Bishop Tom Corston has announced that he will retire from his position as bishop of the diocese of Moosonee on Dec. 31, 2013. His retirement will coincide with the date that a decision to restructure the diocese into a mission area will take effect.
Bishop Corston said he hoped there would be an easy transition for the diocese to a mission area as of Jan. 1. with the metropolitan, Archbishop Colin Johnson, taking over the leadership. In a letter announcing his retirement to the people of the diocese, the bishop said that the plan was a good way to deal with the financial difficulties the diocese faces, but he acknowledged he was saddened by its necessity. “I came to this diocese 40 years ago when it was vibrant and active, and I don’t like the fact that we’ve had to restructure just to survive. I hope it doesn’t have to stay that way and that the diocese will eventually have their own bishop again,” he told the Anglican Journal.
Corston grew up in the Chapleau parish of the diocese, was ordained in the diocese of Moosonee in 1974 and spent the first 12 years of his ministry there before moving to the dioceses of Fredericton and Algoma. He was installed as bishop of the diocese of Moosonee at the cathedral in Timmins, Ont., in July 2010.
The bishop won’t be leaving the diocese entirely, because he has agreed to be the “episcopal visitor” for the mission area, ensuring confirmations and ordinations and that all parishes are visited at least once a year. He will also act as a consultant to the archbishop and to an administrator, yet to be appointed.
Corston describes his time as bishop as “a marvellous experience.” The bishop of Moosonee is called on not only to travel great geographic distances in the huge territory, but also to move constantly among three cultures-English, French and Cree. “The highlight has just been visiting in those parishes,” he said, “and getting to know some marvellous people who work in some pretty amazing settings and I’ve enjoyed that.”
The diocese is comprised of two distinct parts, and the bishop said each faces its own challenges. For the largely non-indigenous towns in the southern part of the diocese, the struggle is simply to survive. Its parishes are located in one-industry towns, and many of those industries-including pulp and paper, lumber and mining-have suffered, said Corston, and the towns along with them. Businesses are boarded up and homes are for sale. Young people leave for jobs or education in southern Ontario cities and don’t come back, he said. Ironically, new mining development worth millions of dollars is happening in the diocese, but the mining companies bring in workers to live in separate camps or townsites, he said, and the communities and churches do not benefit from the economic activity.
“Every congregation struggles to financially maintain itself, so as a result, I’ve had to cluster more and more congregations, with fewer and fewer clergy travelling greater and greater distances to provide ministry,” said the bishop. As a partial remedy, the diocese has focused on training local leadership for ordained ministry. Five or six people are now ordained or in the process of being ordained, said Corston. “They’ll provide the sacramental ministry in parishes and areas where we can no longer afford to place stipendiary clergy…We have to make hard decisions.”
In contrast, the northern indigenous parishes, located around James Bay and within Quebec, have booming populations. Corston, preparing for his annual confirmation trip through those parishes, said that one parish has 100 children prepared for confirmation; it is not uncommon for the bishop to baptize 25 babies in a parish at one time. The outlook is much brighter economically, too, he says, because the communities have the James Bay treaty assurances of financial income.
“Our ministry is extremely busy,” he said, observing that everyone turns to the church for important moments in their lives, such as baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals. “The problem we are facing in a lot of our indigenous congregations is attendance, and commitment on a regular basis is not there,” he said. “Many of our young native people are educated, they’re bright, they’re enthusiastic, but they can go off to Montreal or Quebec City on a whim. And so the Sunday commitment is gone, except from the elders.”
With elders, the bishop said, there is sometimes a different challenge. When parishes face financial difficulties, the elders don’t understand why the church can’t provide a minister. It used to be the reverse situation, with southern parishes paying the bills, he said. “Now it’s hard for elders to realize that the diocese has no money and can’t do that anymore.” Still, he said, “there is a lot of life and a lot of hope” in the indigenous church in the north.
On a personal note, Corston said he hasn’t made many post-retirement plans yet. “I don’t live in my diocese. My home is in Sudbury, and my wife and I have lived separate lives since I’ve been bishop.” He noted that his sons, now 21 and 25, have grown up in his years away. “It will be nice to go home,” he said.
He added that whenever he tells stories from his history in the diocese of Moosonee, people tell him, ” ‘Bishop, you’ve got to put it on paper before it is gone.’ So that’s my project. I’m going to write a book about the church of the north…I would like to embark on something like that.”