JESUS AT 2000
Rev. Shirley Gosse serves as rector of Canadas most easterly parish, overseeing All Saints Anglican in Pouch (pronounced Pooch) Cove, Nfld., about 25 km north of St. Johns. The white wooden church—built in 1882—stands a stones throw from the Atlantic Ocean, and in rough weather, the enormous rollers that hammer the rocky shoreline douse the front doors with a salty spray. Come New Years Day, however, Gosse intends to be on the starting—as opposed to the receiving—end of a wave. The 5 5-year-old rector will have one of her parish volunteers ring the brass bell, and All Saints will help initiate a nationwide roll of bell-ringing planned for noon in each time zone, and lasting five minutes, to celebrate the start of the third Christian millennium. “It will be a signal to the world that Christians are rejoicing, and still doing God’s work,” says Gosse, “even though we have many problems.”
The bell-ringers will not be alone. Canada’s Christian churches have
CHRISTIAN CHURCHES shed past constraints
in a bid to regain their flocks
planned numerous events, including a huge interdenominational prayer assembly in Ottawa next May 26, as part of a worldwide celebration that many are calling J2K—the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. (Despite their best efforts, scholars do not know the exact date of the nativity.) In the ecumenical spirit that is sweeping Christianity— the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches recently agreed to end a 482-year-old theological feud—most events in this country are multi-denominational. “Were like members of the same family,” says Dean Allan Kirk, pastor at the Anglican Cathedral of St. John in Saskatoon, “who have gone separate ways for a couple of hundred years.”
The approach of a new millennium has given the members of that vast family—two billion people, on every continent, and growing most rapidly in Africa—common cause for celebration. In Korea, Catholic bishops have asked every church in the country to hold all-night prayer sessions beginning on New Years Eve. Brazilian churches have been planning events for three years because the millennium coincides with the 500th anniversary of the European discovery of what is now
Brazil. The grandest Christian festival—the Vatican’s Jubilaeum AD 2000, which will include events honouring children, refugees, artisans and many others—is expected to attract 30 million pilgrims to Rome over the course of the year.
For the world’s one billion Roman Catholics, the jubilee year begins on Christmas Eve at St. Peter’s Basilica, and the ceremony will be transmitted by satellite to more than 100 countries. Shortly before midnight mass, Pope John Paul II will raise a silver hammer and knock three times at the Basilica’s 3V2m-tall bronze Holy Door. Once it has been opened, the stooped and frail pontiff, who, at 79, is suffering from Parkinsons disease among other ailments, will step across the threshold, making a symbolic entry to the third millennium. “This is a solemn moment,” says Ersilio Cardinal Tonini, a senior Vatican official. “It is an extraordinary event, not just for Christians, but for the whole of humanity.”
That solemn moment comes after a year in which the Pope has made significant gestures to heal centuries-old rifts among Christians, and improve Catholic-Jewish relations. In May, he visited Romania, the first trip by a Pope to any predomi-
THE IN~S1~ UTIONAL crisis has led to a spirit of evangelism
nantly Orthodox Catholic country in almost 1,000 years. Papal envoys have also met leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church, and next March, John Paul plans to visit Israel, which Israeli cabinet minister Shlomo Ben-Ami calls “a milestone in the relationship between the Jewish people and Christianity.”
But as Canadas Christian faithful prepare to celebrate the new millennium, many of their churches are grappling with formidable problems that threaten their very existence. The most worrisome is the 50year decline in attendance at Sunday services. In a nominally Christian country—87 per cent of Canadians declared themselves to be adherents when asked about religious affiliation in the 1991 census—only 20 per cent actually go to church on a weekly basis, according to the most recent polling done by Statistics Canada in 1996. The same survey revealed that a mere 12 per cent of those aged 15 to 24 worship weekly, raising the spectre of even more empty pews.
The decline has occurred at a time when many people could have used the comforting embrace of spiritual faith. Instead, many clerics now say, churches stood still while society was transformed by increasing affluence, new technologies and altered work habits. Changes in the family—the growth in single-parent households, blended families and mixed marriages— have also profoundly affected their flocks. Meanwhile, the Catholic church, ruled by the Vatican’s positions on moral issues, has found itself out of step with many North American adherents on divorce, premarital sex,
contraception, abortion and gay rights. Worse, the church’s image in Canada has been tarnished by sexual scandals involving priests and bishops.
