After months of partnership talks between our Anglican parishes of St. George’s and Grace, after presentations, deliberations, sub-group meetings, financial plans, plenty of dreaming, visioning, hoping and wondering, and now with having chosen a timeline for our two parishes to make a decision on this proposal, I have settled on one truth that I know that I need to articulate in order to go forward with this project.
I need to be able to say why I am an Anglican.
I was part of making a presentation to Synod Council this month on a related matter: the request for money from the sale of properties in St. Catharines to be made available for necessary investments in ministry in our city. As I was preparing for the presentation, it was a verse from the Book of Esther that kept haunting me:
Perhaps God has placed you here for just such a time as this.
Esther’s guardian, Mordecai, is speaking to her. She holds a privileged and yet precarious position within the castle walls, and he is asking her to use her position, essentially to risk her very life, in order to speak up for her people and save them from a genocidal plan. Of course, in practising our faith here today, we live in one of the safest times and places in history. And yet, what would it mean to say that the also precarious and privileged place of our church today was needed by God for work that no other version of church could do? How might God’s need impact the message we communicate, the structures that we choose, the investments we make for our church? I thought about my own experience of the Anglican church, because my ability to offer leadership in the church through these changing times hinges on knowing what it is God has given us to offer, and hinges as well on my having a personal relationship to that offering. This is what I know: I would not be a follower of Jesus if it weren’t for the Anglican church.
It’s not that my love of Jesus doesn’t come first, because it does. I fell hard for Jesus when I was fifteen and he leaped off the pages of Scripture to open a new world to me—this fearless rebel, so full of the presence of God that he had to reach out a hand to touch all that was dead and ugly and bring it back to life and love. There are a lot of religious ways in which we can take seriously Jesus’ command, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” But the basic definition of a church must include nothing other than a commitment to living out our relationship with God through community and acts of service for the sake of others. I have enormous respect then for the many and varied ways in which faith communities live this definition out with courage and great generosity and sacrificial love.
But I wouldn’t know how to put Jesus’ command of love into practice apart from the particular charisms of the Anglican church.
Jesus’ radical call to his disciples involves a willingness to put something other than bloodlines as the highest bond of relationship and to give up everything in order to follow, to sell all that we have for the sake of the kingdom. Jesus speaks with the individuals he meets along the way, he looks into their very souls and places a unique calling on each of them, commissioning and then trusting them to particular kinds of ministries in a whole host of different contexts. To make sense of the freedom and responsibility of the Body of Christ as set up by Jesus, I need to be part of a church structure that claims a much bigger expression of community than just a local congregation and that sees the local congregation as accountable to the bonds of Communion, across our diverse cultural expressions and linked down through the generations by a sense of common faith making us into the Body of Christ. And at the same time, that structure needs to be flexible and nimble enough to trust local discernment, to allow difference and variety as part and parcel of our unity, that respects the working of the Spirit in and through us, opening our eyes to a living faith and to an unfolding rather than complete understanding of who God is and what God asks of us.
I wouldn’t know how to follow this witty, funny, powerful and surprising Lord without space for both miracles and questions in my church. I need to see the way in which God is present and powerful, to have my breath taken away by the amazing things God is up to. Thank God for my brothers and sisters in faith: through their strength, courage, and generous love; through the stories that they are willing to share of encounter and prayers answered and inexplicable coincidence and possibility, my eyes and heart are constantly opened to see and love the God who really does do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine. But I also need the honesty of Anglicanism, where individuals can voice doubts and questions, can flat out say that they do not believe in one particular tenet of faith, and yet can still very much belong. Their expressions of faith and generosity and love can still be offered. I need to know that there is room for my own very imperfect confession of faith and that, when my faith wavers, I can be carried, rather than judged, by my community.
I need poetry. I simply wouldn’t understand my relationship to Jesus—the one who is named as bread, wine, water, light, the true vine, the Messiah, and the Son of God—without the common prayer of the church: common prayer that takes care with the mysterious craft of language in order to lift up the beauty of what we believe. I need poetry in action, which is the sacramental life of the church. I need to know that as I eat bread, light candles, exchange the peace, kneel at the altar, stand in prayer, and lift up brimming cups of wine as an expression of faith that God’s Holy Spirit will show up, that these small acts give visibility to something of the weird and wonderful things that God is doing in our lives, visibility to the promises from God on which our faith hinges.
What I personally need in my walk with Jesus would seem to have very little to do with church merger conversations. Yet I am going to say that unless such a conversation is not ultimately about being better able to share the love and Good News of Jesus, then I’m simply not interested. I do have great care and compassion for the sadness of closing a church building, and many of our blog posts about this merger so far have touched on the reality of grief, still rife in our communities right now, particularly as we get closer to a vote. But we can walk alongside people in their grief, and we can trust in the God of Resurrection to ultimately lead us through the valley of the shadow of death.
Rather, I believe this merger conversation can pave a way forward for our Anglican church that does something other than downsizing, something other than merely closing churches, and which allows us to put ourselves in the service of growth—expanded expressions of service and care to the world’s vulnerable and especially an expanded reach to those who are searching. Those who, like me, would not know how to join their lives to Jesus apart from the Anglican church. Those who, like me, desperately need to bring their worries and cares, their failures and inadequacies, their anxious attempts to measure up and to find meaning and to have their lives refreshed by God’s holy purpose set upon them and their eyes opened with awe and wonder to the daily miracles all around us… and who need our church in order to do so.
Perhaps God has placed you here for just such a time as this. Although I am very fortunate to have been part of church communities that have been blessed with modest growth, all across our Communion we look at shifting demographics and shrinking prospects and there are some who are resignedly imagining that Christ has used the Anglican church for a time and now that time is coming to an end (and please just let there be an Anglican church around long enough to see me safely buried in the ground before it closes). I arrive at quite another conclusion: God needs us more than ever. And God can use even the pain and turmoil of closing buildings and bringing previously separate congregations under one roof to offer healing and love to a world full of hurt and people who might not even know that what they are seeking is exactly the imperfect expression of faith that we have to offer.
Please pray for the Anglican church in St. Catharines. Among other upheavals and transitions for Anglicans across the churches in our city, Grace and St. George’s will vote on our partnership in January and early February. Although we do not know that it will be affirmative, we do know that the friendship that has begun between us is already leading to fruitfulness. Grace Church is walking through the Christmas season with the clear sense that this is the last one in this place and in this way. Both of our churches are reacting to the perception of a great looming unknown before them and our Dream Teams find it hard to keep up with counteracting that fear. In fact, the truth is that churches change as they respond to the gifts they have been given and the needs they see around them, and this partnership is ultimately about continuing, not changing, the good work God is already doing in us.
In all of this, there is something that God is asking of us, and somehow we must be asked to vote, not on what we want, but on what God needs of us: we have a church, in fact we are a church that needs not to be clung to, but shared more widely.