The diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador is a place of contrasts. In its centre, St. John’s, wealthy property developers rub shoulders with fishermen and oil workers just back from Alberta’s Fort McMurray. In its farthest-flung regions, priests drive for hours to visit remote parishes in Labrador.
These contrasts are present, too, in the life of the church.
Like many other dioceses in the Anglican Church of Canada, Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador is facing serious questions regarding what to do with its property and buildings as its members age. And, like many other dioceses, it is trying to invest more of its energy in new kinds of mission.
But at the same time, there are signs of unusual kinds of growth.
“There are some weird things going on here,” says Geoffrey Peddle, the bishop of the diocese. “In 1961, we were [baptizing] 18 per cent of live births. We’re doing over 30 per cent now. Go figure. There is something happening.”
Peddle celebrated the first anniversary of his consecration in January, but he has been studying what makes Newfoundlanders different from the rest of the church for years.
Drawing on his academic background in empirical theology, which uses statistical analysis to understand religious life, Peddle has come to some surprising conclusions about how the Newfoundland Anglicans relate to their church, and in a talk given at the diocesan synod in May, he presented some of his findings.
“The desire for the ministry of the church at times of deep significance in individual lives remains strong,” he said, citing the increased rate of baptisms and the increased percentage of weddings in Anglican churches. He went on to suggest that there is a large number of “passive” members who, while not necessarily active in parish life, have not turned their backs on the church either.
For Peddle, this requires a refocusing of vision around what the church is for.
“We must consider the needs of the younger generations,” he said. “When our maintenance and cemetery budgets vastly exceed our budgets for children and youth ministry, we need to look at what we are doing.”
Peddle is not the only one in the diocese asking these questions. Many young clergy are actively engaged in figuring out new ways of meeting the needs of their parishioners. The Rev. Robert Cooke, for example, hosts theology nights in pubs, where people can ask questions about the church and explore answers in a more open environment.
St. Michael and All Angels, the only Anglo-Catholic parish in the diocese, has opened up space in its new church building to house a daycare. In a city with chronic childcare shortages, this is an important way to both bring people from the community into the church and to meet their needs in a tangible way, says its rector, the Rev. Sam Rose.
Jonathan Rowe, curate at the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, has a hunch that, despite the supposed decrease in membership, the church may actually be growing-the growth just isn’t being measured properly.
“I think that more people are coming to church now than there were 10 years ago, but they’re not necessarily coming every Sunday,” he said. “There might be negligible growth in terms of average Sunday attendance, or even some decline, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that things aren’t happening.”
He suggested that this might be due to the larger demographic changes happening in Newfoundland: with many people engaged in work that takes them away from the city, the traditional metrics of weekly attendance don’t necessarily yield an accurate picture.
But it is not as though the diocese is without problems. In the outports that dot the coastline of rural Newfoundland, the individual church buildings are a key part of local identity. The twin villages of Chapel Arm and Norman’s Cove in the western area of the Avalon Peninsula, for example, each have an Anglican church.
“In Chapel Arm, they have to go to Norman’s Cove for gas, they’ve got to go to Norman’s Cove for groceries, and they’ve got to pass by each of the churches,” said the rector, the Rev. Dianna Fry. “It’d be great if we could have one church and we could all come together, but that’s not going to happen.”
At the same time, though, this possessiveness can also lead to good things, as the Rev. William Strong saw at the 200th anniversary celebration of one of the parish churches, St. Peter’s, in Upper Island Cove. The building was packed with parishioners and local notables, a brass band played and a banquet for more than 200 people followed the service.
Newfoundlanders in the outports, whether or not they attend regularly, tend to see the church as being part of their identity-and they are proud of their identity and work to maintain it.
So, what is the way forward for the diocese? In answering the question, Peddle stressed what he considers to be one of the most distinctive parts of his church’s identity.
“Religious life here is relational,” he said. “[Newfoundlanders] are not terribly concerned with matters of liturgy, theology, doctrine, ethics. There are no great theologians or musicians produced here; we produce pastors. That’s what matters to us.”
For Peddle, and for many of the priests in his diocese, the task at hand is simply to relate to Newfoundlanders in a way that accommodates the new realities its congregants face in the 21st century.