Economic forces—rural depopulation on the Prairies, the decline of the Atlantic fishery and Sunday shopping in urban areas—have also hurt attendance, leaving no denomination untouched. “In any church on any Sunday, 30 to 40 per cent of the congregation is absent because of retail openings, shift work and sporting events alone,” says Dave Collins, pastor at the fastgrowing Carruthers Creek Community Church in the Toronto suburb of Ajax. “It’s a fact of life these days.”
Plummeting attendance has brought on a host of other problems. Many Catholic parishes in Quebec
can barely afford to operate or maintain their magnificent churches, while in some rural areas of the country, churches may close due to an acute shortage of priests, which many critics attribute to the Vatican’s insistence on a celibate male clergy. Meanwhile, the Anglican church closed 526 mosdy small rural churches between 1992 and 1994, according to Rev. Marney Patterson of Thornhill, Ont., who published a book earlier this year predicting that, if current trends continue, the church will be dead in 20 years. “I’m not optimistic that we can turn it around,” he says.
The challenges may be daunting, but committed Christians are far from despairing. The institutional crisis has led to a new spirit of evangelism—a determination to spread the faith and revive their churches. Roman Catholics have taken their cue from the Pope, who declared in a November, 1994, document entided Advent of the Third Millennium, “The more the West is becoming estranged from its Christian roots, the more it is becoming missionary territory.” And the Catholic clergy are using the faithful to spread the word. “In the past, evangelism was a job for the bishops and priests,” says Archbishop Adam Exner of Vancouver. “Now, everyone is called to be a missionary.”
Many Protestant pastors, faced with aging and dwindling congregations, have embarked on similar campaigns. “I’ve always been passionate about evangelism,” says Rev.
Orville James, pastor of Wellington Square United Church in Burlington, Ont., west of Toronto. “At one time, it was a lonely part of the church. It’s not anymore.” As well, all those lapsed Christians are great candidates for evangelists.
“The Gospel is news again,” says the Right Rev.
Victoria Matthews, the Anglican bishop of Edmonton, “because a huge proportion of Canada is biblically illiterate.”
Some mainline Protestant clergy are beginning to adopt the practices of evangelical or conservative churches. According to Statistics Canada, weekly attendance at Pentecostal, Baptist and Mennonite services remained steady at 50 to 60 per cent of capacity between 1986 and 1996.
“Churches that stand as centres of certainty, in terms of their teachings, are doing better than those that are less clear about their beliefs,” says Don Posterski, vice-president of national programs with Mississauga-based World Vision Canada. “As for the future, mission-minded churches are more likely to succeed than those which exist only to serve their members.”
But even as they embrace evangelism, the mainline Protestants are not messing with the message. The teachings of Jesus Christ, they say, are as pertinent today as they were nearly 2,000 years ago. “We’re very anxious,” says Matthews, “to tell people of the riches of the Gospels.”
On a recent Sunday, the 11 a.m. service at Revivaltime Tabernacle, a Pentecostal church ministering to one of Toronto’s largest black communities, was a few minutes late starting, affording the well-dressed parishioners time to chat with friends and acquaintances. But everyone headed for their seats when a female moderator and four assistants, dressed in red jackets and black skirts, walked up the centre aisle to the pulpit. The 22 women and six men of the choir followed them to the altar, a momentary hush descended, and then the 1,500 or so worshippers burst into a rollicking medley of gospel choruses. For the next 45 minutes, parishioners swayed to the music, raised
CHURCHES ARE WINNING converts with services
that are less structured and more energetic
their hands and faces, waved handkerchiefs and shed tears.
Founded in 1980 with less than 50 members, Revivaltime Tabernacle now boasts a congregation of 2,800, and 40 per cent of the faithful are under the age of 35. Senior pastor Rev. Audley James built the church to serve Toronto’s growing Caribbean black community. But his congregation is also part of the most successful Christian movement of this century— Pentecostalism. Launched in 1901 from a Bible school in Topeka, Kan., modern Pentecostalism now claims 200 million adherents worldwide, 10 per cent of all Christians.
