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In the heart of the city

An Ontario United church demonstrates congregational life at its best

By Carolyn Pogue

This past weekend, my husband, Bill, and I were guests of St. Paul’s United Church in Orillia, Ont. Driving into town with our host and friend, Rev. Dr. Ted Reeve, I saw a great blue heron standing in the shallows of Lake Simcoe. Herons, while independent and resourceful, share responsibilities for nest-building. To Celts and Chinese, they symbolize protection. In the Aboriginal tradition, they symbolize self-determination and self-reliance, and represent an ability to progress and evolve. So I figured it would be a good weekend.

Ted and Bill, who served as the United Church moderator between 1997 and 2000, have worked together for decades, most notably on The Moderator’s Consultation on Faith and the Economy, Faith and The Common Good, and Greening Sacred Spaces. Although they live in separate provinces, their friendship is deep. When Ted was called to serve St. Paul’s, he invited Bill to preach the Sunday Covenanting Service, in which the congregation and minister commit to working together. The whole weekend was given over to something called, “Creating Place,” in which we asked how a church can help its community create place and how a congregation can “turn the church inside out for the sake of the city?" Jeremiah 29:7 underpinned everything: seek the welfare of the city, pray for it, for in its welfare, lies your own.

There were many tender moments for me. One was hearing Raffi’s “Evergreen, Everblue” beautifully performed by children, youth and adults. Another was being with Rev Karen Hilfman Millson, former St. Paul’s minister, as she marked the moment of transition for the church (Karen now consults and works to bring Circle Culture to United Churches and beyond.). Yet another was bearing witness to new beginnings for Ted, as he renovated a new home, planned his forthcoming marriage to Audrey Bayens and began working with the congregation. And finally, meeting new friends, renewing friendship with Kathie Joblin and feeling the energy of a congregation willing to play in the ongoing, unfinished symphony.

Former United Church Moderator Bill Phipps and Rev. Dr. Ted Reeve admire street art in Orillia, Ont. Photo by Carolyn Pogue
Former United Church Moderator Bill Phipps and Rev. Dr. Ted Reeve admire street art in Orillia, Ont. Photo by Carolyn Pogue
This new beginning, in a 175-year-old church, is one in a long line, of course. St. Paul’s has generations of new beginnings ingrained in its walls, pews and stained-glass windows. Stephen Leacock was once new, as was the annual Leacock Festival. Gordon Lightfoot, who sang in the choir, was once new to the Folk music scene — to name only two of the many artists, musicians and writers who have called this gem of a city home. The arts weave this town together, it seems.

Bill reflected: “St. Paul’s demonstrated United Church congregational life at its best. They had everything going over the weekend — the arts; feasting; joyful music and celebration; as well as United Church concern for social justice, the world and their city. If people want to know what the United Church stands for, this was it!”

Leaving the church, I visited the Peace Pole and the newly-minted, brightly decorated “arts-bombed” tree in the front yard, and I recalled that heron. I remembered the symbolic messages of progress and evolution — that the heron is at home on Earth, in water and air. The heron, then, is a connector of all things that give life. And our churches can be the same.

Author's photo
Carolyn Pogue is a longtime Observer contributor. New posts of The Pogue Blog will appear on the first and third Thursday of the month. For more information on Carolyn Pogue, visit www.carolynpogue.ca..
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