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Bishop delivers Charge to Synod

Bishop Andrew Asbil speaks at the front of a church

Bishop Andrew Asbil delivered his Charge to the 161st Regular Session of Synod at the opening Eucharist at All Saints, Kingsway on Nov. 17, 2022. You can watch or read the text below.



O God, take our lips and speak through them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and fill them with love for you. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

At the bottom of Perot Street in Ste Anne-de-Bellevue on the west island of Montreal, there is a boat launch and a little park overlooking Lake Saint-Louis. And early in the morning on Saturdays, my older brother and I would often go down with a tin can full of worms and a fishing rod in the other hand. Mine was a hand-me-down. It was yellow with a very primitive reel, and it had thick black line on it. My brother’s was new, with a new Fandango spin cast reel. It was really fancy.

And we would take up our place in the little park next to the boat launch alongside other fishers. Most of those fishers were regulars, and they each had a place, and if you arrived you knew not to stand in somebody else’s place. And we had our own place, too. English was spoken alongside French. Some fishers like to be silent, some like to chat about the news of the day, some like to tell the stories about the fish that got away and the one that they caught. And with every telling the fish just kept getting bigger and bigger.

When I was seven or eight, I could not master the art of casting the line. I would practice with hook, line and sinker in the backyard, but I could never quite master when to push the button to release. What made it worse on a Saturday morning is that you were literally wedged in between fishers on your left and on your right. And I was always afraid that I was going to snag somebody or hook somebody or injure somebody. But my older brother was really good at it, so he would cast my line for me. But after about the umpteenth time of casting, he would become impatient, and so I found myself having to do that kind of feeble underhanded way, and the hook, line and sinker would go out only a few feet, and it didn’t take long for it to come right back next to the wall. And it’s really hard to catch fish right next to the wall.

But we were part of that Saturday morning casting and reeling ballet by the side of the lake. And every once in a while someone would say, “I’ve got something” and every head would turn. All the small fish, Sunfish, small-mouth bass and small perch would be tossed back in, but I do remember the tremble of the line. Pulling too fast and seeing an empty hook and no bait. And I do remember the day that I caught a perch, and it was that big. You have to remember I was seven, so it was that big, but it was big enough to bring home for my mother to cook for dinner that night.

The thing about that fishing experience is that I really felt like I was part of something, that I really belonged in that place, that I was part of a ballet. The fishing in the summer of 1970 was glorious.

And then in November of 1970, in the aftermath of the FLQ Crisis, my parents announced to us that my father was taking a new charge in St. Catharines, Ontario. This would be my fourth home and my third move in my young life, and I can remember feeling the burden of grief. Oddly, when I think of it now, my focus on the grief was actually on the fishing, because I never imagined that I would find another place where I would fit in quite like that.

Now my father, for his part, cast a different vision. He said, “As it happens, there is a river in the backyard of the rectory in St. Catharines. You could go fishing there.” And the misery in the middle of the night would turn some with the promise and the hope of a river running through it in the backyard.

If you can imagine, when we arrived at that rectory, the first place that I ran to was down the hill to the river, and there it was. And it was fast flowing, and it was wide, and it was green. It’s the Twelve Mile Creek. It’s part of the old Welland Canal. What we didn’t know then is that some days the water’s green, and then it would turn brown, and then it would go red, and sometimes it would have foam on the top depending on the effluent that was coming from the pulp and paper mills upriver.

We never fished in that river. The rod was put to the side wall of the garage, and there it sat as we found new ways of being able to navigate a new school, new friends, new neighbourhood.

“I’m going fishing,” Peter says to the other disciples. It’s the first words in a script that we hear in chapter 21. Chapter 21 is the culminating chapter of the gospel and invites us to step into a third resurrection moment with Jesus. And it is the hook upon which we drape our visioning process for the Diocese of Toronto, called Cast the Net.

The Cast the Net visioning is ably led by our steering committee, and it is co-chaired by Dave Toycen with Alison Falby, and ably led by our consultants Dr. Anita Gittens, ODT, Canon Ian Alexander and Dean Peter Elliott. It is an opportunity for us to wrap ourselves in the story of chapter 21, to give us an insight of what it is that we experience at this moment as we emerge from Covid as a Church. Up to 90 percent of our active clergy so far have already begun to be engaged in this process, and we’ll hear more about it tomorrow at Synod in the afternoon, and an opportunity over the next 12 months to engage lay people in this discernment pattern.

We are not where we used to be, and it is important for us in this moment to immerse ourselves in this new place. And so for the rest of this Charge, just simply to use chapter 21 to engage in this moment where we are.

“I’m going fishing,” Peter says. “We’re going with you,” they say. We are never told why they went fishing. Maybe they were bored, maybe they were hungry, maybe they needed to make some money. But maybe fishing became the focal point for Peter’s grief, longing to go back to a time when everything made sense and everything was clear, back to a time when at least four of them experienced that moment with Jesus on the beach, when they let go of their nets and they plumbed the depths of their experience with God and what it would mean to forgive and be forgiven. What it would mean to grow in faith, in grace, in love. What it would mean to run away on Friday, to be still on Saturday and to be raised again on Sunday.

Sometimes we long to go back, too. Back to a time in the Church when everything seemed so clear. Back to the Church of 1970, when churches were full, when choirs were overflowing, when there were children everywhere. But we know instinctively, just like the disciples discovered tonight, there is no going back. There’s only going forward.

