Image credit: Joban Khangura
Ryan Turnbull interviewed by Misha Pensato
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
RLN: Can you tell me about the new Diocesan Discipleship Developer position you’re in?
RT: I had a vague idea that this job would be coming available at some point soon. I was just about done doing my PhD when they posted it so I applied.
My mandate is slightly different the previous version of this position. Bishop Geoff Woodcroft is very much focused on helping our diocese understand the importance of being and making disciples as an ongoing part of our baptismal ministry. The institutional church is in a bit of a tough spot right now, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic. At this time, it’s very easy to get desperate and anxious about money and resources. If you make that the main focus, that’s probably going to distort the work of the church in bad ways. So we’re refocusing on ‘why does this institution even exist?’ The church doesn’t exist as a museum of nice old buildings, nor does it exist for the sake of any particular program – it exists because we have been called to be disciples of Jesus and that needs to be our main focus all the time.
I personally think that Jesus is infinitely compelling. Even if the problem of institutional decline doesn’t sort itself out, discipleship shifts us away from the anxiety of our crumbling churches and focuses on what it is that we’re doing, which is being followers of Jesus. As I begin this work, I’m already hearing stories of the possibility of churches setting up bursaries for community members with their last dying breath, or turning themselves into community centres, or giving land back to Indigenous nations. All these things become faithful possibilities when we focus on being disciples of a God who died and is resurrected.
A big part of my job will be to develop a discipleship framework for the diocese. Because my position has sat vacant for a while, there’s been big efforts by volunteers to fill the gaps and I’m so grateful for their work! The discipleship framework will include the formation and training of aspirants, postulants, ordinands. I’m hoping to use St John’s College to bring in training, connect people to these training resources, and partner with those in this diocese who already have vocational giftings around theological education and formation. At the end of the day, I’m one person. I can’t teach 12,000 Anglicans in this diocese how to be disciples. That’s something that has to be done at a local level with people who know their context way better than I ever could.
RLN: It seems like you’re connecting people and interfacing with different communities all over the place.
RT: When you’re in a period of decline, it’s easy to not see what other people are doing, and not have time for collegiality. So how can we build bridges internally, and also externally to other parties? The current principal of Emmanuel & St. Chad in Saskatoon is a former St John’s College person but I don’t think we have historically sent a lot of students there. We have the resources to build that relationship if we want to.
I’ve been teaching at <Thorneloe University https://www.thorneloe.ca/>, another Anglican College in Ontario. The current president there is very interested in collaborating with other theological colleges to deliver training. There have been other really great collaborations with schools like Wycliffe, VST, and Huron, just to name a few, and I think there is a real appetite among many Anglican colleges and seminaries to be more collaborative and more responsive to the needs of the church going forward
I think we’re coming to a point where competing with each other over a dwindling pool is just not actually in everybody’s best interests. Learning how to collaborate and make the most of things has to be the way forward.
RLN: How do you respond to decline in a way that is generous to other people? Can you tell me about how some of the physical spaces of the church are changing?
RT: The story of our buildings is a story simultaneously of some of our greatest achievements and of some of the core failures of the Anglican Church. We have an incredible heritage of built infrastructure that continues to bless the neighbourhoods that it is in, in many ways. However,we mostly quit planting or building new churches in this diocese around the end of the 1960s. There are entire new parts of the city that do not have an Anglican presence as nothing was ever built there. Those neighborhoods are filled with new immigrant communities that come from countries that have an Anglican presence in them. If they want to join our worship, they’re having to travel across the city. Nigerians are one of the largest immigrant groups in Winnipeg and there is a massive Anglican church in Nigeria. Are they showing up in our churches? And if not, why?
What are the alternate histories that might have taken place? Another thing worth wrestling with is the way that some of our churches got their land grants from the Hudson’s Bay Company prior to any treaties being signed. What kinds of obligations does that create? What are our historic relations with Indigenous communities, and the Métis nation in particular? The stories our built environments tell can open up both opportunities to connect and also be a moment to reflect on where we have sinned as a church.
RLN: You were at Faith Horizons recently, what is the direction you see that conference going?
RT: It might be interesting to look into what might happen if we open the doors to broader participation. We have so many great workshop facilitators within the Diocese that this year it was truly an embarrassment of riches in terms of the options you could go to. I ended up going to one that I just sat and cried through the whole time because it was so beautiful and compelling. But there were several others that I also really wanted to attend. I think there were five or six in total and I’ve heard that all the other ones were very good too. Giving more people a chance to experience some of those workshops would be really cool.
This past spring, I helped organize a conference at St. Margaret’s with the Christian conservationist group A Rocha called Be Not Afraid / Consider the Lilies. It was the first of what’s going to be an annual conference on creation care and climate change.
After the conference, the director, Scott Gerbrandt, put together this group called the Consider the Lilies Collective. Having the rhythm of a small group to keep the conversation going and then come back again might be a source of encouragement and training, particularly for churches that don’t have a lot of small group offerings. I think developing some sort of similar “Faith Horizons” discipleship peer-groups that go back into parishes would be a really great way of maximizing the ongoing impacts of these bigger conference-type events.
RLN: What new connections do you want to see in the future?
RT: Sacred Circle has been an incredible development as a self-governing Indigenous church. They’re still figuring out who they are on very pragmatic issues. They’ve got some of their big documents out now, but there are still details to hammer out. Working on the relationship between the historic settler parts of the Anglican Church and this Indigenous expression of the Church is super important. This diocese includes a lot of Indigenous communities, and the ministry of Vincent Solomon is incredibly important there. As we develop new training, how do we remain constantly in dialogue with Indigenous leaders in the church so that what we’re doing now doesn’t replicate past problems? This moment is an opportunity to be in a constructive posture. For me that’s the number one relationship to work on.
Historically, Anglicanism has been rent asunder by fights between different churchmanships. The Canadian church historian John Webster Grant says Anglicans had all these opportunities to play a much more prominent role in Canada, but where ultimately outmaneuvered by the United Church. This was partially because Anglicanism historically appealed more to the upper classes, but also, and more importantly, we could never stop fighting over which expression of Anglicanism would be supreme within the Anglican church. That kind of infighting has mostly died away, I think, and good riddance. The benefit of decline is that all the church parties are too weak to seize power. But we continue to have other ideological divides.
How do we get people with very different opinions to still see Christ in one another? We’ve been pretty good in this Diocese about avoiding outright schism, but how do we regain trust and love for one another even among some tough disagreements?
What makes us the church is the fact that we gather around the risen Christ in our midst every week. It is this risen Lord that gathers us, not any given doctrine, or aesthetic, or program. I think the fact that we are gathered by and around Jesus, provides opportunities for alliances, solidarity, and changes of heart by encountering people at the communion rail who you might never voluntarily associate with in other parts of your life. That’s an incredible gift in a society that’s increasingly polarized and divided, and I hope that in some small way my work as Discipleship Developer can keep us focused on the risen Christ in our midst, even through really difficult times.
Ryan Turnbull is a Theologian based in Winnipeg, MB. Having grown up on a cattle ranch in western Manitoba, Ryan Turnbull has a deep interest in the intersection of theology, decolonization, ecology, place, and friendship. Ryan now serves as the Diocesan Discipleship Developer and is based at St John’s College.