Soft morning light streams into the second-floor windows of the Blue Sage Bed and Breakfast in Ashcroft, B.C.
Sitting around a table laden with fruit, biscuits, jam and fresh coffee, Karyn Bryson, Lois Hill, Sylvia Strathearn, David Durksen and Martina Duncan discuss the collaborative approach to ministry they have been pioneering over the past few years at St. Alban’s Anglican Church, a stone’s throw to the south.
“Do you remember the days when we used to suffer through sermons?” Bryson asks, to general laughter.
“And you’d walk out after and wonder what was the subject of the sermon? I don’t remember anything…” adds Hill. “It’s not like that anymore.”
Why not? In another setting, one might assume it had something to do with flashier tech, louder music, perhaps a big-name, blue-jeans-wearing preacher video streamed in from a Toronto mega church. But this seems unlikely in Ashcroft, where the churches are small and the faded heritage of the old west is everywhere.
No, Bryson and Hill are talking about something both more prosaic and more profound: a return to a practice of church that is rooted in a rich theological understanding of what the church is for.
“In the first-century church, everybody that did ministry was recognized by the congregation,” Durksen explains. “So if you wanted prayers for healing or you needed to learn about the gospel, or whatever, everybody would go to [the individual] who could do that. And if that person wasn’t there, there was somebody else who would do that. And that first-century approach is really what’s here-lay gifts and the recognition of lay gifts.”
Inspired by this approach, St. Alban’s has turned their sermons into opportunities for people to learn and be engaged by the teaching that is happening from the pulpit-after the sermon (or “reflection,” as they prefer to call it) is given, the entire congregation responds with their thoughts and insights.
“I think some of the formation for our congregation really happens in the reflection time, because it doesn’t matter which one of us is up there-there’s learning going on, and we’re being fed by what we’re learning,” said Duncan, who is currently undergoing postulancy towards ordination with another St. Alban’s parishioner, Angus Muir.
But lay leadership is not just about the services themselves; it is about the general attitude the church has toward its place in the community.
“The wonderful thing to me about St. Alban’s is that they are a group of people who really want to worship together,” says Durksen. “But they’re not only committed to worship, but to service. So everyone is doing something outside as well as inside.”
The example everyone at the table mentions first is Soup’s On, a lunch program they offer every Friday. While soup kitchens are a common way for churches to meet the needs of their communities, Soup’s On is a little different. Not only does it bring in volunteers from across the community, it is also open to everyone, regardless of need.
Hill, who moved to Ashcroft from Dawson Creek with her husband, Ken, several years ago, said this confused her a fair bit at first. “When we first came here and somebody who I know has no financial need invited me to Soup’s On, I thought, ‘you’re taking food away from the needy!’ I didn’t realize it was a community event,” she chuckled.
“It’s a community connections program,” Duncan explained. “So people who are new to the community come there and they get to meet other people.”
But as Durksen pointed out, it isn’t just newcomers who participate. “The village workers, when they’re having a union meeting, will most often have it at noon on a Friday, and they have it at the soup kitchen…It bridges all the strata of the community for a couple of hours once a week.”
St. Alban’s did not, however, always enjoy such strong lay leadership and participation. Like many other small-town churches, it had suffered a decline in population over the past few decades, but this had been exacerbated by an abuse scandal involving a former priest. By the mid-2000s, St. Alban’s had only seven regular worshippers.
“We had dwindled and we were hanging on by the skin of our teeth,” Martina said.
Things began to change when the Rev. Dan Hines arrived in 2007 and started encouraging the community to think differently about what it meant to be a church, and to see themselves as partners in leadership. With an influx of a few more couples dedicated to keeping the church alive, St. Alban’s began to grow again. It now has a regular worshipping congregation of 27, seven of whom are lay ministers of word and sacrament.
Hines left in 2014, but the spirit of his work and teaching is palpable in the conversation over brunch.
“For me, [the change] really crystallized around something Dan Hines said,” Durksen says at one point. “If you look at the ministry of Jesus, you’re looking at a ministry of radical oneness…how do we give expression and give life to that oneness, and let go of the duality that exists all around us? [Hines] led us into that, and I think we’re really starting to move along that path strongly now.”
It is a path on which Duncan and Muir are hoping to continue once they have completed their postulancy.
“That leadership won’t change once Angus and I are ordained,” she said, explaining that even though they will be present every Sunday, “there will be Sundays where we’re not presiding at the service, so then we’ll be using reserved sacrament.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Angus Muir as Martina Duncan’s husband.