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An enduring dialogue

Despite their failed merger in 1975, the United and Anglican churches are still keen to co-operate. Two small congregations in rural Quebec are proving it can be done.

By Mike Milne

Last summer, congregations in two tiny, isolated villages on the north shore of Quebec’s St. Lawrence River formed the newest shared ministry of the Anglican and United churches of Canada.

The arrangement formalized a relationship that was already close. Fifty years ago, the Anglican and United congregations built a church in Chevery, Que., and have been worshipping together ever since. United and Anglican congregations have also been sharing the Anglican-owned Christ Church building in nearby Harrington Harbour, Que., for four decades. The new ministry now hopes to attract an Anglican or United Church minister to serve parishioners in both communities.

Coming on the heels of an Anglican-United report, Called to Unity in Mission — released last fall after four years of ecumenical dialogue — the partnering of these small Quebec communities may be emblematic of the two denominations’ willingness to continue working together.

The United Church of Canada Year Book currently lists 41 ecumenical shared ministries. Most are in British Columbia and the Prairie provinces; more than three-quarters involve the Anglican Church of Canada. According to Rev. William Harrison, mission staff in the Diocese of Huron and Anglican co-chair of the dialogue group, both denominations share a common problem: too many buildings with too few people in the pews. “The challenge,” he says, “is to find solutions together.” But as last year’s dialogue report makes clear, the path toward even closer co-operation between Anglican and United churches still faces daunting roadblocks.

After a failed attempt at union in 1975 and organized dialogue during the last decade, the two denominations are no closer to beginning serious discussions about full communion or mutuality in ministry agreements. Either arrangement would allow what’s called “the orderly exchange of ministers” between the two churches, making shared ministries much simpler.

By contrast, within the past four years, the United Church has reached a full communion agreement with the United Church of Christ (U.S.A.) and mutuality in ministry agreements with the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea and the United Church of Christ in the Philippines.
At the congregational level, shared buildings and resources seem relatively easy to arrange. In Ottawa, for example, First United and All Saints’ Anglican Westboro have been worshipping in the same building and working together in outreach ministries for nine years; Riverside United and the Anglican Church of the Resurrection continue to share a building they constructed together in 1969.

At the national level, the Anglicans’ General Synod and the United Church’s General Council are talking about sharing office space in Toronto, possibly along with the Presbyterians. 

Shared ministry is more problematic. It may cut costs, but it can increase red tape. United Church people see their conciliar system as more democratic than the Anglican system, where bishops are elected by synods but hold great individual authority in their dioceses. Some United Church officials — who have seen potential shared ministries halted by bishops — get frustrated by a system that relies on one person’s goodwill.

As it now stands, ministers serving Anglican-United shared ministries must be approved by individual bishops on the Anglican side and Presbyteries or Conferences on the United side. An Ecumenical Shared Ministries Handbook, created by Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran and United Church staff in 1989 and updated in 2011, provides some guidance but also reveals possible sticking points.

Anglican and United Church liturgical and sacramental practices, for example, can be very different. Shared ministries need to decide whether they will alternate forms of worship or figure out a blended format. While United Church sessions or worship committees can decide for themselves on liturgical texts or hymnbooks, Anglicans have to use material approved by the diocesan bishop.

Successful shared ministries need supportive bishops and Presbyteries, but also congregations that are willing to compromise. Greg Constable, vice-chair of church council at the Windermere Valley Shared Ministry in Invermere, B.C., says things work best when “everybody’s prepared to accommodate the other side.” Windermere celebrated its 50th anniversary last summer, and Constable says problems only arise when “people stick to the denominational line.”

The 2009 St. Brigid Report, published following the first round of Anglican-United dialogue since 1975, encouraged promotion of more shared ministries. Last year’s dialogue report acknowledges the Anglican and United Church’s “fundamental agreement in a common faith” and says the “as-yet-unresolved disagreements about ministry and sacraments” should not be excuses for “failing to collaborate more fully.”

But the report also points out the most contentious of those disagreements. The denominations both believe in the sacraments of baptism and communion, for example, but differ on who has the authority to administer them. In the United Church, diaconal ministers, lay ministers and sacraments elders can all be given permission by Conferences to administer sacraments along with ordained ministers. In the Anglican tradition, this right is limited to priests, but a bishop can ordain a priest for local service without the usual educational requirements. If the United Church adopts a proposal to move to a single order of ministry — now being considered in a church-wide vote — that issue may be resolved.

Then there’s the question of what the Called to Unity in Mission report labels episkopé, or the ministry of oversight, which is closely linked to the Anglicans’ understanding of bishops and forms the theological basis for their spiritual and administrative roles. Back in 1975, disagreements over the role of bishops were a major factor in the failure of Anglican-United church union.

