The past decade has not been an easy one for the diocese of Niagara. Beset by financial woes, theological divisions over the place of gays and lesbians in the church and a series of lawsuits from parishes that left the diocese to join the breakaway Anglican Network in Canada, diocesan leadership has faced challenging times.
But these days, its leaders are cautiously optimistic about the diocese’s future. For one, a settlement with the Anglican Network reached in 2012 has ended crippling lawsuits and left parish buildings from three breakaway churches in the hands of the diocese.
Over the past few years, said diocesan Bishop Michael Bird, the diocese has been able to climb out of a financial hole “and the financial picture of the diocese is pretty stable.”
Canon Terry DeForest, vision advocate and director of human resources, added, “we’re no longer just feeling at the mercy of those financial situations.” A decision was made, for instance, to turn real estate assets into funds.
Joanna Beck, treasurer and director of finance for the diocese, noted that while the general fund operating deficit was $2.4 million at the end of 2009, it was $848,000 in 2014, and net assets have risen from $1.4 million in 2009 to $4.4 million in 2014.
“We’re actually providing more services with, in some cases, the same or fewer people,” she said. “[We are] trying to get proactive and doing things such that the impact [of decreased parish revenue] is less… It means doing things differently and being innovative and out of the box.” For example, Beck noted that the diocesan synod has gone paperless whenever possible, which cuts down stationery costs and postage. It also has streamlined its annual reporting to simplify communications and avoid duplication.
The cause for optimism goes beyond financial matters. The diocese has a stronger sense of its mission, said its leadership.
Canon Christyn Perkons, director of congregational support and development, spoke passionately about the liturgical innovations being made by churches such as St. Christopher’s in Burlington, which has involved its parishioners in creating new worship services that reflect the concerns of the community.
“It’s a diocese that doesn’t just offer Book of Common Prayer or Book of Alternative Services worship,” she explained. “There are other [styles of] worship that reflect particular contexts that are unique to that area, and I think that gave people freedom and some space and the expectation to be actually engaged.”
The Rev. Bill Mous, director of justice, community and global ministries, said he felt energized by the ways in which churches are connecting with the communities around them.
“One of the important things that has happened over the past five years is a renewed emphasis on community partnerships and engaging our neighbours,” he said, citing ministries that churches such as St. Alban’s, Beamsville, Ont., have established. (See story, p. 1).
“I think it’s been energizing to hear those kinds of stories about how churches are finding new life by connecting with their neighbours and community agencies,” added DeForest. While he agreed that the culture of church had “shifted profoundly” toward being more outwardly focused, he acknowledged that much remains to be done.
The diocese also continues to face difficulties in other areas. One issue it has come under fire for recently is its handling of the sale of the building that, until 2013, housed St. Matthias Anglican Church in Guelph. After the diocese sold it to a local developer, community groups complained that the diocese had passed over more community-friendly development options in favour of the most lucrative offer. The Guelph Mercury ran an editorial accusing the diocese of behaving corporately, “in the unflattering sense of the word.”
The parish had gone through extensive conversations on the matter and the sale of the building had long been public knowledge.
But there were still hard lessons along the way. One that emerged was “an awareness that we did not have a good theological basis or lens through which to talk about property,” said Perkons.
The diocese has now created a group that will report to synod council on how properties are dealt with. Money will be a consideration, “but not without having the essence of who we are as part of the conversation, too,” Perkons said.
These conversations have been crucial to the diocese’s most ambitious real estate decision yet: developing Cathedral Place (where the diocesan office and Christ’s Church Cathedral are located) into a mixed-use housing and office complex that will include a number of market-value condominium units.
The Cathedral’s dean, Peter Wall, said the decision was a matter of sound financial stewardship. “Our aim was the highest and best use of what we had in order to guarantee ourselves a sustainable future for the next 50 to 100 years,” he said.
Wall acknowledged that the decision would have an impact on larger conversations taking place around gentrification in Hamilton’s downtown core, but was firm in his belief that it could be done without sacrificing the diocese’s integrity. “Hamilton is exploding, and there are all the concerns about what that means and how we deal with growth, ” he said. “I don’t think we have an answer for it-we don’t understand it all-but we are trying to be present and trying to be open to people talking to us, and trying to be part of the ongoing forward-thinking solution rather than either outside entirely or throwing stones.”
Mous said the developer chosen for the project, Ottawa-based Windmill Developments, has a “triple bottom-line approach,” in which social and environmental effects are considered alongside economic interests. “It’s not just about profit. They strive to ensure the dignity of people, the care and well-being of the planet…”
In the end, for Wall, Mous, Perkons, Beck and DeForest, the questions of how best to manage resources and how best to navigate the church’s commitments came down to basic questions about the church’s purpose.
“It’s the shift from member to disciple, it’s the shift from parish institution to missional church,” DeForest said. “Those shifts are about getting at the core a radical re-thinking of us being for the reign of God, and the reign of God is about justice and peace and healing and reconciliation.”