SIX YEARS AGO Archbishop Percy O’Driscoll of the Diocese of Huron hit the headlines in the secular and church press when he warned that the Anglican Church was in grave danger.
Speaking to a synod of the Diocese of Niagara after his election as Metropolitan of Ontario, the Archbishop said “You and I and others like us have about two generations left. And at the end of two generations there will not be enough people to say there is an Anglican Church alive in this country. I’m not trying to scare you. I believe that on the basis of the information I have, I’m telling the truth.”
Archbishop O’Driscoll stands by that warning as the millennium approaches.
“There’ll still be an Anglican church, but we might be so spotty on the ground that it’ll be hard to see it as the Anglican Church of Canada we know,” he says.
As bishop of Canada’s southernmost diocese, which includes 234 congregations in 165 parishes with 61,000 parishioners, however, Archbishop O’Driscoll senses that things have stabilized since 1993 when he warned of the demographic dangers facing the church.
In the Diocese of Huron, a number of parishes are experiencing growth, while others are holding their own. In some rural parishes there is a continuing decline, primarily due to a shift in population to urban areas.
One of the central challenges the diocese faces is developing new and better relationships with First Nations people. “We’ve been working closely on that for a number of years with our 10 Native congregations, and we think we’re building a whole new relationship,” Archbishop Driscoll said.
Native issues have gained new prominence in the diocese since a group of First Nations people last year launched a class action lawsuit against the Anglican Church of Canada, the Diocese of Huron and the federal government. The lawsuit names the diocese because of its role in running the Mohawk Institute, a Native residential school near the Six Nations Reserve in Brantford, Ont. Unlike many of the other outstanding lawsuits across Canada, this one focuses on an argument of cultural genocide rather than specific allegations of abuse against particular staff.
Archbishop O’Driscoll says apart from having spent more than $100,000 in legal and research fees, the lawsuit hasn’t had a large impact on the diocese.
“We know it will take a long time to move through the courts.”
In the meantime the diocese is making greater efforts than ever before to address the needs of its Native congregations. A recent synod voted to recommend the appointment, for the first time, of an archdeacon responsible for Native parishes. The synod also supported efforts to facilitate the training and appointment of Native clergy to Native parishes.
An educational program to encourage dialogue between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people will be developed by members of the Lenne, Lenape, Algonkian and Iroquoian Council of the diocese. This effort was endorsed by synod.
The diocese traces its roots back to 1857, when it was carved out of the old Diocese of Toronto, to serve the 13 counties of the western part of Upper Canada. The first bishop was Benjamin Cronyn, who was elected by a synod of clergy and lay delegates in 1857. It was the first time in the history of the Anglican communion that a diocese had elected its own bishop. Until then bishops were named by the Queen and her advisers in England.
While the diocese traces its corporate history back to 1857, its earliest congregation, St. John’s, Sandwich in Windsor, dates back to 1697.
The Diocese of Huron may have rich historical roots, but its suffragan bishop, Robert Townshend, says changing roles of clergy and lay people are a fact of life as the diocese moves into the 21st century.
“It’s the most important issue for the life of the diocese, equipping lay people to provide leadership,” says Bishop Townshend. He contends that the church has too long looked to clergy for all its leadership. “And I still meet search committees who are looking for a rector to come and do work for them.”
But that model won’t work anymore, he says. Clergy will still be called on to teach, preach, administer the sacraments and act as pastor, but ministry must be shared with lay people. Otherwise, he says, the church can’t survive.
The diocese supports lay ministry partly by sending diocesan funds back to its 14 deaneries. Most of the funding has gone to support lay ministry in the two years this has been done, Bishop Townshend said , equipping people to be teachers of the faith, to work in social outreach and to participate in leadership in liturgy and worship.
Much of Huron is still rural, which means the future of small rural parishes is an important issue. Archbishop O’Driscoll says the responsibility for decision making rests at the local level. “We have no canon here to tell people what to do. We don’t make decisions for them. There is no agenda imposed. Congregations have to decide for themselves whether it’s feasible to carry on. Our congregations are pretty independent and we depend on that to have a strong, vibrant ministry.”
While some rural parishes are closing, or reducing the number of church buildings, others are exploring alternatives, he said.
“One option is to unify congregations while worshipping in several buildings. Sometimes our structures don’t fit the needs of the church today.”
Unifying multi-point rural parishes provides a better base for developing music, Sunday school, lay leadership and other ministries.
There have been no new church development parishes in the diocese for the past few years, but Archbishop O’Driscoll reports a number of parishes have erected major additions, valued from $400,000 to $1 million.
One of the most encouraging trends he sees is the way parishes have embraced outreach work, both in their local communities and to the wider world.
“It seems like almost every congregation is engaged in some form of outreach. And it’s become stronger in the last five years with such efforts as food banks and food kitchens.”
The Huron Hunger Fund, which works closely with the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund to fund overseas mission work, raises about $300,000 annually.
Bob Bettson is a Toronto freelance writer.