Consultant Keith McKerracher, a member of the Communications and Information Resources Committee and a marketing expert, gave the bishops his perspective on declining church membership.
Church growth, or the lack of it, emerged as the hottest topic at the regular fall meeting of Canada’s Anglican bishops – and it was not originally a large part of the agenda.
Following a thought-provoking presentation on declining church membership by marketing expert Keith McKerracher, a member of the Anglican Church of Canada’s comunications and information resources committee, the bishops met for an impromptu two-hour session during their Oct. 24-28 meeting.
They shared the realities of being church from Halifax to the Yukon, named the difficulties and the joys, and came together as a group determined to work toward practical solutions.
“There is an energy here and I am feeling really good about what we are doing. For the first time in two years, I’m not going home (from a house of bishops meeting) depressed,” said Bishop Bob Bennett, suffragan (assistant) bishop of the diocese of Huron.
There were some sharp exchanges of opinion, but the overall meeting mood and pace were calmer than in recent years. Two changes to the agenda had a positive effect.
The agenda team, led by Bishop Michael Ingham of New Westminster, scheduled an hour of prayer and Bible study in small groups at the start of each day. Several said they strengthened personal and spiritual relationships during that time. Since 2002, when the diocese of New Westminster approved offering blessing ceremonies to gay couples, differing attitudes toward homosexuality have put many bishops’ relationships under strain.
The second change left an evening open and the bishops elected to discuss Mr. McKerracher’s presentation. Using statistics and his own research, he suggested that given current declining membership trends in Canada, “the last Anglican will leave the church in 2061.”
Church processes may work against renewal, he said. “Everything has to go through committees and this may lead to process fatigue,” he said. Bold leadership is needed, partly to admit that there is a problem. “I have a role for this house – sound the alarm,” he said.
Some bishops welcomed his blunt approach. “Somebody is finally saying there is a problem,” said Bishop William Anderson of Caledonia. Bishop Ingham cautioned against using assumptions before gathering data and noted that other research tracks Anglican church membership decline with a falling birthrate among its traditional constituency – white Anglo-Americans and Anglo-Canadians.
In the evening session, Bishop Terrence Buckle of the Yukon spoke passionately about not giving up the church’s mission in the north. “How can we do more with less? Twenty years ago, the Yukon (diocese) employed 14 priests. Now we have six,” he said.
One bishop, Victoria Matthews of Edmonton, felt there was not enough focus on positive solutions, a point she made clear during a budget presentation by national church treasurer Peter Blachford. In response to a question as to why the national church doesn’t seem to support major fundraising initiatives, Mr. Blachford said that “Canadians don’t like to go out and ask for financial support and the church doesn’t like to talk about money.”
Calling that “the lamest response I’ve ever heard,” Bishop Matthews said she “will start a revolution” and say, “Let’s not listen to the national church because that is not good enough.” Mr. Blachford also mentioned that General Synod has commissioned an analysis of its fundraising activities and mentioned the new fundraising program, Letting Down the Nets.
The program’s co-ordinator, Geoff Jackson, followed Mr. Blachford, noting that 13 dioceses have signed up for a pilot project on stewardship and congregational development, which begins shortly. His office also has prepared a booklet of resources on stewardship and sent it out to all parishes, along with a newsletter.
In another session, two sides of the homosexuality issue arose. A group called Zaccheus, which offers support to those who say they have turned away from homosexuality through their faith in God, made a one-hour presentation. “To assume all who experience same-sex attraction want their attraction affirmed is not true,” said Rev. Dawn McDonald of New Westminster, who said that voices like hers were not heard at the last General Synod.
On the other side, Bishop Jim Njegovan of Brandon asked his colleagues how they were coping with Essentials, an organization that has emerged as the strongest voice in the Canadian church against liberal attitudes toward homosexuals. Bishop Njegovan has told his diocese he does not support Essentials.
Bishop Jim Cowan of British Columbia said he intends to discipline clergy who support the Essentials Network, which, he said “is setting itself up as a structure if and when the Anglican Church of Canada is removed from the Anglican Communion or removes itself.” Bishop Ingham noted that retired bishop Donald Harvey, leader of the Network, has visited his diocese to preach and hold meetings without following the normal courtesy of informing the diocesan bishop. (New Westminster’s diocesan council, meeting on Oct. 11, authorized the bishop “to take such actions as he may consider necessary” against clergy and parishes who join the Essentials Network.) Archbishop Andrew Hutchison agreed to a request that he speak to Bishop Harvey about the issue.
Bishop Anderson disagreed that the Network is promoting schism. “My diocese has been hurt because of actions that a bishop and a diocese (New Westminster) took contrary to … the existing policy of the church. Everybody should be playing by the same rules,” he said.