Rt. Rev. Bruce Myers, who became bishop of the Diocese of Quebec this year and also participated in the last two rounds of Anglican-United dialogue as the Anglican’s national ecumenical co-ordinator, says that “there was kind of a dancing around the question of bishops” in earlier interchurch discussions. The most recent dialogue “recognized once again that until this particular difference is resolved, there’s going to be a limit to how fully we can recognize and receive each other’s ministries. . . . I guess that was recognized with a small degree of sadness.”

The report acknowledges “that nowhere in the world do Anglicans practice formal transferability of ministries with non-episcopal churches.”

For now, that means any future shared ministries will depend on the willingness of ecumenically minded United Church Presbyteries and Conferences and Anglican bishops. In the case of Harrington Harbour and Chevery, that bishop is now Bruce Myers.

About 1,200 kilometres northeast of Quebec City, Harrington Harbour and Chevery are picturesque villages, 14 kilometres apart, with English-speaking populations of about 250 each. Harrington Harbour, situated on an island, relies on commercial fishing, while Chevery, on the mainland, focuses on tourism and government services. With no roads in Harrington Harbour, homes are connected by boardwalks. ATVs and snowmobiles provide summer and winter transportation. A government-subsidized helicopter and a winter ice road connect the two communities. The minister will live in the United Church manse in Harrington Harbour but go back and forth — by snowmobile, taxi boat or helicopter, depending on the season — to serve both communities. There’s a small airport in Chevery, and a coastal freighter visits the two villages weekly.

Harrington Harbour — dating back to the late 1800s and once home to a hospital founded by Sir Wilfred Grenfell — served as a backdrop for the 2003 Quebec film La Grande Séduction (Seducing Doctor Lewis). It’s about a remote village trying to persuade a doctor to live and work there. The real-life villagers hope to achieve the same result with a new minister.

In many ways, the villages seem like ideal candidates for shared ministry, with many families including both Anglican and United Church members. In recent years, full-time ministry has been mainly provided by United Church clergy, with regular visits from Anglican priests. But finding a full-time minster isn’t easy. The United Church pastoral charge was vacant for four years before diaconal minister Debra Kigar and her husband, Bill, arrived almost six years ago; she retired and returned to Ontario last summer.

Part of her work, Kigar says, was “to let the community determine what its future looked like, and listen to the signals.” The result — shared ministry — means sharing the expense of a minister’s salary, as well as the maintenance costs of the United Church-owned manse, the Anglican-owned church building in Harrington Harbour and the jointly owned church in Chevery.

Dorothy Bobbitt, a United Church member, treasurer of the pastoral charge and lifelong Harrington Harbour resident, says, “The financial part of it is the big thing, but I’m sure it’s going to work out fine. We’ve got lots of support from our communities.”

The arrangement also has plenty of support from Bishop Myers, who made his first pastoral visit to Harrington Harbour and Chevery last summer. He says making the shared ministry official “just kind of seems like the next logical step” in the two communities. “Everybody knows everyone. . . . They work together, they play together. It seems to make sense that they would pray together as well on a regular basis and be ministered to as one body.”

On the national church front, Myers hopes that the next round of Anglican-United dialogue — now approved by both churches and likely to begin this year — will address “some of the sacramental and administrative and liturgical questions that come with two churches that aren’t yet in full communion with one another fully sharing their lives together.”

According to the most recent report, Anglicans see their bishops’ ministry, marked by the laying-on of hands, as “apostolic . . . as a symbol of continuity in the faith; as maintenance of unity with the historic church; as means of unity with the whole church today, worldwide; and as vehicle for the exercise of oversight within the church.”

In the next dialogue, Anglicans want to talk about where episkopé might be found in the United Church’s new emerging structure and how the church’s ministry might “reflect the ‘historic episcopate.’” In other words, Anglicans want to see a person or persons in the United Church structure whose work looks something like that of a bishop’s.

Further discussions as the United Church’s new structure unfolds may give Anglicans a better understanding of how episcopal roles are fulfilled in the United Church. In the meantime, the dialogue group calls for a national co-ordinating committee to work on more resource sharing, reconciliation with Indigenous people and other issues.

Rev. Sandra Beardsall, professor of church history and ecumenics at St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon and a member of the dialogue group, says that to encourage shared ministry, churches could put regional or national agreements in place that would make such ministries easier to initiate.

“It’s complicated when you bring two institutions together, but it can be made much more simple by some agreements that would say, ‘This is how we would normally do this,’” she says. “You just see how much richer it is when people can form a ministry within their own community. It doesn’t solve all your problems, but at least for now you can have a ministry together in your own community.” 

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