Thursday, December 24, 2015

Unless a Grain of Wheat Falls to the Ground

The following is an article I wrote for the January 2016 edition of the Anglican Journal:

This past summer, my father-in-law took us to see the church in which he worshipped as a child. Church of the Herald Angel, just outside of Orangeville, Ont., has been closed for many years and is now a well-cared-for home. A workman was repointing the mortar of one of the buttresses when we stopped to take a look. Many churches simply fall into disrepair and eventually vanish.

It was good to see this church lived in and loved, and yet, there was a certain sadness in realizing the church no longer served its intended purpose, that the life of its worshipping community had come to an end. It was a bit like visiting the grave of a loved one in a well-tended cemetery; even amidst the beauty of the place, there is a profound and enduring sense of grief and loss.

Like the Church of the Herald Angel, many churches across our country have closed or are facing closure. Sometimes those churches are in "four corners" communities where the community has vanished; sometimes they are in suburban locations where religious and ethnic demographic changes have made an Anglican church redundant or irrelevant; and sometimes they are urban churches where neighbourhoods have been replaced by industry. Whatever the context, it is clear that sometimes the life of a church must come to an end. We do everything we can to avoid allowing a church to die, and yet, sometimes it is for the best.

I know many clergy who are afraid to close a church. They somehow feel that closing a church will reflect badly on them, that they will be branded either as professional "closers" or as pastoral failures. Yet, one of the things we are trained to do as clergy is to deal with death. Spiritual palliative care is an important part of our ministry. Are we failures when a parishioner inevitably dies? The answer is an emphatic, no, for our faith teaches that death is not the final word. We proclaim hope and new life in the midst of death. Even at the grave we make our song, "Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!" At the death of a church, however, we may lose faith and forget that we are a resurrection people.

Many years ago, I was with a family when they had to remove their father from life support. It was Maundy Thursday. The doctor offered the family the option of waiting until after Easter. The family decided not to wait. "After all," the daughter stated, "if we truly believe what we believe as Christians, this is the weekend for this to happen."

I wonder what the closure of churches might look like if we were to embrace our hope in the resurrection in this way? The church in which I was baptized closed several years ago, and through a remarkable—one might say, divine series of circumstances—it has become home to a lively Chinese-Anglican congregation.

One of the Rev. Featherstone Osler's churches, Trinity Bond Head, closed many years ago after the congregation dwindled. It was lovingly restored and is now used by a Ukrainian Catholic congregation. Every year they celebrate a requiem eucharist in honour of its Anglican founder.

In some places, folk who have expended much time and energy holding on to a church building for dear life, find relief, and new life, when they make the courageous step to let go of their building and join with other members of the family in another place and discover new mission together.

Death is always sad, but it is not the final word. It should not be the final word with respect to the closing of churches. Our belief in the power of the resurrection should be just as strong with respect to the church as it is with respect to ourselves and our loved ones. As Jesus himself said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24).

 The Rev. Daniel F. Graves is the incumbent of Trinity Church, Bradford, Ont., and editor of the Journal of the Canadian Church Historical Society.

Friday, March 6, 2015

A Generation Lost?

The following is a column I wrote for the March 2015 edition of the Anglican Journal, and is reproduced here with permission of the editor.

There was a general feeling amongst the elderly in the community that a whole generation was being lost.  Their adult children had fallen away, and their grandchildren knew nothing of the faith at all.  One of them proclaimed, “O sir … our children are growing up faithless and our little ones have never been baptized!” 

This might very easily be the lament of any of our senior parishioners on any given Sunday in one of our churches.  Yet, these were words spoken to the Rev.  Featherstone Osler, the first resident clergyman of West Gwillimbury and Tecumseth in Upper Canada , shortly after his arrival in 1837.  The shortage of permanent resident clergy and the failure to build churches over the preceding thirty years had led to a whole generation of settlers falling away, and their children never coming to faith at all.  It is into this world that Featherstone Osler was thrust.  Recognizing the urgency of the situation, with a profound sense of calling and a fortitude that can only be considered remarkable, Osler went about the work of building the kingdom in the two townships and outlying areas committed to his charge.  He wore out more than one horse, proclaimed the good news fervently, and in twenty years founded twenty congregations, established Sunday schools, trained bush clergy, and built at least a dozen church buildings.  He could have flagged; he could have returned to England and taken up a more comfortable sinecure, for his was a family of means.  But no – he laid hold of the yoke his Lord laid upon him, trusting in the faithfulness of God, and embracing the hope of the kingdom. 

Our age is not so different.  We lament the loss of a whole generation in the Church.  But shall our faith falter?  Will our fortitude fail? We may not be called to answer the problem the same way Osler answered his call, but we are called to rise to the challenge. We are called to believe that God will give us the tools to meet those challenges. And we have that one thing that Osler and so many others before and since have had, the Good News of God in Christ.  The means of proclamation will vary from age and place, but the hope of Salvation is sure, and our God is faithful as we proclaim the words of life to a hurting world.