Something special has been happening every year in Sherwood Park, Alta., for the past 25 years.
It began in 1989 when Fr. Thomas Ryan, a Paulist Roman Catholic priest who was then director of the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism in Montreal, who conceived of putting an ecumenical spin on the idea of preaching missions that typically took place at one church over several days. He invited the Rev. Canon William Derby, then an Anglican associate priest working at Christ Church Cathedral as well as being the ecumenical officer for the diocese of Montreal, to be his preaching partner. Together, they preached the word that they were looking for communities where several churches could co-sponsor a five-day ecumenical mission.
First to respond was a group of four churches—Anglican, United Church, Lutheran and Roman Catholic—in Sherwood Park. Ryan and Derby preached every evening at a service in one of the churches. Additional daytime events were offered. It was intended as “an opportunity for people to get into each other’s rooms in the Christian household and develop a little family feeling,” Ryan explained, noting that there was always time for fellowship after each service.
Missions were held in nine communities across Canada, including Calgary, Mount Royal (Que.) and Pinawa (Man.). Derby’s ministry then took him to Mexico, while Ryan returned to Montreal to direct Unitas, an ecumenical centre for spirituality that was co-sponsored by eight denominations.
Meanwhile, clergy and lay leaders in Sherwood Park continued to create annual ecumenical missions, featuring speakers from a different denomination each year, and this year in mid-Oct., they celebrated the 25th anniversary of that first ecumenical mission. “We were very surprised when we were invited back for the 10th, and we were absolutely flabbergasted to know that they were going to invite us back for the 25th,” said Derby. He added that it was nice to see some of the “ecumenical warriors” from the first mission still involved alongside younger participants.
The Rev. William Derby and Father Thomas Ryan. Photo: Courtesy of Ecumenical Mission of Strathcona County
“I’ve been preaching these missions over that span of time with different preaching partners over the years, and there’s been no place where the seeds that were sown took such deep root and have grown up and borne so much fruit as in Sherwood Park, Alberta,” said Ryan, who now directs a Paulist North American office for ecumenical and interfaith relations in Washington, D.C. He noted that the original four co-sponsoring congregations in Sherwood Park have grown to 10.
Some of the other original missions bore other kinds of fruit, he said. In Montreal, the churches started a jointly sponsored soup kitchen in the early 1990s. In Manitoba, the churches decided to create an ecumenical resource library, pooling their books, DVDs and CDs for Christian education.
Bill Calder, a lay representative for the United Church and one of two co-chairs who planned the 25th anniversary mission, told the Anglican Journal one of the main reasons the mission has continued all these years is that participants find it a “tremendously and enriching experience.”
Each year, the leader is chosen from a different denomination, although this year, they went back to the original two, Ryan and Derby. Calder says he has been involved for 12 years, and from the start it has been “a high point in the church year” for him. “You learn a great deal,” he said, not only from the speakers but also about the other churches as you worship with the liturgy and in the style of whichever is hosting a particular event. “A journey essentially that you travel on annually with other Christians, not just from your own church in the area, is inspiring,” he said.
Calder said the mission is also strengthened by “the trust and friendship that grows up among those who are actively involved,” particularly among those on the organizing committee. “We have excellent people from the churches and you get to know them, and we are all committed to this ideal; it’s a pleasure to work with them. It’s not onerous because we are always trying to improve the event, but still, we also have it down to a bit of a fine art.”
For the anniversary event in October, Calder said, 270 people attended the opening service, and 220 were at the closing. Services on the other evenings at the various churches had as many as 166 people attending. An ecumenical choir with 68 people sang an anthem, “Christ is our Vision,” composed by Bob de Frece especially for the event, at both the opening and closing services.
Derby and Ryan challenged the Sherwood Park congregations to not only maintain and build on the mission but also to work together in the community. Calder noted that in 2014 an ecumenical group organized educational sessions about the Indian residential schools and then 40 people travelled to Edmonton together to attend the last national hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Ryan told the Journal that he thinks this grassroots ecumenism has such life because it is about people coming together, more than a reconciling of theology. “It is communities of belief, not just systems of belief, and this is a task that theologians alone cannot accomplish,” he said. “It is love, even more than truth, which sets us free and enables us to overcome our estrangements. Thus people need opportunities where they can come together.”