Chris Nojonen is pastor and priest to this joint Alberta congregation. Photo: Shirley Rockel
Rocky Mountain House is a resource-industry town of 7,000 souls in west central Alberta. In addition to its thriving activities in oil, gas and forestry, it’s also home to a flourishing experiment in shared ministry: the seven-year-old success story of Holy Trinity Anglican Church and Rocky Mountain Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Holy Trinity’s once Anglican-only congregation has blended seamlessly with a Lutheran congregation. “The parish is not a merger but a shared ministry,” says the Rev. Chris Nojonen, a Lutheran pastor and priest-in-charge at Holy Trinity, the bilateral congregation’s base. “We have been relabelling ourselves as partners in Christ, with the names of both churches on the signage.”
Although discussions about joint ministry had begun the year after the Waterloo Declaration of 2001, by 2006 a close Anglican-Lutheran partnership still struck some congregants as a risky experiment. Still, the first steps on the path to shared ministry were taken that year, when the two groups embarked on their initial dialogue. That first year still found them worshipping in separate locations at separate times, but with Nojonen officiating at the services of both denominations. She had replaced the retired Anglican rector.
As debate on moving forward continued between council and vestry, the second year saw the Lutherans give up their rented worship space and move their still-separate celebrations to Holy Trinity. “Periodically we would do special joint services and we also began to integrate some program—cell groups and Bible study, for example,” says Nojonen. Not surprisingly, there were still some reservations on both sides, according to Shirley Rockel, the rector’s warden and an Anglican. “We all wanted to maintain our identities and not hurt anybody’s feelings while joining together. But once things got under way, it all came together very quickly and easily and it’s working very well,” she says. The next big milestone came in early 2009, when the partners signed a covenant agreement providing for shared governance under a church council with both an Anglican and a Lutheran co-chair. “This allowed us to focus all of our resources and energy in one direction,” says Nojonen. “That summer, we began a pattern of worshipping together, using Anglican liturgy some of the time and Lutheran liturgy some of the time,” she recalls.
“When we began worshipping together, there was a growing sense of how this sharing of resources, financial and human, benefited both congregations, and a sense that we were doing something prophetic in the community. We were embodying the desire of Jesus’ high priestly prayer that ‘they all may be one.’ ” The decision to worship together and share resources has not gone unnoticed in Rocky Mountain House. “The move has proven to be of great interest to community people, who tend to say, ‘There should be more of that,’ ” says Nojonen.
In 2010, the two churches started holding joint annual meetings, and today they function in a completely integrated fashion under the joint council—in all but financial matters.
“The differences between Anglican apportionment and Lutheran benevolence, as well as the hassle of applying for a new charitable donation number from the Canada Revenue Agency, make financial integration impractical,” says Nojonen. So new members of the parish are given the choice of having Lutheran or Anglican donation envelopes, and each year, the joint council agrees on an equitable financial arrangement for the parish, in which Anglicans outnumber Lutherans by a factor of three. “We freely utilize resources from both sides,” she says.
How about the liturgical side of integration for joint services? Some Lutherans, accustomed to celebrating Holy Communion twice a month, found it a big adjustment to shift to a weekly eucharist.
"And some of my Anglicans were uneasy about having both the common cup and the Lutherans’ individual glasses on the altar during the eucharistic celebration.”
Both congregations have had to exercise flexibility and make compromises, and these concessions have paid off. “We have fully integrated the life of the parish, and these days no one is particularly concerned about who is Lutheran and who is Anglican—we are all God’s people working together,” says Nojonen.
Rockel agrees: “We’re at the point where it just doesn’t matter.” The parish even boasts a member who is neither Lutheran nor Anglican. Initially there was also a concern that Nojonen was operating under a letter of permission, not a licence, from the Anglican Church of Canada, which meant she had no voting rights at Anglican meetings. “But that was rectified this past year, and now I’m able to function fully on behalf of both congregations in their respective denominational structures,” she says. Nojonen is attending Joint Assembly as the parish’s only delegate and as a Lutheran, but she looks forward to experiencing the Anglican side as well. The parish’s covenant, in fact, makes provision for sending delegates of either denomination to each other’s meetings.
Beyond this Joint Assembly, Nojonen is eagerly anticipating another shared event. In 2014, on the Sunday of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Anglican and Lutheran bishops will visit the blended congregation in honour of the fifth anniversary of its 2009 covenant. Nojonen sees a bright future for the ecumenical experiment. “My hope is that this shared ministry will continue to grow and celebrate its unique calling in Christ."
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Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.
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