CoGS hears of ‘transformative change’ across church

Church property was a frequently-discussed topic among listening groups, strategic planners said. Photo: Harold Stiver/Shutterstock
Published January 12, 2021

A first round of strategic planning consultation sessions with Canadian Anglicans has revealed a sense of profound change at hand in the church, the Council of General Synod (CoGS) heard at an online meeting Nov. 6-8.

The Strategic Planning Working Group (SPWG) was formed in the fall of 2019 to put together a new long-term plan for the church. Since the summer— with the assistance of Janet Marshall, director of congregational development for the diocese of Toronto—it has been holding “listening groups” to invite thought on the church’s future and strategic direction, and hear how Anglicans are coping with the unusual times brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. On Nov. 6, Marshall and members of the working group presented some of the themes that had emerged from the first round of 11 of these listening groups.

The coronavirus pandemic, Marshall told CoGS, appears to be revealing the church’s values but also its areas of weakness, “helping us see the ways that we’re fragile in new and different ways.” One theme that had emerged, she said, is the sense of a “seismic shift” underway—a perception that the Anglican Church of Canada is “increasingly seeing the inevitability of large, transformative change, Pentecost change, on every level and in every way.”

The sense of change does not seem to equate with crisis, she added; there was an understanding that the change could be for the better.

“We know we’re still in that very in-between moment, that liminal moment … and so this also means we have the opportunity to make things new, as scary or as exciting as that may feel,” Marshall said.

Alongside this perception of change in many areas of the church, SPWG also heard of a certain sense of normalcy prevailing amongst many Indigenous communities amidst the pandemic, “because it feels like just one more crisis amongst the multitude of crises that their communities face all the time,” she said.

The topic that came up the most often, and in the most groups, was online church, SPWG member Canon (lay) Ian Alexander said. There seemed to be a realization that the future of the church was to have a hybrid presence—that providing online worship and ministry alongside in-person church was not just a response to the temporary challenge posed by the pandemic. But the groups also revealed, he said, a sense that digital technology was a “mixed blessing” for the church.

“It has helped us maintain community, it has helped us offer pastoral care, it has helped us reach out to new people, it has helped bring people back who may have felt nervous or concerned about walking in the door but who can kind of look in—but at the same time it’s placing real demands on staff and volunteer time, on energy and capacity,” he said. The mushrooming of online church was also raising questions, he added, about Canadians’ unequal access to digital technology for economic and geographic reasons.

SPWG also heard listening groups ask basic questions about the identity and purpose of the church. “We heard things about how the institutional church seems less important than the community of the church—the gathered people, the relationships,” Marshall said. It also heard, she said, many affirmations of Anglicanism, especially its “capacity to connect over multiple layers and cultures and geographies and languages.”

Listening group members spoke about new ways of being church emerging—in many different ways, Marshall said. Among these were a transition from parish-based to regional approaches; a questioning of clericalism and a growing appreciation of lay ministry; a realization of how much is possible in terms of discipleship in small groups and online prayer, as well as new missional communities. There was also much talk, she said, about property—both, on the one hand, a sense that buildings are not a high priority for the church and on the other, a recognition of the importance of sacred space. SPWG also heard that the church has “a renewed focus on the basic mission of serving those in need,” Marshall said, with a need for new relationships to better engage in anti-racism and ecumenism. It heard that the Indigenous church is moving toward increased self-determination.

There was much discussion about leadership and governance, Alexander said. Anglicans appreciated the “grounding” role of the bishops and primate, he said, but were also wondering whether the pandemic might serve as a kind of spur for structural change: participants, he said expressed “a sense that we have been forced in this time to make decisions more quickly, more nimbly, with a lighter structure—and that perhaps there are lessons to be learned about what we could do going forward to permanently lighten, and speed up, and simplify some of our ways of going about doing business.”

Participants also wanted to talk about sustainability, Alexander said, and in this area there seemed to be a wide variety of experiences across the country. Some areas, he said, did not seem to be doing badly financially; others were “in great crisis”—but generally, he said, there was a sense that the pandemic had placed a greater sense of urgency on achieving financial stability.

“One person put it, ‘Many parishes have been one or two giving families away from insolvency, and this crisis may have tipped them over that balance,’” he said. As a result, many group participants expressed a need to look at different ways of using church real estate and finding ways to deal with financial challenges generally.

SPWG chair Judith Moses said one theme she had heard the listening groups clearly express was a sense that injustices in society had been both revealed and worsened by the pandemic. Street ministry, she said, was facing “huge challenges” dealing with heightened levels of domestic distress and violence, addictions, suicide and homelessness. Participants, she said, recognized that the church is valued by community groups as a partner in addressing this suffering; at the same time, she said, listening group members voiced a perceived “hunger” among various social service groups for the church to call out for better protection for the vulnerable in society through universal basic income, prison reform and other policy changes. They also felt that “enormous pressures” were being placed on the front-line people in the church—clergy and volunteers—and that these people were experiencing considerable fatigue.

After the session, CoGS members were surveyed on 29 areas of interest that had emerged from the listening groups, and were asked to rank the five they considered most and least important.

Two days later, on Nov. 8, Alexander presented some very preliminary findings from this survey. The top five areas of interest, according to these findings, were:

• Communication with and among Canadian Anglicans;
• Dismantling racism and colonialism;
• The self-determining Indigenous church;
• The national church’s convening, connecting role; and
• Youth ministry.

The five areas of least interest for CoGS members were:

• Real estate management—best practices;
• Structural change and reconfiguration (provinces, dioceses);
• Partnerships with secular organizations;
• Liturgical resources; and
• Management structure, processes and accountability—alternative models.

—with files from Matt Gardner


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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