached and presided at their Sunday services. Michael Mondloch, Grace’s Rector, and I had planned a pulpit switch for Thanksgiving Sunday so that we could meet one another’s congregations in the place that most consistently forms them as who they are: the celebration of the Christian Sabbath.
I got to hear the stories, and I got to see the stuff – the altar hangings and linens, the beautiful hand-made banners, the stained glass. “I just can’t imagine leaving it all behind,” more than a few people commented to me. Our Dream Team conversations had likewise spoken of these physical pieces of Grace’s identity as part of the package. If the people of Grace are going to come over, then some of their things need to come as well.
We use the word ‘materialistic’ as synonymous with ‘superficial’ or sometimes even ‘selfish.’ But of course, the more human truth is that we are deeply materialistic and that this is part of who we are spiritually. It isn’t “just stuff” that we are talking about. Our memories and prayers and hopes and loves soak into the physical fabric of the world around us. Our Christian tradition is sacramental, which means that ordinary items like bread and wine and candles and water and linens and church buildings and stained glass become outward signs of the gifts and graces, the blessing and growing, that is taking place in us and all around us. One of Jesus’ great gifts as a teacher was his ability to lift up physical things from every day life and to awaken people to see in these every day items the very presence and activity of God.
It wasn’t just the stuff that we were talking about at our last Dream Team meeting. We took an intentional nose dive into the most contentious and emotionally fraught questions before both congregations. After an energized visioning together about the best possible outcomes of a merger, each team was then asked to name the “Deal Breakers” in our respective congregations, the things that each congregation would not want to give up in order to be able to merge. Both congregations are Christian and Christian in the Anglican tradition, so the most basic tenets of faith and faith practice didn’t need to be negotiated. The two congregations are outward looking, with a deep passion for work and care with the vulnerable in our society, and a commitment to being multi-generational, particularly to addressing the ministry needs of younger people (an area which has, at times, been overlooked in our Anglican churches in St. Catharines). These priorities were, to a large extent, what had brought us into these talks in the first place. The Deal Breakers that got named then tended to be of this more sacramental nature, the things that have come to represent the memories and prayers and the encountering of God in our human lives – for St. George’s, things like the name of the church and the pipe organ; for Grace, a need to bring some of their sacred things for use at St. George’s. Both congregations recognized that a staffing plan would be key in identifying the roles of a new staff team, imagining the possibilities of ministry that could open because of that expanded team, and creating a reasonable financial plan to make that team sustainable.
There was a rippling of electricity toward the end of the meeting, that little current of energy which deepens the level of engagement and attentiveness, that spiritual signal that something true is about to be named. “What are we actually talking about?” Kevin, our facilitator, asked us. I described to the group the various living arrangements that we could consider. We could simply opt to be room-mates, to come together under one roof, to share in various burdens and opportunities and to remain separate entities. We could also talk about the two becoming one. Although the language is not perfect, the metaphor we have used occasionally is marriage, two partners becoming a new family through a mutual choice. And if it is that kind of union that we are discussing then there are different possibilities open to us in how we might come together. Will we live together for a time before making it formal? For how long? And given that we are Anglican, what are the legal and canonical implications of this? We want to merge into something new in our Anglican system, but without disestablishing our existing parishes – St. George’s with a 225 year history in the city, and Grace with almost a hundred years. How do we do something new and creative within a legal church framework that wasn’t developed to imagine these sorts of possibilities? These were questions that never fully got answered in my previous church of St. David’s Anglican~Lutheran. We were the first such merger entity in the Diocese of Toronto, and we quite intentionally chose to focus our energy on developing ministry, on exploring what would be possible in terms of God’s mission because of our partnership. The upside of this focus was an explosion of growth and new ministry, and the downside was that, to my knowledge, this church still functions as a fully merged Anglican~Lutheran entity, but this reality does not exist anywhere on paper.
It was as I was laying out the possibilities to the group that I felt that ripple, a sense of almost puzzled astonishment in the group. One by one around the table, the consensus was named: we are talking about merger, partnership, two formerly separate congregations becoming one in ministry, worship and governance. This is what God is calling us to consider and there was that discernable lift in energy in naming it. With that in mind, the task of the Dream Team then becomes one of research and recommendation. What legal framework is available to us for this project? And what would be an appropriate plan to propose in terms of moving toward such a partnership?
I felt the energy at the end of that meeting, and at other times, I have felt the weight of responsibility and the vast unknown which accompanies this possibility before us. I felt that weight this past Sunday at Grace. I was welcomed warmly. I met incredible people, people with whom I would very much look forward to sharing in ministry. But I also encountered a vital, vibrant community which is entirely settled into its space, its traditions, its own unique character. It is shaped by the stories and the memories unique to it, and in many respects, embodied in the physical fabric of its location and sacred space. It is an enormous task to imagine uprooting this community and to not just bring two complementary ministries together to make both stronger and more vital, but to actually try and fit together two unique characters and histories. There are those people at Grace who have been invested in this imagining for the past number of months, whose palpable excitement (even though mixed with grief) in coming together is infectious and inspiring. And there are those who feel all of the emotions that became much more real to me for having been with them this past Sunday: regret and disappointment, and maybe more than anything, fear – fear that the community simply can’t continue without the place, the sacred place.
I’m not good at the “there, there” response to grief and so I was able to do nothing other than listen quietly to the stories that were shared with me after the worship services. It was another woman, June, from the Grace community who responded. “It’s going to be okay,” June said with such conviction that we all looked up, surprised. “I know it’s going to be okay,” she continued, and the second time she said it she sounded even more sure, and sure in a way very different from the soothing pat answers we do sometimes try to offer when we are ready to move on to another topic other than sadness. “My husband died of alzheimers. It was extraordinarily difficult caring for him and watching him disappear like that. So I took to asking God for everything. Every moment, every decision, everything that I needed, I asked God. It was okay. I was okay. And we’re going to be okay too.”
It is, of course, the other piece of the puzzle, the piece that accompanies our materialism. As our physical stuff gets infused with our spiritual journeys, so our physical stuff also passes away – sometimes so slowly that we can barely perceive it, and sometimes right before our eyes. Every sacred space – whether it is the temple of our church buildings or the temple of our bodies – is ultimately impermanent. We have it for a time, and ideally it becomes invested with our love, a reminder of God’s love. And then we all go down to the dust.
I am the priest, but this past Sunday, June was my/our most important spiritual teacher. She was right on every count. The question isn’t what we want, but what God wants, and we need to ask. We love, honour and give thanks for the gift of church buildings, stained glass, and the gathered community. We give thanks for our life and the time that we have. It is not “just stuff,” and the things and places around us do shape us. And when it begins to slip through our grasp, as it always finally will, we find ourselves in God’s hands. We find we have been there all along.