With a high-profile and controversial bishop at the helm and the hot-button issue of what to do about same-sex blessings hanging over it, the Diocese of New Westminster has featured in the press a lot over the last couple of years.
In its diocesan synod vote on same-sex blessings in 1998, members split along the lines of the more traditional, conservative elements of the church, who were horrified at the thought of the church giving its approval to same-sex liaisons, and the more liberal, gay-friendly side which wanted the church to recognize the relationships of committed gays and lesbians.
But Bishop Michael Ingham strenuously objects to New Westminster being held up as the poster child for a split diocese, and is dismayed that a reporter might profile it as such.
?I don?t want to focus particularly on the split between conservatives and liberals. I think that?s a sideshow. There are many other dioceses in Canada which are far more evenly split between liberal and conservative than we are. We simply happen to have a profile at the moment because we are tackling some of the more difficult questions facing the church in an open and honest manner.?
There?s much more to New Westminster than the fractious issue of homosexuality, he said. He talked of dealing with a diverse, new racial mix, planting new churches partly with resources given up by the ?over-churched? urban areas, trying to find solutions to the entrenched problem of drug addictions and reaching out to Vancouver?s large aboriginal population.
?The diocese is growing in its Sunday attendance and growth is being experienced right across the theological spectrum,? Bishop Ingham said. ?We have growing conservative parishes, growing liberal parishes, parishes which are reaching out to women in feminist spirituality.
?We also have a number of parishes which are declining because their neighbourhoods are changing. There?s a major demographic shift going on here on the west coast. It?s a place to which people come from other parts of Canada and they often uproot themselves from their own church traditions and come here and don?t reconnect. So there?s a large number of lapsed church members and quite a lot of our parishes are doing a lot to reach out to them. Neighbourhood programs, invitations to attend worship or outreach programs, community meals, Alpha programs; there?s a great range of evangelistic efforts going on right across the board and they?re being quite successful.?
It?s not an easy diocese to evangelize, however. ?All the Statistics Canada research about religious observance shows that it is the lowest in the country here in British Columbia, among all religions. So in many ways, this is one of the toughest places in Canada to be the church.?
The diocese initiated a major commission four years ago to research all the churches in the diocese. They concluded that 25 per cent of churches are actively growing in membership, 35 per cent are stable or growing and 40 per cent are declining.
?We find the declining areas are almost all in the urban centres where we are over-churched for the population,? Bishop Ingham said. One of the major tasks that we have in the diocese is the reallocation of physical resources to the growing suburbs and rural areas ? A major challenge we have is to encourage parishes in the city, especially the smaller, declining ones, to merge or amalgamate and to release their resources to plant new churches in the growing areas.
It?s a long, slow process, but it is starting to happen, Bishop Ingham said. For example, St. Matthew in Vancouver has voted to close and worship in another nearby church.
Bishop Ingham says church planting needs to take place with new ethnic mixes, primarily. Church of Emmanuel is a new church planted to cater primarily to the growing Chinese population in Richmond.
?I need to plant more Chinese churches but also more multiethnic churches, more churches which reflect the needs of second and third generation immigrants, which is for a more diverse racial and ethnic mix.?
In the last decade, 250,000 Chinese immigrants have arrived on the west coast, the bishop said. There has also been an influx of South Asian migrants, including Sikhs.
The churches are trying to reach out to new migrants with English-language programs, assistance in integrating into Canadian society and invitations to worship, the bishop said.
The influx of new migrants has also brought the inevitable racist backlash, with comments from some people that they can?t find an English sign or an English-speaking person in a store, for example. The diocese has been attempting to build multi-ethnic churches with mixes of Anglos, Chinese and South Asians. ?I think we?re modelling good community relations and a good interracial mix.?
Vancouver has serious social problems in some of its neighbourhoods. ?We have a major drug problem in the Downtown East Side, the worst in the Western world according to some reports a year or two ago, with high rates of addiction and death that come from the kind of crack cocaine that?s on the streets here, plus the fact that the provincial government in recent years has cut back on social services.?
A working group in the diocese has come up with an ambitious plan to help one under-served group ? aboriginal women with children. It wants to build a recovery house for them. The diocese is trying to decide whether it can raise the millions of dollars needed for such a project and is talking with other churches about the idea.
New Westminster is looking to hire an aboriginal person to work at co-ordinating aboriginal issues in the parish. Vancouver has about 45,000 aboriginals who have migrated to the city from other parts of British Columbia.
?They are largely lost to the church. We don?t see them in our parishes. The history of residential schools has obviously made it very difficult for us to know how to reach out to aboriginal people, many of whom were in Anglican schools.?
Finally, Bishop Ingham talked of his attempts to use dialogue to deal with the divisive issues facing the church. He has sponsored several public dialogues, one dealing with the Essentials document of 1994, another discussing homosexuality and a third on the authority and interpretation of Scripture.
?Our response to difficult issues is not to avoid them or run away from them, nor to politicize them, but to study them prayerfully and openly so we can come to the mind of Christ for the church, as far as we are able.?