SOME MEMBERS of a thriving Toronto congregation have joined a fading one in a so-called “church graft” that may serve as a model for other parishes faced with aging parishioners and declining membership.
Rev. Walter (Duke) Vipperman, rector of the Church of the Resurrection, likes to call it a church “re-boot,” a computer term that refers to a re-start of the system after new software is installed.
Formerly an associate rector at Trinity East church, located east of downtown Toronto, Mr. Vipperman led about 70 people from Trinity East about five kilometres northeast to Resurrection, which, true to its name, was fighting to avoid amalgamation with another parish.
At first glance, Trinity East looks like the church that should need help. Its urban neighbourhood features small row houses; directly in front of the church, a man named David Walker (who is often looked after by church staff) lives in a bus shelter amid boxes and sleeping bags. By contrast, Resurrection is located in a prosperous-looking residential neighborhood with detached houses and tree-lined streets.
However, Trinity East (also known as Little Trinity) is one of the most historic churches in Toronto and regularly draws Sunday worshippers from outside the city, averaging a total of about 300 people at three services. It opened its doors in 1844, the second Anglican church in the city, and was established for Irish Protestant workers who were settling in the east end.
Church of the Resurrection, on the other hand, was lucky to get 60 on a Sunday. Founded in 1915, the church saw up to 1,000 people at services in the 1950s, said Mr. Vipperman, but had been affected in the past couple of decades by the death of a beloved rector and an aging congregation. “Look, every Sunday, they set up a little children’s area in the back of the church, but there were hardly any children,” said Mr. Vipperman, giving a visitor a tour of the church.
Rev. Chris King, who was born in England, joined Little Trinity as rector in 1997, when Mr. Vipperman was the associate. “I’d seen (church grafts) done in England, where a large church had done this for a smaller, struggling church,” he said. Bishop Michael Bedford-Jones, bishop for the area within the Diocese of Toronto, was highly supportive of the idea, and “Duke was obviously capable of leading a parish,” commented Mr. King.
So Mr. King and Mr. Vipperman decided to broach the idea to the congregants. “Duke and I did the sermon together and we presented a letter describing the project. We asked the parish to go away and pray to discern whether God was calling them to go,” Mr. King said.
It was a delicate thing to pull off – for both churches. “We didn’t want to send disaffected people over and we were hoping for some people with young families,” Mr. King said. Slowly, people started to come forward. Rev. Vipperman hoped to get a “tithe,” or about 10 percent, of the congregation, which numbers 600. Indeed, about 70 people, in the end, agreed to follow him (which gave rise to a cartoon in Trinity’s newsletter showing Mr. Vipperman in shepherd’s robe leading a crowd out of a subway entrance toward the new church) and Trinity East also pledged $15,000 to help Resurrection regain its health.
The graft took place in January. Although Resurrection was glad to receive an injection of new blood, there were concerns, Mr. Vipperman said. One of them was “what happens to our identity?” The response, from fellow parishioners, he said, was “our identity is in Christ. Everything after that is negotiable.”
At the other end, Mr. King was preparing the pilgrims. “We kind of told our people not to go in and take over. We used the metaphor that when you stay with someone you don’t rearrange the furniture and comment on the color scheme,” he said.
There are plenty of children now – about 25 – and while that’s been welcomed by the elderly parishioners, there have been a few complaints about noisier services, Mr. Vipperman said. “It’s an adjustment. We’re working on it. The people who have been here say, ‘consider the alternative,'” he said.
Overall, it’s been a positive move, both clergymen said. Now that Resurrection has a mix of age groups, it is drawing new members from the community, Mr. Vipperman said. One of the newcomers also told him, “we learned about commitment – these people (at Resurrection) stayed with it over the long haul,” he said. Trinity East, on the other hand, now has enough room for parishioners to bring their friends to church, Mr. King said.