Quebec diocese: On the cusp of change?

The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, the oldest Anglican cathedral outside of the United Kingdom, has been a bastion of Englishness in Quebec City since the early 19th century. Photo: André Forget
The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, the oldest Anglican cathedral outside of the United Kingdom, has been a bastion of Englishness in Quebec City since the early 19th century. Photo: André Forget
Published December 22, 2016

Quebec City
In many ways, the diocese of Quebec contains, in microcosm, the whole diversity of the Anglican Church of Canada, and the tensions and challenges that come with it.

While its headquarters are in Quebec City, the diocese includes the rural farmlands of the Eastern Townships, the fishing outports of the Lower North Shore, Gaspé and Magdalen Islands, the remote Naskapi community of Kawawachikamach in the northern part of the province and the growing university city of Sherbrooke.

Though it covers a territory the size of France, its Anglican population (4,000 according to the 2017 Anglican Church Directory) would fit comfortably in a small town. Its 52 parishes include 68 congregations, many of which have a regular attendance of fewer than 10 people on a Sunday. Those who do come may worship in Naskapi, French, English or a combination of languages.

The diocese also contains within its history many important moments in the development of Canada. The first Anglican mass in Quebec City was held to celebrate the British conquest of the city in 1759. The diocese itself was founded in 1793 with the arrival of Bishop Jacob Mountain, at which time its territory stretched from the Labrador coast to Lake Superior. It was the mother diocese of what are now the dioceses of Toronto, Huron, Ottawa, Algoma, Niagara and Montreal.

And because the story of the diocese of Quebec is, in some ways, the story of Canada-with all the pain, sectarianism and outright bigotry that are part of it-the diocese is both a cause and product of the sometimes strained relationships between the Indigenous, French and English cultures that laid the groundwork for the nation.

“We bring with us a lot of historical baggage, having arrived as a church the same year as the English conquest,” explains Coadjutor Bishop Bruce Myers. “I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been asked by French-speaking tourists at the Cathedral, ‘Is the Queen the head of your church?’ ”

Myers says he believes the diocese’s history “can also be an asset rather than something we need to be apologetic for.” As someone whose first career as a radio journalist brought him to Ottawa and then Quebec City around the time of the referendum on Quebec sovereignty in 1995, he is aware of how deeply the diocese’s fortunes have been tied to those of the English population.

When asked where the current demographic struggles of the diocese began, every single Quebec Anglican the Anglican Journal spoke to cited two factors, both of which have a common root in the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s: secularization, the speed of which has been unrivalled in the Western world, and the outmigration of hundreds of thousands of English-speakers following the rise of Quebec nationalism and the passing of the Charter on the French Language in 1977, which made French the province’s official language.

Coadjutor Bishop Bruce Myers speaks with parishioners at St. Michael's, Sillery, in Quebec City. Photo: André Forget
Coadjutor Bishop Bruce Myers speaks with parishioners at St. Michael’s, Sillery, in Quebec City. Photo: André Forget

“I believe that what we have in the church is something that would draw people, but if there’s nobody to draw…you can’t create English-speaking people. They have to be there, or they’re not. And they’re not,” says diocesan Bishop Dennis Drainville.

Attempts have been made by the diocese to reach out to French-speaking Quebecers, including an increasing number of churches that offer bilingual services.

But the extent of these ministries is limited by the reality that one of the main attractions of coming to church for many English-speakers is precisely the fact that it is one of the few institutions that still functions in English.

Speaking of the archdeaconry of St. Francis in the Eastern Townships, Jim Sweeny, the diocese’s archivist and property manager, notes that many faithful Anglicans in his region “wouldn’t go [to church] if it was in French.”

For these people, the small remnant of what was once a significant population, the church is a link to a cultural heritage that is quickly disappearing. For this reason, they are even more resistant to change than Anglicans in other parts of the church.

“It’s that sense that they’ve lost everything else,” says Sweeny. “And so I think there is a sense of, [at least] I can control my church.”

But despite the fact that many Anglicans are committed to keeping their churches going, as Drainville notes “the handwriting is on the wall for the future…we just don’t have enough people and we won’t.”

Since Drainville took up his position in 2008, the diocese has struggled through some difficult times financially, and has only recently begun to stabilize, following an effort to be more strategic with diocesan investments and the sale of a large number of properties.

“We’ve been selling a lot of churches…I think we have sold eight or nine churches in the last couple of years,” says Sweeny. He adds that the diocese makes an effort to sell church buildings to local historical societies or the municipalities in which they are located before putting them on the open market.

While Sweeny anticipates fewer closures in the coming years, due to the fact that most of the churches that were going to close have already done so, he stresses that there has been a fundamental shift in how the diocese provides ministry.

“Lay leaders have taken a greater role-there is much more of an acceptance that you don’t have a parish priest,” he says. The new model in his own region, the archdeaconry of St. Francis, is to have a team of priests and lay readers who share responsibility for the entire jurisdiction.

“When you go to the hospital and somebody comes to visit you, it’ll be someone that you probably know, but it won’t be your parish priest necessarily,” he explains. “That’s a sea change in how people look at their parishes.”

Jim Sweeny, diocesan archivist and registrar, with the letters patent from King George III that established the diocese of Quebec. Photo: André Forget
Jim Sweeny, diocesan archivist and registrar, with the letters patent from King George III that established the diocese of Quebec. Photo: André Forget

While the adjustment has not been an easy one, especially for older Anglicans whose identities, going back generations, are sometimes tied up in their church buildings, others see the struggle as having the potential to revitalize the church.

“We are on the cutting edge. The one real benefit of being here in Quebec, and being a remnant community, is we do not have the luxury of pretending that we matter, that people think we’re important, that we can rest on our history or our influence in communities,” says Archdeacon Edward Simonton, one of the priests serving the archdeaconry of St. Francis in the Eastern Townships.

For priests like Simonton, the very secularism that has nearly extinguished Anglicanism in the province also pushes the church to be a better version of itself.

“This is missionary work like from in the early church, and it’s incredibly freeing,” he explains. “We are getting rid of basic prison bars that people do not realize are prison bars-like parishes, [which involve] just thinking about yourself in terms of this town, this little community.”

For Simonton and the other lay and ordained leaders in St. Francis, the diocese of Quebec is a testing ground for a new way of doing church, one that might be useful for other parts of the Anglican Church of Canada to consider as demographic decline and growing secularism push institutional Anglicanism ever further into the margins of society.

“I would not be surprised if the diocese of Quebec becomes the light on the hill,” says Simonton. “When other people start to hit the wall-which they will hit-they’ll go, ‘Oh, Quebec hit that wall and they’re still going. They found a new way to do it.’ “


  • André Forget

    André Forget was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2014 to 2017.

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