Responding to a Changing Church

The Anglican Church has had a presence in the area of Rupert’s Land for 195 years. Over that time, congregations, liturgies, and church buildings have shifted and changed. Change is difficult for everyone, with both congregations and parishioners responding differently in each situation, whether it results from immigration, changing relations between east and west, settler and indigenous populations, or cultural and liturgical reform.
Across Canada, there are two major options given to shrinking congregations: either close or change. But what does that look like for people on the ground? Here, four Rupert’s Landers tell of their own experiences living through major congregational change. Tell your own story of change or contribute your ideas below.
Living through Parish Closure: Shelagh Balfour, Parish Administrative Assistant
In the North End of Winnipeg, 1893, the Anglican Parish of St. Peter held its first service of worship. Originally a mission of St. John’s Cathedral, it was intended to meet the needs of the burgeoning neighbourhood west of Main Street. The parish grew rapidly. The first church building, dedicated in 1894, was quickly outgrown, with expansion added in 1899 and again in 1905. At the same time, however, the North End was experiencing major change. Newer immigrants from Eastern Europe were replacing English-speaking Anglicans who, in turn, were moving to other neighbourhoods. By the 1920’s, St. Peter’s was struggling to remain viable. After several years of trying to keep going, the parish accepted the inevitable and closed in 1933.
In 1907, in the south end of Winnipeg, the Anglican Parish of St. Alban’s held its first service of worship.
Originally a mission of St. Luke’s Church, it was intended to meet the needs of the growing South Osborne neighbourhood. This parish also grew rapidly. By 1910, an expansion of the building was required to accommodate the congregation.

St. Alban’s, Winnipeg, sits empty.

