Canada’s largest, most activist diocese

By on April 1, 2001

Archbishop Terry Finlay

FITTINGLY for an area dominated by a cosmopolitan and multicultural city, the diocese of Toronto’s Anglicans demonstrate a flare for activism and social justice.

Among the many issues that concern the diocese – the Canadian church’s largest- one stands out for the leadership role the church has assumed.

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Terry Finlay, Bishop of Toronto and Metropolitan of the Ecclesiastical Province of Ontario, and Bishop Ann Tottenham, one of four suffragans, have joined social activists in decrying poverty and homelessness in the diocese.

“Another death on the streets is not acceptable,” Archbishop Finlay said in a widely-reported speech at a rally for a national housing strategy last November.

Recently, he repeated the outcry and asked Anglicans in the diocese to write letters of appeal to the government to focus its attention on homelessness.

Last year 22 homeless people died on the streets of Toronto, a fact the archbishop encourages the diocese not to ignore.

Archbishop Finlay and Bishop Tottenham both made headlines in the secular media as they pleaded with the government to respond to the housing crisis that has spread across the Greater Toronto region.

Anglicans in the diocese, at least, appeared to be listening. A diocesan fundraising appeal called Faithworks, which was launched in 1997, raised more than a million dollars in 1998 and 1999. The target last year was $1.25 million.

Money raised helps the poor, homeless and hungry teenagers in danger of living on the streets; prisoners rebuilding their lives, and refugees. Donations also go to Anglican Appeal, LOFT community Services (formerly Anglican Houses) and the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund.

Several Toronto parishes also support the Saturday Night Hunger Patrol Program in Toronto, handing out hot soup, toques and dry socks, sleeping bags and even condoms to protect street prostitutes.

“So much good work is being done by the Anglican church in this diocese,” said Archbishop Finlay, who also notes that he constantly battles a public perception that the church is irrelevant. Although activism and outreach are thriving, he acknowledges that church attendance is down. “But more people are coming and participating in the ongoing church life of the community,” he said.

Although one million people in the diocese of Toronto identify themselves as Anglicans on the census, only 100,000 of them actually attend church. Archbishop Finlay would like the church to do better.

“I want more seeker-friendly churches,” he said in an interview. “We have a lot of work to do in making people feel more welcome.”

Raising church attendance here is made complex by Toronto’s diversity. Not only is Toronto the largest diocese in Canada, with 285 congregations in 217 parishes, but it is also the most multicultural diocese in North America. Parishes also cover the spiritual gamut from traditional and contemporary to charismatic and evangelical.

Toronto also has the largest aboriginal population in the country. Founded in 1839, the diocese is situated entirely within the province of Ontario. Its mission extends across an area of 26,000 square kilometers.

How to oversee this jumble? Archbishop Finlay credits the diocese’s unique governing structure for making it possible. Toronto is divided into five episcopal areas, each overseen by an area, or suffragan, bishop. Assisting archbishop Finlay are Bishop Michael Bedford-Jones for York-Scarborough, Bishop Douglas Blackwell for Trent-Durham, Bishop George Elliott for York-Simcoe and Bishop Tottenham for Credit Valley. No other diocese in the Anglican Communion has a structure like this one, the archbishop said.

Nine years ago, Archbishop Finlay made headlines and enemies when he refused to allow Rev. Jim Ferry to continue as a parish priest after Mr. Ferry declared he was living in a homosexual relationship.

Today, Mr. Ferry has limited permission to function as a priest under supervision. Even before the controversy, Archbishop Finlay said he knew that sexuality was going to be a big issue for the church at “a deep, deep level.”

Positions have softened over the years, and last September, at a service celebrating the 25th anniversary of Integrity/Toronto, an organization of gay and lesbian Anglicans, Archbishop Finlay not only presided over the service but also preached.

Among the diocese’s accomplishments, he notes the election of Canada’s first woman bishop and a renewed ecumenical relationship with the Roman Catholic archdiocese.

But not everything goes smoothly in the diocese. Recently, a bitter battle flared up, pitting the dean and some parishioners of the downtown St. James Cathedral against other parishioners, neighbourhood groups, and heritage buffs.

The dean, Archdeacon Douglas Stoute, wants to cut a deal with a developer who will build a 34-story condominium tower right beside the cathedral, in exchange for money to replace the aging parish house. Those opposing the dean’s plans worry that the tower will stand taller than the historic 306-foot spire of the cathedral, the second highest in North America.

Hundreds of graves dating back to the War of 1812 will also have to be moved to accommodate the new building, and this has outraged historians and local politicians.

Archbishop Finlay is staying out of the fray. “The cathedral issue is something for the dean, the congregation and the people of the community to work out. … I would say that one learning out of this is to always consult as widely as possible before you move ahead.”

Archbishop Finlay was elected Metropolitan of Ontario last fall, succeeding Archbishop Percy O’Driscoll of Huron, who retired. He is married to Jean (A.J.) They have two grown daughters.

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