St. George’s Anglican Church in Lennoxville, diocese of Quebec, does not, at first, look noticeably different from any other Anglican church in small town Eastern Canada.
Sitting a few blocks from the borough’s main attraction, Bishop’s University, the church’s red brick façade and modest bell tower are the essence of traditional Anglican architecture. They are also a reminder of the central role the church played in the lives of the first Europeans who settled in Quebec’s Eastern Townships in the late-18th century following the American Revolution.
Today, St. George’s is at the centre of an ambitious plan to reimagine what it means to be a church in rural 21st-century Quebec, one that, if successful, might give Anglicanism a new lease on life in this part of the diocese.
Inside the church office, Archdeacon Edward Simonton and Ruth Sheeran, rural dean of St. Francis deanery, are studying a large wall map of the deanery of St. Francis, which occupies roughly the same area as the Eastern Townships.
The map is covered by different coloured pins, indicating churches in different states of demographic and financial health; as Simonton and Sheeran discuss the challenges and opportunities each pin represents, a picture of the deanery begins to emerge.
“This is the majority of the Anglican membership of the diocese,” Simonton says, noting that it is one of a few areas in the province of Quebec settled primarily by the English rather than the French. “[But] we hang on by the skin of our teeth.”
Despite making up the largest concentration of Anglicans in the diocese, the deanery, which consists of 16 parishes, is far from the halcyon days earlier in the 20th century when it had nearly a hundred.
Bigger role for laity
In the midst of far-reaching demographic changes caused by an out-migration of English- speakers, growing secularism and an aging population, Simonton, Sheeran and other church leaders are trying to balance efforts to build a sustainable future with the need to provide the kind of ministry older Anglicans still look for.
Simonton is one of two stipendiary clergy providing ministry to the deanery. (The second priest, the Rev. Giuseppe Gagliano, arrived in January 2017, after these interviews were conducted.) Unlike most parts of the Canadian church, the deanery does not have any incumbent priests. Instead, ministry is handled by a team of retired priests and theologically-trained lay readers, all of whom serve multiple congregations and are collectively responsible for the Anglican church in the Eastern Townships.
Like many dioceses in Canada, Quebec is a 21st-century, post-Christendom church struggling under the weight of structures left over from a time when there was an Anglican church in every village.
“We’ve inherited this structure from 150 years ago, when there were many people, and we have these little churches struggling to maintain a corporation,” says Sheeran. Until recently, each parish was responsible for its own financial affairs, and would receive the ministry it could afford.
“Previously, we had multi-point parishes, and we had churches that said, ‘Well, I pay 50 per cent of the priest’s salary, I want to see him 50 per cent of the time,’ ” says Sheeran. “We wanted to get away from that.”
All ministries in the deanery are now funded from a single “pot,” with each congregation contributing a percentage of its income according to a formula adopted by the deanery ministry committee in 2012, based on one used by the former parish of Eaton-Dundswell-Victoria. A parish, regardless of its income, can receive as many services as its congregation wants-an arrangement that has worked well, Sheeran says, because “smaller places don’t want that many [services].”
The long-term goal is to manage the deanery like a single parish, says Sheeran. This would allow deanery leadership to plan for the long term, allocating resources to areas where they see a potential for growth, and ensuring that revenues brought in by the sale of closed churches goes back into the pot for other local congregations to use.
Sheeran says churches become realistic about the potential benefits of closure when they know their money will go to help local communities. “They feel they are helping the rest of the deanery because the money isn’t just going to Quebec City…They are still helping, even though their church is closed,” she says.
Simonton and Sheeran add that the decision to close a church never comes from the top; congregations disband when they decide for themselves it is the right thing to do.
“We’ve never actually closed anyone that didn’t want to be closed,” says Simonton. “They decide they can no longer operate. It’s obvious.”
Perhaps the most significant change brought about by restructuring is in the role lay people play in church leadership.
Sixty kilometres northeast of Lennoxville, in the small farming community of Danville, Marilyn Mastine boils water for a pot of tea in the basement of St. Augustine’s Anglican Church as she discusses the cultural changes that have made it impossible for rural churches like hers to continue with business as usual.
Mastine is one of the deanery’s seven lay readers, a position she has held since 1984. In the absence of a full-time priest, Mastine is the driving force behind St. Augustine’s, and also serves as a lay reader at nearby St. Paul’s (Sydenham), Holy Trinity (Kirkdale) and Holy Trinity (Denison Mills). When she isn’t organizing church lunches, working with parish children, preparing sermons or putting together worship services, she runs an accounting business and helps her husband operate their farm.
A tall woman with short gray hair and a warm but practical demeanour, Mastine has spent her whole life in the Eastern Townships. She is pragmatic, but not pessimistic, when asked about changes she has seen in religious life among Anglicans over the course of her life.
“It’s a different society [now],” she says. “Children today, they’re not used to sitting in the structure of the church service, and they’re not comfortable in it…even the parents aren’t comfortable in it. We need to adapt.”
For Mastine, this has meant thinking seriously about how to communicate the gospel in a way her community can understand. For the children of the town, she runs a well-attended Messy Church once a month. For the adults, she tries to provide a message that is rooted in personal experience and practical needs.
“There needs to be engagement with people,” she says. “There needs to be dialogue and conversation, and a feeling that what you’re preaching is what you really believe…God isn’t something you read about in the Bible-he’s at work today. He’s not a figment of our imagination.”
In the past, Mastine says, the church has often erred on the side of being too rigid, too hierarchical.
“Here, people…are seeing that the change is good and it’s necessary, but I’d like to do a lot of other things,” she says. There is a real desire in the community to engage in the less formal events the church puts on, such as community meals and gospel hours, she adds. “I don’t think we’re there yet…I think it’ll come.”
Personal connection matters
Back in Lennoxville, the discussion moves to a topic close to Simonton’s heart: the theology of evangelism.
Simonton maintains that the early church did not attract converts through the subtleness of its theology or the clarity of its doctrine, but through its ability to model a different way of living. “We were different. We forgave, we were compassionate…It was [our] behaviour that made us attractive,” he says. “It was: ‘See these Christians, see how they love one another.’ ”
Simonton believes the church, when it is being faithful, will naturally be engaged in all kinds of outreach. The problem, as he sees it, is that the church has spent too much time focusing on its own organizational problems, and not enough actually doing things for the communities around them.
“What stops outreach happening is when structures of the church basically reduce the church to survival mode,” he says. “As that pressure is released, it allows the natural instincts of the church to reassert themselves.”
Simonton cites the case of the deanery’s St. Barnabas, North Hatley, which used the stipend allocated for a full-time priest to invest in local outreach initiatives, such as a school lunch program and ministry in a nursing home.
This demonstrates Simonton’s own approach to outreach, which places a high value on personal connection. For the past few years, he has been inviting students at Bishop’s University to live with him in the St. George’s rectory, the second floor of which is currently occupied by four undergraduates.
While he does advertise the rooms, most students who move in are connected to him through church or his community work. Not all are Christians, but Simonton says his goal is not to aggressively evangelize.
In 20 years of youth work, he explains, he has found it far more valuable to simply be a witness to what he believes and form strong relationships.
“If you ask [young people] abstractly or intellectually about [organized religion], they have no time for it at all,” he says. “If you then ask them after two or three years of having a relationship with me and the church, it is very different.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of the story attributed the deanery of St. Francis’ ministry funding formula to diocesan executive director Marie-Sol Gaudreau. It should have been to a deanery ministry committee.