In my backyard is a small fence made up primarily of stones from that first St. Alban’s, a church my great-grandfather helped build. My grandmother attended Sunday School there — I still have her Sunday School pin. I raised my children in that parish and was active in a variety of ministries. Eventually, I became active in the wider Church, first in the Diocese and then the National Church. I even received my own St. Alban’s pin, for good and faithful service.
The well-being of that little church on Rathgar Avenue meant a great deal to me and, with others, I worked hard to try to make it viable when all signs pointed to its demise. I could tell you all the ways we tried to deny the inevitable, all the desperate ideas we thought up to somehow keep going. But it was not to be. In April 2007, after 100 years of worship and service, St. Alban’s closed. The process that led to closure was painfully difficult and sometimes divisive. There are people who still grieve today.
But that is not the end of the story. By April of the following year, the building that had been St. Alban’s was purchased by Gateway Church, a non-denominational community consisting of two congregations. Gateway’s “South” congregation had grown to the point that they wanted a permanent home. They liked what they saw in the building and arrived ready to love the neighbourhood. In fact, they soon changed their name to Gateway Church – South Osborne as a reflection of their desire to be a meaningful part of the community.
Not long after they moved in, I went for a Sunday morning visit, wanting to “see what they’d done with the place”. Somehow, it did not feel strange to go as a visitor to the building that had been my church for so long. The people at Gateway were welcoming, the worship engaging and thought-provoking, and I quickly found myself at home. More than that, I found energy and new life in a place that, in my time, had become tired and worn down. It was clear that God was at work in his Church in this place. Work that had begun at St. Alban’s was continuing in new and life-giving ways at Gateway. Changes we had only dreamed of, inside and out, came to fruition within a few years of the new community being there.
Over the years, I have worshipped with Gateway Church many times. I have joined in Bible studies and potlucks, funerals and celebrations. I have prayed and been prayed for in that community. The people there are part of my extended church family and I start to miss them if too long goes by without a visit. Yes, we have a different style of worship and our theologies differ in places, but I suspect God doesn’t mind that nearly as much as we do.
Today, I make the Anglican Parish of St. Peter my church home – the second St. Peter’s, which opened its doors in 1956. Originally a mission church of St. George’s, Crescentwood, it was intended to meet the needs of another rapidly growing neighbourhood, this time in River Heights. Like the other parishes, it has experienced times of growth and times of decline. Today, at 60, it is an active, vital parish striving to live out what it believes God is calling it to.
None of us can know, however, what God has planned for the future of this second St. Peter’s, or any other parish. It is easy for us to become attached to buildings and to the habitual practices of our life together. It is easy for the place we gather to become our church, a place we need to preserve against threat. But, in doing that, we can forget that the Church is not the place, but the people. The Church is not ours, but God’s.
Closure of an individual parish can be traumatic and heartbreaking. I don’t want to minimize that. But that is never the end of the story. The closure of the North End St. Peter’s was followed 20 years later by the opening of the River Heights St. Peter’s. The closure of St. Alban’s was followed much more quickly by the opening of Gateway Church. God is continuing to work in and through his Church and maybe, sometimes, that work can best be accomplished by bringing the life of one community to an end so that something new and different has the space to flourish.
The Process of Change: Brent Neumann, Priest
There is a problem inherent to the question of whether a church should close, amalgamate or rebuild when confronted with the realities of diminishing congregations and aging infrastructure. The problem is that asking this question raises the concept of change, one of the most difficult things to do when dealing with an institution that has a death grip on maintaining the past and a deep fear of moving into the unknown.
St. Matthew's, Winnipeg, faced the choice to close or change when they decided to turn their massive nave into affordable housing and move their worship into a much smaller space, built using original materials.
These two truths become even more pressing when we live in a society that has a “risk aversive” perspective on all things. Our society tries to avoid feeling fear and demands an ever-increasing legislative approach to eliminate all risk. At the same time, our media continues to inundate us with messages about things we should fear.
So when we are asked to face change, we are being asked to face our fear. Fear is rarely something that we talk about in our churches. More often than not, congregations routinely demand comfort, safety, conformity, and a strict adherence to the past, which impedes any discussion around real change. Yet change is an ever present reality.
Change — as minor as getting a raise or as major as a life-threatening illness — triggers a wide variety of emotional responses. Change brings up our sense of loss; we get hit with grief, anger, fear, lack of hope, surprise, and anguish. It can also fill us with a sense of unknowing, as we have no idea what it means or what it requires of us, and the future is no longer predictable.
It is easy to forget that the Christian message, however, is all about change. Christ came into our world in a time when things were really messy, he stirred things up so much that he infuriated the leaders and rulers, he invited people to see the world in a new way, and he died for us, proving that death is not the end. His example to us was based on living freely, fully, and open to the experience of God. Before any discussion about change can begin, our congregations need to understand that the choice to change starts with facing ourselves and living into Jesus’ admonition, “Do not be afraid.”
Finally, we clergy face the same demand. It was once understood that ordination meant a career with a guarantee of lifetime employment. We no longer have that guarantee. If we really want to face the reality of our Church network, we must also understand that if we help the Church to change we may also be working toward ending our own careers. I wonder how many of us are willing to put our livelihoods on the table when we are faced with the question of change. The Church is already changing quickly and we are faced with the difficult choice of reacting to the change or finding new ways to respond.
Parish Amalgamation: Fran Anderson, Parishioner
While the road to amalgamation can be long and winding, bumpy and wearisome, the rewards at the end are worth the tribulations experienced in getting there. Amalgamation helps to address viability concerns by allowing the creation of a more vibrant parish with energized resources. There is a larger pool to draw upon and a greater variety of talents, thus allowing parishioners to explore new ministries. This also provides the opportunity to share parish duties with a larger group of people and to explore new ideas, start new traditions, and look at ways in which to grow, both physically and spiritually. As individual parishes come together in numbers and finances, shutting down valuable outreach programs due to small, aging, and tiring volunteer groups becomes a thing of the past.
Reconciliation between indigenous and settler Anglicans means making space for the changes that indigenous teaching will bring to our communities.
There is a greater sense of calm and reduced stress levels for most people as they attend worship services following amalgamation, since they are no longer overwhelmed with the worries and responsibilities of keeping a small parish going. There is a larger worshipping group at Sunday services and full-time parish ministry becomes a reality, along with the hope for parish growth.
Amalgamation can enable struggling parishes to rekindle their commitment to “being Church” and to explore new options in worship. Whether a new place of worship is pursued or one of the former parishes becomes the new home, it’s comforting to bring along the cherished memorials and keepsakes, as well as the best of everyone’s inventory to help build both the physical and spiritual presence.
Conducting and participating in fundraising activities is a more enjoyable and rewarding experience after
amalgamation, as it no longer represents an inwardly-focused attempt to just pay the bills and keep the church open. The members of the new parish have made a conscious decision to be part of it; they are committed to its success and to giving their time, talents, and offerings. This provides a wonderful opportunity to get to know new people and to have fun working with them.
As the parishes unite, each with their limited number of young families, the amalgamated parish can begin to explore new adventures in ministry with more parents and little ones, as well as youth group activities. While going through the amalgamation process, there will be times when feel it’s just easier to give up and close. However, that’s when it will be important to know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and to remember that God will provide.
A Rural Parish Closure: Marion Jackson, Retired Priest
The last strains of organ music fade away, the words ending the parish are solemnly read, the Bishop deconsecrates the building, and with the striking of the crozier symbolically expressing the finality of the act, over a century of worship at our beloved St. James’ is over. Soon also to end is our Diocese.
Rupert's Land experienced a big change when we amalgamated with several parishes from the former Keewatin Diocese in August of 2014. Here, a group of synod delegates sings a song they wrote about the new parishes. (
Rupert’s Land experienced a big change when we amalgamated with several parishes from the former Keewatin Diocese in August of 2014. Here, a group of synod delegates sings a song they wrote about the new parishes.

St. James’ being identified for potential closure came as a shock for some members of this small, aging congregation, and the immediate reaction for them was anger and bitterness. We were losing our home, friends, fellowship, and community. This was change, and we were comfortable and relaxed with “just us”. We now began to live almost constantly in an emotional state, seeming unable to find direction. Opportunities were offered and time was given to aid in restructuring, but any suggestion of true change lacked enthusiasm in development and follow-through. Our mission was missing. Closure was now a fact.
Our last months at St. James’ had some folk drawing closer and some turning away. Now was certainly the time to face the challenge of change. We had memories to store and decisions, some personal, to make. Our Archdeacon walked this journey with us, taking time for us to relive our past, to share our memories, to acknowledge our tears and sadness, and to share the welcome that St. Alban’s offered.
There still is, for some, immense sadness with the loss of “our” St. James. Some have chosen to worship elsewhere in the community, others are unable to move forward. Those who have chosen to worship at St. Alban’s have been embraced in an energetic, enthusiastic, mission-centered community of believers. We relive treasured memories at times, but we’re building new ones. It can be difficult to let go, and certainly a challenge to celebrate an ending, but there is also the positive recognition of a new beginning.
I am blessed. I am content. I am home.

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