Moosonee encourages lay, baptismal ministry

Published March 1, 2000


GEOGRAPHICALLY, Moosonee is the Anglican Church of Canada’s second largest diocese, covering about 560,000 square kilometres, an area roughly the size of the Atlantic provinces. It encompasses the northern-most areas of Ontario, around James Bay, and parts of northern Quebec. Almost half the population is Cree, Oji-Cree or Inuit.

“For all its size, we’re pretty thin on the ground,” said Bishop Caleb Lawrence, who has been the bishop of the diocese for 20 years. “There are 18 parish clusters and 32 active congregations.”

Like many dioceses, Moosonee is in transition. Bishop Lawrence explained that a new model is replacing the old style of ministry, where an ordained clergy served a parish population. Now, lay and baptismal ministry can be part of congregational life. All people are engaged in some form of ministry.

“Where the old style doesn’t work anymore, we have to work to find ways to help the local congregations be church,” he said.

For example, in Hornepayne, the parish could no longer afford a stipendiary minister on its own. It now shares a minister with a neighbouring community and the minister holds worship services twice a month in Hornepayne. Lay and pastoral ministers in the local community help fill any gaps.

“We found that morale in the parish is higher now that they have taken ownership. I think the fear initially was that, if there was no priest, there would be no church, and that hasn’t happened,” Bishop Lawrence said. “Recently, we received a rather large cheque from the parish, with a letter explaining they had a surplus at the end of the year and they wanted to give the money to the diocese.”

When Bishop Lawrence envisions the future, he sees a diocese whose homegrown clergy minister to entire communities as a part of the community structure, not just as the Anglican Church representative. It is vital, he said, that clergy cease moving on after a few years.

“I’d like to see an increase in ordained ministry who are homebrewed,” he said. “That means they were born here or have lived here since childhood and they don’t want to be anywhere else. We have had tremendous clergy leadership here, with high levels of commitment, but when they move on, it creates instability within congregations – and that can’t be helped.”

A training program developed in the diocese for local ministry is being actively promoted so that stipendiary priests are trained, and then supported, by the communities in which they serve.

The diocese is also placing increasing emphasis on the role of young people in parishes. Bishop Lawrence said he has confirmed 4,296 people, most of them young teenagers, during his 20 years as bishop. By that reckoning, he said, you would expect to find hundreds of people in their 20s and 30s married and raising families who are active in the life of the church.

However, that is not the case. In order to halt an ever-widening generation gap in churches, he said, young people and children must be included and acknowledged as valued members of their congregations.

In his charge to diocesan Synod last year, Bishop Lawrence said he wants to see increased participation of young people in the life of the parishes.

“I want to be part of the kinds of new directions and policies which will change attitudes and promote openness to, and inclusion of, young people in the full life of the church,” he told Synod.

Bishop Lawrence was born and raised in Nova Scotia and sent to the Arctic at the end of his formal training. That time taught him about the importance of baptismal ministry, and helped him to become fluent in Cree. It also offered him his first glimpse of what it means to be Christian from a Native point of view.

“I spent at least as much time learning how to be Christian through different eyes as I’d spent (learning about it) in theological college,” he said.

Now, his role is often one of interpreter, helping communities understand each other better.

For example, he said, while some congregations in Canada have trouble with the concept of stewardship, one congregation in Northern Quebec took its support of ministry initiatives all the way to the bank – literally.

“Everyone seemed to know the account number for the parish,” he said. “So, when a number of the people went to the bank with the money from their trap lines, they also said to the teller ‘and put this much money into this account.’ The treasurer was baffled as to where all this money was coming from, but that was the way it was done in that community.”

Bishop Lawrence said his dream remains to have the “northern component and southern component meet and be part of the diocesan community, where indigenous Native and non-Native people would work at being Christian from different points of view.”

In large measure, it is happening, he said. However, there has been no effective development of an Anglican Ministry within the French-Canadian population.

“It didn’t work and in many ways that is completely understandable. It would be very difficult for a French-Canadian Roman Catholic to join a church whose very name meant the church of the English.”

He visited Val’Dor, where the Anglican Church congregation has disbanded. At the official closing, a couple spoke to him.

“They came over to me, and very quietly said, ‘It didn’t work, but it wasn’t wrong for us to try.’ I found that very moving.”

Each year, Bishop Lawrence tries to visit each parish in Moosonee at least once.

“To be with them is really great,” he said. “And not as ‘my Lord bishop’ or anything like that, but to sit with them and share ministry together. They are excited by the possibilities and it is really delightful to see that.”

Nancy Devine is a freelance writer and editor living in Aurora, Ont. Correction

Last month’s diocesan profile on Montreal overstated the size of a French language ministry in a new subdivision. No more than about 30 people meet in a school gym. In addition, the Christ Church referred to is Christ Church Sorel.


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