Canada’s Pentecostal Assemblies operate 10,000 churches in 35 countries through their foreign missions and 1,100 in this country. Domestic membership stands at about 240,000 and is growing two to three per cent annually—not fast enough for some church officials. “Our great disappointment is our own country,” says William Griffin, communications director of the Pentecostal Assemblies. “The message is not spreading as successfully as in parts of the world where people are needy and inclined to dependence on God.”
Still, the Pentecostals and many other evangelical churches are winning converts in part due to worship services that, compared with most other churches, are less structured, more energetic and driven by contemporary music. Marty Stillman, a 30-year-old chartered accountant and his wife, Jacqueline, 30, a retail sales manager, left the denominations they grew up in—Presbyterian and Roman Catholic, respectively—three years ago and recently began attending Brant Bible Church in Burlington. “We wanted something that was more vibrant, and offered a deeper commitment to scripture,” says Stillman.
Brant Bible, a member of the Associated Gospel Churches of Canada, draws about 850 people to three Sunday services,
TAKING MATTERS INTO HER OWN HANDS
It’s 7:30 a.m. and Marlene Haygarth, a 57-year-old health-care worker from Alameda, Sask., 240 km southeast of Regina, has just finished her third straight night shift providing palliative care to a woman dying of cancer. Instead of driving home, though, she pulls into a roadside café for a coffee and a chat with the regulars. In addition to her job and chores on a farm she manages with her husband, Haygarth works as a deacon in the Anglican Church. And it is during her morning visits to the café that many in her congregation feel most at ease talking about their emotional needs. “There are a lot of pressures living in rural areas these days, and we’ve seen a lot of depression,” said Haygarth. “The church
including one in the evening called “alt.church” aimed at people 17 to 30. Youth pastor Rev. Darren DeGraaf, a beaming, energetic 30-year-old with a gold ring in his pierced left ear, says he uses drama, video and music—Eric Clapton and Pink Floyd rather than Bach or Handel—to convey the message of the Gospels. “Our research shows that 0.5 per cent of people listen to organ music today,” says DeGraaf. “We’re offering relevant but unashamed exposure to the Bible.”
In the United Church, growth-oriented congregations are introducing similar services to attract younger members. When they joined St. Andrew’s United in Swan River, Man., 500 km northwest ofWinnipeg, in 1996, Meg Illman-White and husband David, both ordained ministers, received a mandate from the parish board to attract more young people. St. Andrew’s was drawing up to 250 Sunday morning worshippers with a service of prayers, hymns, scriptural readings, a collection and communion, led by a minister in robes. “A big chunk of the people in the pews were
is an important part of many people’s lives, so wherever people feel most comfortable talking, that’s where I will go.” Haygarth always felt a spiritual calling, yet she only acted . on it out of necessity. Twelve years ago, the Greater Parish of Oxbow and its then nine member churches could no longer afford their priest because of declining attendance and the difficulty of serving tiny congregations spread so far apart. Haygarth and several others vowed to keep their churches open, and today, five remain in operation. Assisted by others in the community, Haygarth now conducts weekly services at the All Saints Church in nearby Oxbow and performs
over 60,” she says, “so they were missing a whole lot of people.”
Last September, Illman-White, 40, and her 39-year-old husband started a contemporary service to complement the more traditional offering. Musicians, ranging in age from 15 to 50, perform several styles of music, including what she describes as “cutting-edge Christian rock.” Rather than simply reading scriptural passages from the pulpit, they rely on a 15-year-old parishioner, Mandy Woodson, who creates twoto threeminute contemporary dramas with several parts. Thus far, the new-look alternative has been attracting about 100 worshippers weekly, and generating considerable enthusiasm. “People have spontaneously begun to get up and welcome each other to the service,” she says.
Mainline Protestant pastors who belong to the evangelical wings of their churches are also tailoring sermons to younger audiences. Earlier this fall, James delivered a homily entitled “What would God say to Wayne Gretzky?” now that he has retired. The answer: “No one should ever believe that earthly applause is the equivalent of the approval of God.” But repackaging the service and writing hipper sermons does not mean they are prepared to change their basic teachings. “We
marriages, baptisms and funerals, even though she doesn’t draw a salary. Don Phillips, executive archdeacon in the Anglican diocese of Qu’Appelle in southern Saskatchewan, whose member churches had been crippled by rural depopulation and financial hardships, says volunteers such as Haygarth are some church’s only hope. “It’s one way of keeping the ship afloat,” said Phillips.
