Our founders came almost exclusively from the British Isles, and opened parishes in the same pattern as in the old country: a small parish one could walk to in every village or neighbourhood. They had no idea of the multicultural society that Canada would become, or that many people would drive, sometimes long distances, to worship in a parish they liked.
For decades we have been struggling with that legacy. Some small parishes are financially healthy and lively communities; some are not. Consolidation is in order, and the recent downturn in the economy, and in diocesan investment funds, have made the situation more urgent. But how do we get from where we are to a leaner, more mission-oriented diocese? It's not an easy question to answer.
And it isn't a new question. During the 1970s some 15 parishes were closed. Then, as now, parishes that were in trouble were small and often rural. Some were decades old.
Two reports in the 1990s, the Spencer and the Rivers reports, urged further consolidation-as well as planting new parishes in strategic locations-but the decision to go slow, and not close small and struggling parishes in the Diocese of New Westminster for the past 15 years has been a deliberate one.
Since 2000, only two small parishes have closed, of their own initiative (St. Matthew's, Vancouver, and St. Peter's, Rosedale). Another two have merged, and a mission and a parish have been lost due to the controversy over same-sex blessings. But that's all, despite about a 30 per cent drop in membership.
"We've attempted not to take a top-down decision-making approach," Bishop Michael Ingham told the December meeting of Diocesan Council. The diocese has avoided the "executive approach," as he describes it: "A few people sitting around and saying, well, we'll close A and we'll keep B open-and then it dramatically affects the lives of people in those congregations."
Full participation by those involved is indeed the best approach-to have people most affected participate in decisions that affect their lives. It's what has been behind a number of initiatives in the diocese, most recently the Ministry Assessment Process (MAP), and the many meetings to determine the diocese's ministry priorities.
"It is important to make these decisions together, and not for people," the bishop told the council. But a grass roots approach works only if the grass roots participate, openly and honestly and facing reality, in the decisions that have to be made. That challenge is everyone's, posed by Strategic Plan 2018.