The Rev. Sam Rose, rector at St. Michael and All Angels in St. John’s, Nfld., laughs as he tells an old joke about how many Anglicans it takes to change a light bulb. “Change?” says one of the Anglicans “My grandfather gave us that light bulb-why do we need to change it?”
While this stereotype of ecclesial intransigence may ring uncomfortably true in some quarters, for Rose and the congregation at St. Michael’s, change is less an imposition than a way of life.
Not only did they buck the trend of Anglican churches in Canada by constructing a new building for their growing congregation in June 2014, but by purposely situating themselves in a new subdivision, they have been able to explore how they can use their building as a “command centre” for reaching out to the people around them.
“For a church in 2014 to open a new building when everybody’s saying the church is dead and dying, you really need to know why you’re doing that,” said Rose. “You also need to know how that should manifest itself when it happens.”
His biggest fear, he says, “is that we just revert to the old ways of being insular…only being concerned about paying the light bill and the heat bill, and keeping the doors open. If we turn back to that, then I don’t think we’ve learned anything.”
Instead of the church being a refuge from the world, Rose says it should be “reminding [people] of how much they have to go back into the world, to be the body of Christ in the neighbourhoods around.”
This wasn’t the first time that the church has moved. Founded as a mission of the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in 1885 and established as an independent parish in 1922, the congregation of St. Michael and All Angels spent the first 20 years of its existence borrowing space in school chapels. It built its first building in 1904, and replaced it with another in the 1950s, able to seat up to 1,000 people. After the ’60s, however, the congregation began to shrink, and at a certain point maintaining the building became untenable.
In 2007, Rose was hired as a “mission priest” tasked with going out into the neighbourhood to find out how the church could better meet the needs of people. He came to the conclusion that for many people, it was simply too difficult to get out the door on a Sunday morning. In response to this, the church started a Saturday service, which soon grew to around 60 people.
But while the congregation was showing new signs of growth, it was clear that the building was draining resources. On Nov. 1, 2009, Rose took over as priest-in-charge, and two weeks later the building was sold. In January 2010, the congregation began meeting at a funeral home. The symbolism was lost on no one. “We heard the jokes,” Rose says, wryly.
Jokes or not, the congregation of St. Michael’s was committed to staying together. And, according to Rose, it was then that “the funniest thing happened”-the church started to grow. “People started to hear about this church that sort of sold everything and had a plan to build a new home,” he said. “All of a sudden, people started to show up, and stay.”
After four years of meeting in the funeral chapel, the church finally completed its new home; but the work of ministry was only just beginning.
“Ministry means service,” says Rose, “doing something, rolling up your sleeves.” In St. Michael’s current context, this means finding out how the church can serve its suburban surroundings rather than assuming people will just start coming.
Many of the things Rose mentioned-community gardens, community meals, movie nights, daycare-involved utilizing the church’s space in ways that help people feel comfortable entering into it.
The new church has a nursery built into its chapel so that young parents can stay with their children and still feel part of the service, and in a city with some of the highest childcare costs in Canada, childcare is both a critical need for many families and a fertile area of outreach. To this end, St. Michael’s has partnered with a non-profit childcare that uses the space during the week. “It’s not meant to be a drop-off,” says Rose. “It’s meant to be a social thing.”
While many challenges still remain-the congregation of around 180 remains predominantly over age 65-Rose is confident that the best years are ahead.
“I think our job is to bring people together, and then God takes over,” he said. “People connect, new ideas happen, and then the church starts to learn from that, respond to that.”