The diocese of British Columbia has announced a plan to close 13 churches. While the dramatic restructuring is a response to declining church attendance, Bishop James Cowan says it goes beyond cost-cutting, addressing how the church can best allocate resources to carry out its mission as well as rebuild for the future.
Nineteen churches are slated to be dis-established, but five of those will be renamed and become hub churches in areas where other parishes have been closed. Bishop Cowan said the diocese hopes to use one other church as a diocesan conference centre.
Factoring in some retirements, reassignments and vacant positions that will not be filled, the bishop said he did not expect clergy layoffs would be necessary.
Ten of the churches to be closed are in the Greater Victoria area, and some properties could be sold.
Bishop Cowan says declining church attendance and cost effectiveness are behind the re-structuring. What’s more, the consolidation “is only the first prong” of the plan, he said. “If synod agrees to this, then the next prong is ‘Okay, how do we rebuild?’ ” (See Don’t touch that dial! p. 4.)
The sale of properties could bring in millions of dollars, the bishop said, noting that resources could be redirected to new kinds of outreach such as altenative types of services. This change is about “coming to grips with the realities of the culture in which we live,” he said. “We are not in the Middle Ages anymore where the entire population is considered to be Christian….”
Changes of this nature have been discussed since 2004. A report to the House of Bishops in 2005 underlined the demographic problem for the church. Church-goers are aging and are not being replaced by younger parishoners. Attendance has been in precipitous decline, decreasing by about 13,000 or about two per cent each year.
At that rate, the report projected the Anglican church in Canada could face extinction by the middle of the century. The newly released report from the diocese of British Columbia confirms that this decline has continued. The diocese reports a larger number of funerals than weddings and baptisms combined.
Bishop Cowan says the years preparing for this change were required for people to accept it. The diocese produced reports in 2006 and 2008 before this more concrete plan was released. Acknowledging that some people will be deeply distressed by the changes, the diocese no longer had an alternative, according to the report. “I think people are far more prepared [now],” said Bishop Cowan. “I’ve had far more comment about how this is a good report. It is positive and well-timed, and this time, we will make decisions.”
Another aspect of the plan is to make the church, including the laity, more outward-looking and able to engage in evangelism. When asked whether traditional Anglican reserve might be an obstacle to this, Bishop Cowan acknowledged that “Anglicans are reserved. And they have this image of evangelism that is the televangelist.” In fact, he said, the kind of evangelism he is referring to has a “10-second training session, which is ‘Would you be interested in coming to church with me?’ ” It is an invitation based on relationship, he said. “Most of us are involved in conversations at one point or another where people are talking about things beyond themselves….”
Training about how to pick up on questions and respond without being pushy has already begun in the diocese, he said. “Our congregational life facilitator [The Rev.] Gary Nicolosi is working…to, God willing, help Anglicans overcome that shyness and say, ‘We do have something that we think is worth sharing with others.’ “