Western Newfoundland: hope amid challenges

Published May 1, 2001

Bishop Leonard Whitten

In the course of being interviewed for this profile of the diocese of Western Newfoundland, Bishop Leonard Whitten summed up the diocese in one phrase: adjusting to new challenges.

In the nearly four years since Bishop Whitten was elected, he and the diocese have grappled with declining church attendance, difficulty attracting young clergy, financially-strapped parishes and poor participation on the part of young people.

In his charge to the diocesan synod in the fall of 2000, Bishop Whitten didn’t mince words: “The apathy of so many Anglicans in our diocese, including those in leadership positions, is a constant concern. The poor response to regular worship and financial commitment reflect a deep spiritual problem in this diocese.”

Asked to expand upon his comments concerning apathy, he noted that only about ten to 12 per cent of the 36,000 Anglicans in the diocese attend worship as regularly as once a month. At Christmas and Easter, the percentage only rises to 20 or 25 per cent.

The world has changed, he said. “When I grew up, if you didn’t go to church, people would say, ‘why not?’ Now people say, ‘What do you get out of it?'” Some of the problem lies with the church, however, he believes. “Congregations have to be open to new styles of worship, new styles of music or they’re not going to attract people,” he added.

So what is he doing about it? “I really push Alpha (a Christian discussion and renewal program), Teens Encounter Christ, anything that brings people into a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ,” he said.

The diocese, which includes the western part of the island of Newfoundland and a small bit of Labrador, is economically dependent on fishing and seafood processing, lumbering and tourism. About 75 per cent is rural, 25 per cent urban or semi-urban. The largest city, and the see city, is Corner Brook, with a population of about 22,000.

The cod moratorium forced many people out of the fishing industry, but those that remain now fish for shrimp, crab and lobster – species with a better financial return, said Bishop Whitten.

There are two paper mills in the diocese, including one in Corner Brook. Tourists visit L’Anse aux Meadows, site of a Viking settlement, and Gros Morne National Park. The Marble Mountain ski resort brings quite a few tourists into the area also, said Bishop Whitten.

“Economically, we’re just doing okay. There’s a high unemployment rate in some parts, a lot of seasonal work, a lot of make-work projects. But as I go ’round, I don’t see very much abject poverty,” he said.

The number of Anglicans in the diocese has declined from about 45,000 ten years ago. There is a significant out-migration of young people and the area does not attract a lot of retirees from elsewhere, he said. Five or six parishes are just barely surviving financially, but others are becoming healthier through a program Bishop Whitten started called Challenge 2000 – Giving is Growing.

Last year, Archdeacon Gordon Druggett, the bishop’s assistant, wrote in the diocesan newspaper that at the end of 1999, twelve parishes were in arrears in their assessments to the diocese by a total of $297,178.

Challenge 2000 is not a diocesan fund-raiser; it is a campaign aimed at increasing support in each parish. A key part of the campaign was the provision that each Anglican household in the diocese would receive a visit from a church representative in the year 2000, to increase a person-to-person connection.

“The arrears have improved considerably. The campaign focus was on encouraging people to become involved. About half of the parishes have had different aspects of it done. Last year, we had our best year (financially) in five to seven years,” Bishop Whitten said.

The Newfoundland dioceses are the youngest in the Canadian church. The diocese of Newfoundland was subdivided into Western Newfoundland, Central Newfoundland and Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador in 1976. In its earliest years, the province was under the jurisdiction of the bishop of London. In 1789, it was made part of the diocese of Nova Scotia and in 1839 acquired a warm-weather connection when it became the diocese of Newfoundland and Bermuda. Its first synod took place in 1873 and the diocese lost Bermuda in 1924. It became part of Canada when Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949.

The residential schools crisis currently shaking some dioceses and the national church does not affect Western Newfoundland, which never had any of the schools. “It’s far removed from the people in the pews. They may read about it and I do talk about it as I move around. I try to make people see that we are part of the Anglican Church of Canada,” Bishop Whitten said.

Bishop Whitten, who was born in Petty Harbour, on the eastern shore of the island, was ordained in 1962. His career included 16 years as a parish priest in the diocese before his election as bishop in 1997. He and his wife, June, have three grown sons living in Alberta, Labrador and Ontario and four grandchildren.

The most challenging aspect of the job of bishop, he said, was “around the whole business of personnel.” More than half the graduates of Queen’s College, a theological college in St. John’s, move out of Newfoundland. “We’d like to see them stay, but a husband-wife couple, for instance, need full-time jobs and we can’t always give that to them,” he said.

The diocese is adjusting to the challenge of declining numbers by looking at new models of ministry, including team ministry within a deanery. “We are raising up some local ministries. We have a long list of lay readers and we have the possibility of vocational deacons,” Bishop Whitten said. He has also started a new confirmation course called Grow In The Spirit and wants to retain couples who bring babies to church for baptism, then never come again.

He also wants to see more youth programs. “They have to see the church is alive and there is a joy in it all,” he said. A realist, Bishop Whitten is also hopeful. “The church is going to have fewer numbers,” he admits, “but the numbers are more committed.”


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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