A merger of five Peterborough-area Anglican and Lutheran congregations into two might begin as early as this September, says a diocesan official overseeing the process.
The amalgamation of St. Barnabas Anglican Church, St. Luke’s Anglican Church, St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church, All Saints’ Anglican Church and Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church was recommended by a commission of lay people from all five churches in a report released last November. The report recommends that the current five parishes be reduced to two, but does not specify which two existing churches will remain open and which will close.
Since the report was released, all five churches have voted to proceed with amalgamation, according to Bishop Patrick White (ret., Bermuda), who was appointed assisting bishop for Trent-Durham after the departure of Bishop Linda Nicholls last year and before the installation of current Bishop Riscylla Walsh Shaw this January, and was asked to continue guiding the process.
The next step, White says, is for another commission, this one consisting of appointees from the Anglican diocese of Toronto and the Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), to determine which two of the five churches will remain open. That commission’s report is expected to be released in late May, he says. If its recommendations are approved, the diocese would begin implementing the amalgamation in September. It could take a year or more after that to complete the process, especially if the two sites chosen need renovation work, he says.
The lay commission was established in 2015 by then-area bishop Nicholls, and tasked with coming up with alternatives to having five churches in the area. Its report noted that combined average Sunday attendance at the churches had fallen from 1,000 to just over 500 from 2001 to 2014, and this decline seemed likely to continue, given that Peterborough is the oldest community in Canada, with 40 per cent of its population aged more than 65.
Givings had increased somewhat over that same period, the report said, but had not kept up with cost increases, and some of the parishes were either already financially unsustainable or soon to become so.
Since 2014, the five churches have been joined by the Peterborough Covenant-an agreement to co-operate in various ways: fostering new forms of ministry together, for example, and sharing resources.
The report recommends three of the existing parishes outside the city’s core be merged to a single “uptown parish,” while two more central churches be merged to a single “downtown parish.” The motion approved by parishes this winter, however, does not mention these up- and downtown groupings, so the diocesan and synod commission is not bound by them.
In general, parishioners and clergy in the five parishes have mixed feelings about the merger, White says.
“Three out of the five congregations are going to have to literally start going to church somewhere else, you know? So there’s the natural kind of anxieties about that, and about giving up properties which they value greatly-worship spaces which in some ways have formed them and informed them,” he says. “But along with it, I think is…this sense that if all they do is combine their resources and continue to do the same things that have caused the decline in the first place, where is that going to get them? And that is, in five or 10 years they’ll be looking at the possibility of going down to one congregation. That’s the worst-case scenario.”
The Rev. Brad Smith, incumbent at St. John the Evangelist, says parishioners are “adapting” to the process. In general, he says, they seem to recognize the need for amalgamation; out of almost 100 people who attended the vestry meeting to vote on the motion to approve amalgamation in principle, only two voted against, he says. (Results were very similar in the four other Peterborough churches, he adds.)
Church members, he says also see the necessity for the church to reach out in a more active way to the community-a process it has been undertaking for the past few years.
“I think that’s been a really helpful thing-that shift in perspective away from just looking in and trying to figure out how to survive, to looking out and saying, ‘How do we engage with our community better?’ ” Smith says.
At the same time, he says, there’s some anxiety among parishioners about the potential loss of their building, way of worshipping and leadership.
The Rev. Scott Schellenberger, pastor at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, says that although his parishioners have very much enjoyed the closer ties they’ve developed with local Anglicans over the past few years, there’s concern in the congregation that an actual merger would mean “being swallowed up in a sea of Anglicans, as well as losing the Lutheran identity.” Like the others, his parish voted overwhelmingly to proceed with the next phase of the amalgamation, but with the understanding, he notes, that there’s a chance to opt out of the process once the diocesan and synod commission makes its recommendations in May.
Two United Church of Canada congregations are reported to have merged in Peterborough last year, with two Presbyterian churches now considering a similar move.