Churches that once complained that they didn’t have enough money to cover the week-to-week bills were suddenly investing in technological upgrades.
By Rev. Grayhame Bowcott
In the first article that I wrote for HCN, I introduced a concept that many in the Anglican Church have experienced over the last two decades of ministry: the Contemporary Anglican Lament.
This is what I have come to call the malaise that characterizes some congregations as they look to the future ahead of them and, instead of seeing hope, possibilities and opportunity, they groan: “too old, too poor, too tired and too few to carry on.” There are moments when all churches feel this way, but is this lament the defining descriptor of the future church? Hold that thought.
On March 25, Huron University College’s Faculty of Theology hosted a virtual lecture with The Rev. Dr. Neil Elliot, an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Kootenay, and a postdoctoral researcher of membership trends within the Anglican Church of Canada. Dr. Elliot’s presentation was titled “Time to Change: How Covid Provides Opportunities That Many Churches Have Seized.”
The lecture opened with a review of the membership report of the ACoC that was presented to Council of General Synod in 2018. These statistics were the basis of Elliot’s “Gone by 2040” report that has made headlines over the past three years:
“We’ve got simple projections from our data that suggest that there will be no members, attenders or givers in the Anglican Church of Canada by approximately 2040.”
While these projections reinforced the reality of the Anglican Lament, they did not account for an event that has become the greatest disruption of the Canadian Church since the two World Wars. The first presumptive case of Covid 19 in Canada was documented on January 25, 2020. By March 11, the World Health Organization had declared Covid-19 to be a pandemic. The ripple effect felt within the Diocese of Huron was that by Sunday March 15, worship services were suspended, churches were shuttered and ministry as we had known it was immediately under threat.
What happened next was not something that Elliot (or others) in the Anglican Church could have predicted. In his own words, Anglican congregations “turned on a dime” to almost instantaneously assess the ministry challenges presented by the pandemic, to explore innovative options through the use of video recording, live-streaming and social media, and to then jump in with both feet into a new format of church that, for the most part, was completely foreign to us. In his research of Anglicanism in Canada, Elliot remarks that he has never seen a comparable time of rapid change within our history… or of resilience!
Where the Contemporary Anglican Lament had pre-Covid church leaders groaning: “too old, too poor, too tired, too few”, suddenly we found ourselves reaching out to a younger generation to beg their help to teach us how to innovate with technology. Churches that once complained that they didn’t have enough money to cover the week-to-week bills were suddenly investing in technological upgrades. When services went online with livestreaming, zoom groups, Facebook and other forms of social media, new and in some cases returning, members began to show up. For many congregations, online attendance dwarfed their normal statistics of in-person Sunday worship. Dr. Elliot, in studying the diversity of styles and formats of Anglican services hosted in Canada throughout the pandemic has been awed by the rapid shift to innovation and emphasis on relational connection – even when normal operations of our churches were locked down.
Each of these elements began to build a convincing argument against the excuses that Anglicans had been employing over the past decades. As Anglicans “turned on a dime” to meet the challenges of the pandemic, we proved to ourselves that we are not “too old, too poor, too tired and too few.” While Covid 19 had presented an existential threat to Christianity in Canada, it also blessed us with the opportunity to innovate in ways that we had not imagined before.
Dr. Elliot’s presentation also left us with another parting thought: if Anglicans have the capacity to change, to rapidly innovate to respond to an existential threat as great as the pandemic, what else might we be capable of?
Some congregations have discovered a new energy and hope for the future as they grow to realize that not all ministry innovation is a bad thing. Others have experienced a growth in relationships because the diversity of their worship services and virtual ministries have appealed to new members.
What is important for us to remember, at this pivotal time in the pandemic when many churches are beginning to return to previous pre-pandemic routines of ministry, is that we need to take credit for what we have accomplished through our flexibility, innovation and creativity. What we have accomplished together is a seismic shift in the history of our Church in Canada. While we should be intentional about thanking God for blessing us with the capacity to change, we should also be asking ourselves: how is God calling us to use our resilience to the benefit of the future Church? What more are we capable of?
Rev. Dr. Grayhame Bowcott is passionate about fostering congregational relationships and sharing our Anglican vocation with others. He serves as rector of St. George’s, The Parish of The Blue Mountains. firstname.lastname@example.org