Archbishop’s Diary: New ways for new times

Posted on April 3, 2014

By Archbishop Colin Johnson

This article was first published in the February 2014 issue of The Anglican.

Archbishop Colin Johnson and Bishop John Chapman of the Diocese of Ottawa share a laugh at Archbishop Johnson's installation as the Bishop of Moosonee on April 1 in Cochrane, Ontario.

Archbishop Colin Johnson (left), Bishop of Toronto and Metropolitan of the Ecclesiastical Province of Ontario, and Bishop John Chapman of the Diocese of Ottawa share a laugh at Archbishop Johnson’s installation as Bishop of Moosonee on April 1 in Cochrane, Ontario.

Sometimes institutions, as well as individuals, are required to make courageous and sacrificial choices. Sometimes these are not only pragmatic but innovative. Over the past two or three years, that has happened in the Diocese of Moosonee.

Its website describes Moosonee as “straddling both northern Ontario and northwestern Quebec, covering some 560,000 square kilometres, second only to the Diocese of the Arctic in geographic size.” It is one of the great historic missionary areas of the Anglican Communion and of early Canada, with records dating back to 1780. It is an area set in “an almost unbelievable land … of forests, lakes and rivers, with mountains and muskeg and desolate tundra.”    

It stretches from the city of Timmins, 700 kilometres north of Toronto, to Chisasibi on the Quebec coast and then across to Kashechewan on the Ontario side of James Bay. It is just a bit smaller than the state of Texas, or about the same size as France, yet has only 23 parishes and a dozen clergy.

The Rt. Rev. Tom Corston was elected bishop almost four years ago. His consecration was my first time presiding as Metropolitan. He almost withdrew from the episcopal election, but in the end he felt it was God’s call and he needed to test it. He knew the diocese was in difficulty. His job would not be to rescue it but to help figure out its future. 

The once flourishing southern parishes along the Highway 11 corridor are in communities that are shrinking. In the single industry towns, with forestry, rail and mining in decline, people began moving away, and many of the small churches were becoming not only financially fragile but lacking the people-power to be sustainable. The northern communities around James Bay, almost completely aboriginal, are growing. The east coast villages are thriving, thanks to strong Cree leadership and well financed band councils that provide direct support for the church. It is a different story on the west coast, which is rife with social and political problems and serious poverty. The diocese was on the verge of bankruptcy. Bishop Tom knew the next three years were crucial and began to work with his people to develop some new models.

They engaged in a strategic planning process, and finally presented three alternatives to their diocese’s Synod. The leading proposal was to sever the diocese by distributing the struggling southern parishes among the bordering dioceses and creating a new, self-sufficient, largely Cree diocese clustered around James Bay. The elders and the grandmothers gathered in Synod disagreed: they were all part of one diocese, aboriginal and white, and would remain united. Parish ministry needed to continue, with both stipendiary and locally raised priests and deacons led by a bishop. Another solution needed to be found.

And so was born the concept of a Mission Area of Moosonee. Diocesan Synod and then Provincial Synod agreed. The formal structures of the diocese, its canons and constitution, Synod, the parish-based ministries and the provision of priests would continue. The beautiful but expensive bishop’s house was sold, and the already tiny office was consolidated.  They reduced their governance structure, realigned parishes and redeployed clergy. 

The administration of payroll for clergy was moved to the Diocese of Quebec for Moosonee clergy residing in the civil province of Quebec, and to the Diocese of Toronto for Ontario-resident clergy. Diocesan trust funds are now managed by General Synod. A key part of the plan was that when Bishop Tom retired, the archbishop of the province would become the next bishop of Moosonee with the full spiritual, temporal and legal jurisdiction that a diocesan bishop has in the government of the church, but that he or she would delegate the usual day-to-day affairs of the diocese to an administrator, who would be a parish priest named by the bishop. Bishop Corston would be appointed, with a very small honorarium, as a part-time assistant bishop to celebrate some of the confirmation visitations and provide pastoral and episcopal care under the direction and mandate of the archbishop. 

This model not only gives breathing space to consider alternatives, it is a courageous and creative response to changed circumstances—technology, communications, transportation possibilities, pastoral needs, as well as finances.

What does this mean for me? As of Jan. 1, I am now the bishop of both Toronto and Moosonee, as long as I continue as Metropolitan of Ontario. Unlike ordination as bishop, which is life-long with an active ministry that continues until retirement, the Metropolitan, styled as “Archbishop,” is elected by Provincial Synod to serve a renewable six-year term.  I have now served four. 

Our participation in this experiment is significant but not overwhelming. Many of our deaneries in the Diocese of Toronto are numerically larger, and in some ways the Diocese of Moosonee will function not unlike one of our episcopal areas, the smallest of which has more than five times the number of clergy and almost three times the number of parishes (but not, of course, the vast distances.) Telephone, email and video conferencing make the administration at a distance possible with a very capable local priest on the ground. I will visit parishes in a couple of compressed week-long circuits, but most of that will be delegated to the assistant bishop and other bishops. I will chair the semi-annual Executive Council, conduct some of the confirmations, gather with the clergy in their annual clericus meeting, and oversee pastoral care, particularly of the clergy. Together with the lay and clerical leadership, we will work to find the most faithful ways to engage in God’s mission to the people of the Diocese of Moosonee.

It will undoubtedly entail some small sacrifice for me and for our diocese, but this involves considerable sacrifice for Moosonee. Some clergy are travelling vast distances to serve small, scattered communities. They are paid Council of the North stipends—pitifully small. Yet they have the fiery resolve of early pioneers and a deep sustaining faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The laity are passionate about their faith in Jesus Christ and their love for the church, which for a great many influences their daily lives to a degree that challenges the vigour of our own Christian practice. They will have a bishop who is at a considerable distance and less intimately engaged with them than they have been accustomed.

Our mutual cooperation is an experiment in how we, as part of the wider church family, can support one another in fulfilling Christ’s mission in new ways for new times.