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Construction begins. The seating has been removed and most of it sold off, exposing the corridors and windows and allowing natural light to fill the empty space. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Construction begins. The seating has been removed and most of it sold off, exposing the corridors and windows and allowing natural light to fill the empty space. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Reginald Stackhouse

Fitting worship to the worshippers' lifestyle Add to ...

Maple Leaf Gardens is filled with an SRO audience - but not for a hockey game. Toronto's legendary sports palace is jammed for an Anglican church service.

A long, long procession of bishops and clergy makes its stately way across the rink - with the ice safely removed - to take their place of honour in front of a massed choir numbering over 500 voices. It is religion on the grand scale.

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"This is magnificent," an American visitor whispers to his Toronto host. Then adds, "Of course, this is an Anglican town."

Was he hallucinating? No. In 1963, it was. Then there were enough Anglicans in Toronto to host the largest world conference that denomination ever held - with delegates from five continents.

Why in 2010 is all that unthinkable? Instead of sponsoring that kind of mega-event, why do Anglican leaders in Toronto have to cope with a report recommending the closing of 15 once thriving parish churches.

What has happened in the past 50 years to produce this decline? Are Anglicans finding "godlessness" a better option? Have they lost all confidence in their bishops and clergy? Are they flocking to other religions?

None of the above.

The explanation is more sociological than theological.

Although its members have seldom realized it, their church has always been a dominantly ethnic communion. Most of its members have either come directly as British immigrants or have descended from British ancestors. That was good when British immigration flourished, but once the ships and planes stopped bringing newcomers with at least a nominal Anglican connection, this rich source of growth dried up.

True, some new Anglican churches have been formed in Toronto by new Canadians who have come from other parts of the world where Anglican missions penetrated decades ago. But those gains do not match the losses.

And that is not the whole story.

"The Pill" has been another factor because Anglican churches relied on young parents bringing their children to church for Christian education. This provided growth while the baby boom was on, but it became almost a non-starter once the Canadian birth rate went into decline.

To make it worse, a combination of secularism and multiculturalism meant the loss of Sunday mornings as a church monopoly. People did not become anti-church. They just became diverted by all the other opportunities for sport and fun.

As well, the changing role of women means mothers now have less free time for services on Sunday or church meetings mid-week.

That the problem is dominantly sociological is clear if we drive out to the 905 area that forms a semi-circle around Toronto. Many neighbourhoods there are still dominantly WASP and family oriented. The traditional parish church program still fits the lifestyle of enough people in the 905 that many Anglican churches there "never had it so good."

And it is just as true if we drive further north and discover that what were once quiet, rural houses of worship now have more people and programs than they ever dreamed possible. Why? What were once villages are now bustling commuter towns.

In both cases, it's because the sociology still fits the life and ministry of parish churches. So does that mean there is hope for Anglicanism only outside the big city?

Part of its almost unbelievable capacity for both survival and growth has been Christianity's readiness to adapt itself to whatever culture it finds itself in. In the mid-19th century, for example, an unprecedented popularity was gained for Sunday evening services.

One reason was the invention of artificial lighting, the other the appeal of Sunday evening to industrial workers, domestics and shopkeepers who could sleep in and still worship in the evening.

Those great Sunday evening services continued into the early 20th century only to hit a brick wall when radio programs in the 1920s and 1930s gave people something else to enjoy. What technology had made possible, it now made outmoded.

Adaptation is not easy, but history shows it is not impossible. It may mean closing down redundant parish churches just as Toronto has seen the closing of so many facilities that once thrived and are now unused - such as neighbourhood cinemas, corner grocery stores and community banks.

People still watch movies, still buy groceries, still have bank accounts. It is the venues that have changed, and closing redundant churches need not mean the end of Anglicanism.

Anglicans who adapt sociologically can think of recovery.

In the Church of England, such adaptive efforts are called Fresh Expressions - fresh because they are very contemporary, expressions because they convey the gospel message. Can they work in Toronto and other Canadian cities?

Canon Al Budzin, rector of St. Philip's Church, Etobicoke, is already demonstrating it. His historic parish is now into the second year of what it calls "Messy Church" - when up to 45 adults and children meet on a Saturday afternoon for an informal mix of worship and fun.

Big Al, as some of his parishioners call him, also has a new venture called "Pints of View," held once a month - but not in his Gothic church. Instead it will be at his neighbourhood Army and Navy Club.

And this approach works in the centre of the city just as well. At St. Paul's Bloor Street - Canada's largest parish church - two clergy, the Rev. Jenny Andison and the Rev. Tim Haughton, lead the Bridge Community which meets Sunday mornings at 9:15 for worship that suits today's casual culture.

And suits that culture so well that a recent Sunday saw 270 crowd the parish hall - 60 of them children.

Where does that leave people who prefer what the rector, Canon Barry Parker, calls classic Anglican worship? They get it magnificently at the 11 o'clock service in the massive church. That's adaptation - fitting worship to the worshipers' lifestyle. Sound far out? Church history is filled with adaptations just like that. A church that believes in the resurrection need never doubt it has a future.

Reginald Stackhouse is Principal Emeritus and research professor at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.

 

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