In the face of falling membership and financial challenges, Canadian Anglicans should feel encouraged that there remains a role for their church in the world—and that their God will always be faithful to them, Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, said Thursday, Nov. 7, in her first address as primate to the Council of General Synod (CoGS).
When General Synod’s planning and agenda team met to consider the work of CoGS for the next triennium—the three years until the next meeting of General Synod—it didn’t take long to come up with a theme, said Nicholls, who was elected primate at General Synod in July, succeeding Archbishop Fred Hiltz.
“We fairly quickly settled on… ‘A changing church. A searching world. A faithful God,’” she said. “For that theme sums up both the challenges and the possibilities that we will be encountering.”
The Anglican Church of Canada, the primate said, is changing in many ways, and it is declining in both membership and financial resources—a fact, she said, which should not come as a surprise, given a number of contemporary trends.
“We have experienced change as many of our congregations have aged, as we see fewer young people in some areas, as rural areas have increasingly depopulated, as society around us believes that we, frankly, are irrelevant,” she said. “With this decline comes an automatic decline in resources available for the ministries of General Synod, and of our parishes and our dioceses.”
Among the agenda items for the current session of CoGS—which is meeting November 7-10—is a presentation on a set of newly compiled church statistics, she said.
In an announcement to CoGS shortly before her address, Nicholls said the presentation would concern statistics which had “leaked out” before church leaders had been able to present them.
Earlier this week, Broadview, the former United Church Observer, published a story citing an Anglican Church of Canada report on membership statistics compiled last year. According to the report, a decline in church membership observed since 1961 has steepened in the years since 2001.
A link to the same report had appeared in October on the independent Anglican Samizdat website.
“We apologize,” Nicholls offered, that CoGS members may have encountered the statistics before the meeting, “which was not the intention.”
In her address, the primate added that the church is changing in ways unrelated to statistics—in how and when Anglicans worship, in the way ministry is delivered and in the way it makes disciples. And its relationship with Indigenous people is continuing to evolve, she said, especially with the ongoing development of the self-determining Indigenous Anglican church.
“We are changing, and we need to pay attention to the changes and ask how we will be faithful to the gospel in the face of those changes,” Nicholls said.
But Anglicans should take heart, she said, from the fact that the church continues to play a role to the world—in being able to provide answers to the many people today who continue to ask basic questions about life, for example.
“Despite the decline in church attendance and membership, we encounter a world that is still searching for hope and for meaning,” she said. “The gospel is and always will be relevant to human life because it comes from the heart of the creator of all life.”
Many of the church’s values, such as its “deep commitment to community” and its gifts of confession and forgiveness also give it a unique voice on societal issues, such as political polarization and justice, she said.
“We have something to offer a world searching for alternatives,” she said. “The opportunities before us are boundless.”
Finally, she said, Anglicans can be confident that as a community they will be supported by a faithful God—an important consideration to remember, she added, as CoGS begins the triennium.
Nicholls said one of the tasks she wanted the church to focus on in coming years was fighting racism.
“I believe that it is at the heart of many areas of difficulty for us,” she said. “It is certainly at the heart, in our country, of some of the challenges of our relationship with Indigenous peoples, for racism in its systemic forms is embedded in the laws and in the ways in which we have lived together.”
But the primate said she had also seen racism within the church.
“I’ve seen the pain amongst clergy of colour who are very clear when I ask them, ‘Have you been a victim of racism in our church?’ and every one of them nods.”
She said she had seen clergy be turned down for positions in parishes for no other reason that she could see than “an unacknowledged and hidden stream of racism that lives in each of us.”
She hoped, Nicholls said, the church would soon start work on a “racial justice charter.”
In an address which seemed at times down-to-essentials and informal, Nicholls said the church would depend in its work on the faithfulness of God.
“We will need God’s faithfulness to support us, and encourage us, sustain us and occasionally to kick us in the butt and challenge us—and open our hearts and minds to ways in which we need to let go,” she said.
Nicholls also told CoGS some of the reasons behind her intention to spend part of the week in London, Ont., and part in Toronto. Spending Mondays at home, she said, would allow her to focus more on the considerable amount of writing that her role involves—and to continue to sing with a London choir that practices on Mondays.
“One of my ways of maintaining my sanity is music, and I learned a long time ago that I need to sing,” she said. “I need to sing in a choir where I’m not in charge of anything—I just stand in the back row and sing my heart out.”
She said she was also hoping to make much use of videoconferencing, as a more economical and less physically taxing alternative to travelling to meet people.
Nicholls added that she was beginning to do some travelling in Canada and would be flying to England in December to meet Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, as was customary for Hiltz.
Nicholls also urged members of CoGS to approach her if they had any questions about anything, before closing her address.
“I’m happy to engage questions about myself or about the work that we’re doing together, or about where I see that work is taking us. And I look forward to those conversations and I look forward to working with each of you. You represent this wonderful, great diversity of our church.”
She said she admired Hiltz’s fondness for the phrase, “our beloved church.”
“If we don’t love it, we’re not going to stick it out with the hard work that’s ahead of us,” she said. “And I don’t think you would be here if you did not love your church, and did not want to see it grow and be the best it can be in the name of the gospel.
“So—let’s get to work.”