The flood of April 1997 that damaged the synod office and cathedral hall in Peace River, Alta., may have marked a turning point in the life of the Diocese of Athabasca.
“At the time of the flood, a penny dropped for me because it said something to me about where the church was really at,” said Bishop John Clarke.
The diocese has flood insurance but was unable to cover the $10,000 deductible. It applied for aid from the flood assistance fund run by the federal government.
“They said the church was regarded as non-essential so we didn’t qualify. The local Legion made the cut. I think that’s a wake-up call to us to get this straightened out.”
An appeal to Anglicans across the country allowed the diocese to repair its damages.
Since then Athabasca has worked doubly hard to bring in new worshippers and make the church relevant to its parishioners. A Caring Evangelism program has been implemented and the Alpha program is in use in some parishes. Other churches are using the charismatic model.
Unlike many other dioceses, Athabasca’s church-goers are mostly first-generation Anglicans, Bishop Clarke said. Many are of Polish and Ukrainian descent.
In addition, for those raised in the Anglican Church, “their concepts were rather tainted because of their experiences.”
For example, some clergy refused to baptize babies of parents they were unsure would continue to attend church. “I have gotten calls from people saying, `My child died in an accident. He wasn’t baptized.'”
Those policies have changed, the bishop said.
DIOCESE OF ATHABASCA Founded in 1873. Synod organized 1876 at Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories. Meets every three years. Area of diocese: 450,000 sq. km. (175,000 sq. mi.) Anglican population: 17,000 On diocesan parish rolls: 4,217 Clergy: stipendiary 13, Church Army officer 1, lay readers 50, parishes 19, shared ministries 2, total congregations 33.
A thriving oil and gas industry continues to bring new residents to the area, increasing the diversity in northern Alberta and resulting in a continuing economic boom. “You won’t find a more cosmopolitan area anywhere than Fort McMurray,” Bishop Clarke said. “It’s blossoming. There are more Newfoundlanders there than in many towns in Newfoundland.”
In fact, Fort McMurray may be the fastest growing city in the country.
A young province, Alberta has never been homogenously Anglo-Saxon, the bishop points out, although this is becoming even less the case. This can cause difficulties in some small congregations in which a tight-knit group has formed over time.
“Smaller congregations get to be a very intimate, little group,” Bishop Clarke said. “Somebody wants in, that’s a threat. We have to break down those walls… We can’t be there protecting the barricades. We have to be out there building the community.”
The evangelism programs are working well, the bishop said.
“We’re not out there stumping the streets. We have to evangelize the people in our churches. It’s not a private club, folks. It’s God’s church.”
Athabasca is fortunate to have an outstanding roster of clergy, the bishop said. “I wouldn’t trade the clergy here for anywhere.” Nor does he have problems attracting clergy, currently having more applications than places.
The diocese has now ordained its first aboriginal priest and it brought in a Native priest from Keewatin to serve in Wabasca. “Native ministry has not been a plus in the nature of this diocese,” the bishop acknowledged. That’s beginning to turn around.
Problems in Native ministry have nothing to do with any bad feelings from residential schools, he noted. In fact, the residential school in Wabasca was a good experience for people. He puts it down to a “lack of consistent, pastoral care” and a lack of ownership in the church which can also happen in smaller parishes.
Athabasca has “worked very hard at financial responsibility,” the bishop said, and is moving towards shrugging off its identity as an assisted diocese. “It’s my hope that in the not too distant future, the Diocese of Athabasca can say to the national church, OK, we think we can fly.”
The diocese is currently part of the Council of the North which means it shares in a grant.
One step the diocese has taken is a centralized payroll system which leaves all the cash at the level of the parish but takes away any uncertainty in the churches as to what to do. Rather than a parish treasurer having to figure out what amounts to pay clergy and various levels of government, the synod and the like, an auditor prepares a form for each church with the exact amounts spelled out.
The financial component has been removed from the synod office altogether to a private accounting firm which handles the centralized payroll, sends out T4 slips and does financial reviews. The cost is less than that of a single yearly audit, the bishop said, and substantially less than what it would cost to hire an employee.
The diocese also works co-operatively with Edmonton and Calgary to share costs and responsibilities. Athabasca was able to afford flood insurance since it went in together with the other two dioceses.
The dioceses also hold parish-startup and other workshops together. The dioceses have even explored the possibility of a single Alberta diocese. It has also studied the Toronto model with the idea of a council of bishops and intact boundaries.
“We’re not here to protect the boundaries,” Bishop Clarke said. “We’re here to build the church. That’s what we’ve got to keep in front of us.”