B.C. synod deals creatively with decline

By on November 1, 2008

Nearly half a century ago, as the baby boom boomed, a small group from St. Paul’s Anglican Church in downtown Nanaimo on Vancouver Island moved out to start a new congregation called St. James.

Today, the 30-or-so parishioners at St. James each Sunday don’t really need a diocesan synod to help them read the writing on the wall that says it’s time to move back home.

“We know we have to do something because we’re a very small parish,” said Shirley Stright, one of two people’s wardens at St. James.  “And because of the history of the congregations, there is a sense of closeness to St. Paul’s.”

But a September meeting of the synod of the diocese of British Columbia made it official, receiving recommendations for one closure, St. Alban in Victoria, and for six mergers, involving eight small congregations, in the 56-parish diocese. However, synod delegates added one provision: be creative about it.

Diocesan executive officer, Bruce Bryant-Scott, said those recommendations now go to diocesan council. “The process will take at least months, perhaps years,” Mr. Bryant-Scott said.  “In my experience, when you start doing something in the church, it takes twice as long as you think.”

But the recommendations should come as no surprise to anyone, he added.  “In some places, those conversations have been going on literally for years.”

In Crofton, where All Saints is to merge with St. Michael and All Angels in Chemainus, the two parishes have been yoked for so long, sharing one priest, that many people already think it’s one parish, Mr. Bryant-Scott said.

And St. Mary and St. Stephen in Saanichton have spent four years talking about a merger.  Also on the list from the Victoria suburbs are All Saints View Royal, merging with Church of Advent, and St. Columba and St. Martin in the Fields, merging with each other. St. David-by-the-Sea is also slated for merger, although a partner has yet to be named.

The diocese has seen a steady decline in Sunday attendance for at least the last 15 years, with averages dropping 11 per cent to 4,955 in 2007 from 5,555 in 2003.  Funerals outnumbered baptisms by 349 to 135 last year, and 25 parishes were running deficits.

It’s a state of affairs Bishop James Cowan was tiredly familiar with during his years as the diocese’s executive officer.  So, in his first charge to synod in 2004, after his 2003 election as bishop, he called for something different.

The diocese now has a congregational development officer; almost every parish has an action plan; two-per-cent annual growth targets are in place; and several parishes teetering on the brink of closure have pulled themselves back.

Anne Fletcher is a Vancouver-based freelance writer.

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