Five existing Anglican and Lutheran churches in Peterborough could be merged into a single church, and a new “mission church” planted elsewhere in the city, under a proposal put forth earlier this month by the area bishop.
On October 1 and 2, Riscylla Shaw, area bishop for Trent-Durham within the diocese of Toronto, presented the plan to parishioners at two public meetings. It foresees three Anglican churches—St. Barnabas Anglican Church, St. Luke’s Anglican Church and All Saints’ Anglican Church—and Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church all closing “in the immediate future,” with parishioners gathering to worship for traditional services at the one remaining church, St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church.
At some point after that, Shaw proposed, a new church might be built, probably in the city’s southwest corner, to house a “new missional congregation.”
The idea, Shaw told the Anglican Journal, is that the newly-merged congregation at St. John the Evangelist would focus energetically on “bringing the Word, the good news of Jesus out into the street, into Peterborough and out to meet the people where they’re at,” gathering new parishioners to the point where the new church would need to be built to house them.
This new mission work, the bishop said, could include house churches, with Bible studies held in peoples’ living rooms; street ministry and storefront ministry. Meanwhile, the merged congregation would continue to keep alive some of the outreach work the to-be-closed churches had done in their neighbourhoods.
“What I would like to see them do is grow from within the one building,” Shaw said. “All things going well the Anglicans and Lutherans will come together, and it will be an Anglican-Lutheran church that’s exploding at the seams.”
The bishop’s idea isn’t sitting well with some parishioners. Some, like Sylvia Sutherland, a member of All Saints’ and a former mayor of Peterborough, say it disregards work done by a commission of lay people specially charged to come up with a recommendation for amalgamating the city’s Anglican and Lutheran churches.
“To be quite frank, it seemed a betrayal of the process that had been undergone for a couple of years,” Sutherland said in an interview. “After pushing people through a lot of work and a lot of anguish, the decision was top-down in the end.”
Sutherland also said she doubted the new church will ever get built. “It would take a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and energy and dollars to build a new church and…I’m sitting here with a lot of white hair, and so are most of the parishioners!” she said with a laugh.
In 2014, the five churches, facing dwindling congregations, agreed to co-operate in various ways: fostering new forms of ministry together, for example, and sharing resources. The lay commission was put together in October 2015 by then-area bishop Nicholls, and released its final report in November 2016.
The report noted that average Sunday attendance for all five churches had fallen from 1,000 to just over 500 from 2001 to 2014, and that the decline seemed likely to continue, given that Peterborough is the oldest community in Canada, with 40% of its population aged over 65. It proposed reducing the five congregations to an unspecified two; it also considered but rejected the possibility of building a new church as “impractical with long lead times and high cost.” By early 2017, all five congregations had agreed to proceed with the amalgamation as recommended in the report.
Shaw said the idea she presented was developed over the summer by a number of people, including herself; her Lutheran counterpart, Michael Pryse, bishop of the Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC); experts in congregational development at the diocese of Toronto; and some lay people who have been taking part in the amalgamation conversations in Peterborough in recent years. She acknowledged that her proposal seems to have met with a lot of anxiety and pain among Peterborough parishioners, but added that some have greeted it with hope.
Shaw also said her plan responds to the call made by the churches themselves in 2014 to do things differently, and that it takes into account a number of the points raised by the commission.
The idea, she said, is that the new church would be paid for at least partly by the sale of a number of the city’s Anglican church buildings, all of which belong legally to the diocese. Lutherans would contribute from the sale of their building, and parishioners would also be expected to do fund-raising, she says.
Within the next few weeks, special meetings will be held at all five churches to allow parishioners to vote on the proposal.
Asked what would happen if Anglican churches voted against it, Shaw replied, “This is their opportunity to come together and do this. And some congregations may take a bit longer to decide about when they feel like they should do that, some it might be before Christmas, it might be after Christmas, it might be into the new year, it might be into Easter, whenever it is that people feel like they can come on board with coming together…Not everybody moves at the same pace, but everybody’s still part of the conversation.”
One local supporter of the bishop’s plan is Randy Guest, deputy rectory warden at St. Luke’s.
“It was kind of a shock at first because it was a little bit of a change from what we were discussing, and then a little bit exciting in a way because it opens up a lot of possibilities for what we can do as a big group,” Guest said. He hopes, he said, that the higher concentration of people—including young families—in the merged church will mean more family-oriented services. He also finds the prospect of building a new mission church exciting.