Haygarth, who completed a four-year course before being ordained as a deacon two years ago, has a congregation of about 25 regulars, about the same as when she started giving services. “Becoming the spiritual leader for people I had known all my life, at first that made me very nervous,” said Haygarth, who next year will become a priest. “I’ve learned to listen to the congregation and try, whatever way I can, to bring the church to people every day of the week.”
want to be softer at the edges, but firm at the core,” says the Anglican evangelical Harold Percy of Mississauga. “We believe there’s a spiritual hunger in people that orthodox Christian faith can fill, and materialism just doesn’t do it.”
Peter Amszej is an accomplished young man walking a lonely road in life. At 29, the London, Ont., native holds a degree in math and actuarial science, a masters in library science and has worked for two years for a large insurance company. But three years ago, answering what he felt was a call from God, he abandoned a promising career to enter the Catholic St. Peter’s Seminary in his home town. “It’s almost countercultural in today’s world,” he says. “You take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. You renounce marriage for the love of Christ. Some people think it’s crazy.”
One thing is certain: few young men take such a step. According to the Ottawa-based Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, there are only 48 seminary students in the country this year, down from 445 two decades ago. The result is an acute shortage of priests. Currendy, there are about 6,000 priests to address the spiritual needs of 12.6 million Catholics. By comparison, in 1968, more than 9,000 priests served 8.8 million faithful. ‘We could use twice as many priests as we have,” says Aloysius Cardinal Ambrozic, archbishop ofToronto, “but things are not totally desperate.”
In some parts of the country, the shortage of priests is placing severe constraints on church life. The archdiocese of Edmonton, which spans central Alberta, serves 300,000 people who live in 153 parishes. Half of those parishes no longer have a resident priest. “We cannot continue to do business as
we have in the past,” says John Acheson, co-ordinator of parish transformation. “It’s absolutely imperative that we look at new models.”
But the current Pope has upheld a centuries-old prohibition of married or female priests. In his August, 1988, apostolic letter, Dignity of Women, he declared that women are equal to men in all respects—spiritually, emotionally and intellectually, yet they cannot be ordained. “There’s a view, almost universally, among young people that the church’s stand on women is wrong,” says Toronto teacher and former nun Joanna Manning, author of last spring’s book Is the Pope Catholic? “They simply cannot understand why that door is closed.”
The acute shortage of Catholic clergy has meant some priests are travelling to serve several congregations, or parishioners are driving to larger centres to attend mass. As well, lay members of the church are performing many tasks once handled by priests, though only ordained clergy can say mass and administer the sacraments. Audrey Erickson, a member of St. Stephens Roman Catholic Church in Lacombe, Alta., 120 km south of Edmonton, left a nursing job to become the pastoral administrator after the parish priest, Michael Blanch, retired two years ago at age 70. She manages the day-to-day affairs while Father Blanch still says Sunday mass and performs baptisms, marriages and funerals. “A lot of people are afraid of what’s going to happen to the church,” says Erickson. “They wonder what kind of church their children or grandchildren will have.” Erickson has no such doubts—“We are God’s people and we will be looked after,” she says—and many church leaders are equally bullish. Archbishop Exner of Vancouver, spiritual leader of 360,000 Catholics, says Asian immigrants have rejuvenated many congregations in his archdiocese. At present, he says, five new churches, all worth $3to $4-million, are planned or under construction. “The church is alive here,” he says. “We’re very excited about the future.”
Ethnic communities have also resuscitated churches in other large urban areas, or created their own vibrant parishes. Father Marcos Marcos founded St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Toronto in 1964 with 35 families, primarily from Egypt. Currently, the congregation numbers 900 families and Father Marcos has three priests under him. “The numbers don’t surprise me,” he says. “In general, Egyptians are religious. Right from the days of the pharoahs, where the tombs and temples were all connected to spirituality, the Egyptian people’s energies have been directed towards religion.”
Faith was once a central part of the lives of most Canadians, and true believers are convinced that it will be again. On one recent Monday, the All Saints Anglican bell rang periodically over Pouch Cove to remind parishioners of a day of prayer being held for persecuted Christians around the world. Attendance was sparse, but there was always someone in the pews. “People are coming because they believe, not for cultural reasons or out of habit,” says Rev. Shirley Gosse. ‘We may be fewer in number, but we’re greater in spirit.”