CANADA: Diocese of British Columbia to close 13 churches in restructuring plan

January 29, 2010

The Diocese of British Columbia in the Anglican Church of Canada has announced a plan to close 13 churches in a dramatic restructuring. While the plan is a response to declining church attendance, Bishop James Cowan says it goes beyond cost-cutting, asking how the church can best focus its resources to carry out its mission as well as rebuild for the future. Nineteen churches are slated to be disestablished, but five of those will be renamed and will become hub churches for Anglicans in areas where other parishes have been closed. Cowan said the diocese hopes to use one other church as a diocesan conference center. Factoring in some retirements, reassignments and vacant positions that will not be filled, the bishop said he did not expect clergy layoffs would be necessary. Ten of the churches to be closed are in the Greater Victoria area, and some properties could be sold. Cowan says the reasons for the restructuring include declining church attendance and cost effectiveness. The consolidation "is only the first prong" of the plan, he said. "If synod agrees to this, then the next prong is 'Okay, how do we rebuild?'" The sale of properties could bring in millions of dollars, the bishop said, noting that resources could be redirected to new kinds of outreach such as alternate types of services or internet café ministries. This change is about "coming to grips with the realities of the culture in which we live," he said. "We are not in the Middle Ages anymore where the entire population is considered to be Christian and therefore they all belong to a parish church and that they will come to the parish church. We've got to be out where they are, inviting them to be part of a community that they can see does matter about faith and does matter about bringing about change in the world." Changes of this nature have been discussed since 2004. A report to the House of Bishops produced by marketing expert Keith McKerracher in 2005 underlined the demographic problem for the church. Church-goers are aging and are not being replaced by younger generations. Attendance was in precipitous decline, decreasing by about 13,000 or about two percent each year. At that rate, his report projected that the Anglican Church could face extinction by the middle of the century. The newly released report from the Diocese of British Columbia says that decline has continued. The diocese reports a larger number of funerals than weddings and baptisms combined. Cowan says the years preparing for this change were required for people to accept it. The diocese produced reports in 2006 and 2008 before this more concrete plan was released. Acknowledging that some people will be deeply distressed by the changes, the diocese no longer had an alternative, according to the report. "I think people are far more prepared [now]," said Cowan. "I've had far more comment about how this is a good report. It is positive and well-timed, and this time, we will make decisions." Another aspect of the plan is to make the church, including the laity, more outward-looking and able to engage in evangelism. When asked whether traditional Anglican reserve might be an obstacle to this, Cowan acknowledged that "Anglicans are reserved. And they have this image of evangelism that is the televangelist." In fact, he said, the kind of evangelism he was referring to has a "10-second training session, which is 'Would you be interested in coming to church with me?'" It is inviting that is based on relationship, he said. "Most of us are involved in conversations at one point or another where people are talking about things beyond themselves." Training about how to pick up on questions and respond without being pushy has already begun in the diocese, he said. "Our congregational life facilitator [the Rev.] Gary Nicolosi is working with a group of people that is going to, God willing, help Anglicans overcome that shyness and say 'we do have something that we think is worth sharing with others.'"

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