The Muskoka region in the diocese of Algoma is famous for its idyllic lakes, rocky shorelines, and—in Anglican circles—its rich history of missionary activity by the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE).
But following years of declining membership and ongoing disagreement among its clergy about how best to adjust to shifting patterns of religious affiliation and church attendance, the bishop and the diocesan executive committee have approved a set of recommendations for reorganization that, if adopted, will lead to the shuttering of 16 of the deanery’s 35 churches.
“Particularly in Muskoka…we have too many churches,” former Bishop Stephen Andrews, who left the diocese at the end of July to take up the position of principal of Wycliffe College in Toronto, said in an interview with the Anglican Journal. “Everybody agrees that there have to be fewer churches, but nobody agrees on which churches need to be rationalized—and they are pretty sure that it should be somebody else’s church.” Muskoka, one of Algoma’s five deaneries, has the largest share of church buildings—35 of the diocese’s 100 churches and chapels.
The recommendation, released in June, calls for a sweeping reorganization of the diocese into four regions, each of which will have one or two full-time clergy operating out of a handful of parishes.
Given the high volume of parishioners who summer in Muskoka and live elsewhere the rest of the year, some churches will be evaluated as seasonal ministries.
The proposed reorganization also calls for the creation of a “change team” to guide the deanery through the transition process.
Like other parts of the Anglican Church of Canada, the Muskoka deanery is a mixture of financially and demographically healthy parishes and ones that are struggling. And, like other parts of the Canadian church, as congregations dwindle to the point where they can no longer afford to pay a priest’s stipend, it has become common practice to fold them into larger parishes run by priests covering ever-more ground.
Archdeacon Harry Huskins, currently serving as administrator of the diocese, said that one major challenge of the reorganization was trying to find a way of delivering ministry that would not spread priests so thin as to compromise their ability to do their jobs.
“We are striking a balance between trying to generate that full-time stipend, and not have too many [congregations],” he said, adding that it this is not simply about money, but also about ensuring that priests don’t spend more time driving around their parish than they do serving it.
According to a clergyperson within the deanery, who requested anonymity, the problem is exacerbated by an unwillingness among some parishioners to drive to a different congregation if their church is closed.
“There is a bit of a reluctance on the part of some folks to drive into some of the other communities,” the source said. “It’s interesting, because we might go in for our physician or for our dentist, for entertainment and things of that sort, but not our church.”
Andrews said he did not believe the financial situation in Muskoka to be significantly different from that faced in other parts of the church, and stressed that the reorganization is more about ensuring that full-time ministry be maintained in as many places as possible.
Huskins said the recommendation came after years of disagreement among local clergy over how to move forward, which culminated in 2015 in a formal request for the bishop to weigh in.
“The bishop was requested to come up with something out of the feeling of general frustration that there was nothing to work with—and that was coming both from those who favoured having closures in our reorganization and those who were opposed to it,” Huskins said.
Andrews spent six days visiting the deanery in January, during which time he met with 11 groups comprising 140 people. After his visit, he released a report noting that many members expressed concerns about the future and questioned what the role of the Anglican church in Muskoka really was. Many pointed out, for example, that evangelical churches seem to be doing relatively well, and wondered whether or not traditional elements of Anglican worship, such as the liturgy, weren’t an obstacle to evangelism.
Andrews addressed those fears by saying that they “could indicate that we do not have a clear understanding of, or perhaps commitment to, our mission,” and went on to say that Anglicans should “proclaim the person and work of Jesus Christ, unceasingly and authentically” and acknowledge that, for instance, their mission field “may not involve youth or feature hip music.”
In his report, Andrews also observed that relationships between parishes in Muskoka are not very strong, that many of the parishes are “bedevilled by conflict,” and that when a church closes, its parishioners often stop attending church altogether rather than joining the nearest congregation.
However, he said it was also “clear…that people love their church,” and that even though many Muskoka Anglicans are not sure why their churches are struggling, they remain committed to the faith.
“Many of you are willing to sacrifice what you cherish for a legacy of faith that you could pass on to your grandchildren,” he said in his report.
When the diocesan executive committee met in June, Andrews presented his recommendation for reorganization, which builds on the analysis he offered in his observation report, and it was adopted.
While Andrews said he “really felt guilty” about leaving the diocese shortly after the recommendations were adopted, he said the diocesan leadership team wanted the diocesan executive to be able to get started on the reorganization before electing a new bishop. The diocese is scheduled to elect a new bishop October 14.
“There was…momentum for [reorganization], and so I think, in God’s providence, that’s probably the best way for it to go forward,” said Andrews. “But I do regret not being there, because I love the diocese and I love the people of Muskoka.”
The change team, announced by Andrews in a July 15 pastoral letter, includes three members from the Muskoka deanery (the Rev. Kelly Baetz, Annette Procunier and the Rev. Jim Schell) and two members from elsewhere in the diocese (the Rev. Bob Derrenbacker and the Rev. Joan Locke).
Huskins said the team would hold its first meeting over the course of his August 21-23 visit to the deanery.
“I want to be there at the first meeting, to listen more than anything else,” he said, noting that deanery officials, the regional deanery and two lay stewards from the deanery would be present as well.
In his February report, Andrews had stressed the importance of approaching the closure of congregations sensitively, with attention paid to each church’s unique circumstances.
He noted that in some cases, providing “palliative care” to a dying church until it is forced to close on its own might be best, while in other cases it might be “more humane” to “pre-empt the suffering and administer a lethal dose.”
Andrews said the future of the cemeteries attached to congregations slated for closure will also need to be taken into account. (The deanery currently has 18 cemeteries under its care.)
Huskins said that while the diocesan executive committee has adopted the recommendation calling for the closures, it is not set in stone—the canons (laws) of the diocese require a set process when considering the establishment and dissolution of congregations and parishes.
“[Dissolution of a congregation] requires a broad pattern of consultation, but not consent,” he explained. “What happens is in the hands of the executive committee.”