We are told in the text that there are only seven disciples there that night, and I keep wondering to myself, “But where is everyone else?” And it’s a question we ask ourselves too in this moment as we emerge from pandemic, when we straddle in-person and online. And we put in the numbers for those who attended, and then we look back into 2019 and we see the gap between those who are present now. And we know many have perished, we know that many have moved away, we know that many are wanting to stay home. We hear from some congregations that it is the young families and children who come to church and the seniors stay home, and in other parishes it’s the absolute opposite.

It is always a command to us as Church to seek out the lost, to keep in mind those we do not see, to find ways of grasping and holding and keeping and encouraging and keeping in touch with those that have been left behind. It is always in keeping.

They caught no fish that night. I imagine them going back and forth on the water, casting and pulling in, casting and pulling in. Their hands are getting blistered, their backs are getting sore, they’re out of practice. Not one tremble of the line. And imagine how they were feeling in that moment, as grumpy as they would be. “How on Earth have we arrived in this place? We don’t even know how to fish anymore!”

Imagine how tired they were. And we can, because we’re tired too. Our lay leaders are tired. Our staff is tired. Our deacons are tired. Our priests are tired. Our bishops are tired. Our health care workers are tired, our doctors are tired, our teachers are tired, the community is tired. We have been engaged in the three-year-long Covid ballet of understanding what it means to mask and unmask. To live at a distance, to live close. To live in isolation and online. And there is an exhaustion in it. And we long for the day when we can just put it all to the side.

Just after daybreak Jesus appears on the beach, but they did not know it was Jesus. In our biblical narrative there’s always something happening just around daybreak. All night long, Jacob wrestled with God and would not let God go until he had received a blessing. Just before daybreak, Mary would go to the tomb and see that the stone had been rolled away.

And Jesus calls out to them, “You have no fish, have you?” It’s one of the most honest moments in the text. They didn’t talk about the ones that got away, or the nibbles, or the little ones they tossed back. They simply said, “No.”

Sometimes it’s important for us just to be honest about where we are as church communities, to know that what we have left and what we have lost and what we pine for. And there are times when we too come up empty-handed.

Sometimes it’s important in our journey of faith to go empty-handed. Jesus reminded his disciples of that: “Go two by two and take nothing with you.” You see, when you go empty-handed, you receive what’s given to you. When you go empty-handed, you stay vulnerable and close to the ground. You see others around you who are just as vulnerable.

For the last almost three years, we have learned what it means to be vulnerable in the face of a tiny microbe. We have lived side by side with the most vulnerable: our seniors and elders, our homeless and those who live with food insecurity. Over the last two and a half years, we have faced the sin of racism and bias. And we have been reminded again, as we did at the beginning of this liturgy, of the legacy of the Church that has brought harm to Indigenous people. It is important when we look back to remember the times when we have snagged and hooked and injured others in our attempt to serve the mission of God. In this time, we strive desperately to make things right.

Cast your net on the right side. Make things right. It’s not an invitation; it’s a command. As Nike would say, “just do it.” When we are our most vulnerable, and when we are at our most wits’ end, and when we are most tired, Jesus says, “Do it again.” And in our doing it again, we hope not to catch or to snag, but to pull in, to rescue, to catch, to keep, to hold.

For the last number of months, an encampment has grown outside the west doors of St. Stephen in-the-Fields. A small community of homeless people have built makeshift homes. Mother Maggie and her staff and people have done their very best to create sanctuary, and to assuage the hurt and the anger of local neighbours, and to work with city officials to find housing and dignity. There are Anglican communities right across this diocese, in small towns, in the suburbs, in the rural parts, in downtown, that are serving the needs of the poor in bringing dignity and hope. We face as a community the need to be able to create even more dignity, and a place for home and belonging.

Jamie Richards runs a market garden in Orangeville, and he is a member of St. John’s. When the pandemic began, he wondered if he should just close down his business. One day, he went into his greenhouse and he prayed to God, asking, “God, what should I do?” And the answer that came to him was, “Your ministry is to grow food.” So he kept it open, and he sold his food to restaurateurs and those who would drive by looking to purchase, and he would donate much of the food to the food bank.

The ministry of St. John’s was welcoming refugee families and immigrants, and he invited them to plant gardens in his property. While they were making food, they created community and a place to belong.

A place to belong.

“It is the Lord,” says the disciple that Jesus loved. It is the task of a church community always to make the connections where we see God at work. It is to us to bear witness to those moments when the rest of the world may not perceive it. To be able to point to those moments when the Holy Spirit, when Jesus, when God shows up.

And so moved by that experience, Peter puts on his clothes and jumps in the water. Still haven’t quite figured that one out. Maybe it’s just the desperation of finally being presentable and having a second chance. Some interpretations say he swam 100 yards. That’s maybe 100 meters. That’s two lengths of an Olympic-sized pool. That’s a long way.

Imagine Peter dragging himself on the beach, breathless, before Jesus. You can, actually. Nine hundred seventy-nine days of Covid pandemic, seven waves we have been through. You are not the same person you were when it began. Some of us have gained weight and our clothes don’t fit, and some of us have lost weight and our clothes don’t fit. Some of us have grey hairs and some of us have fewer hairs. And some of us have known the burden of isolation so long that it has affected our spirit. Some of us feel lost, and some of us are dealing with long Covid. But we are here.

We have arrived on the beach with Jesus after that length of time in Covid, and we are present. And the invitation that is given to us in this moment in time is, “Bring some fish with you and come down for breakfast.” Jesus sets the meal for us. Tonight, like every Sunday, bread and wine, body and blood. Sacrament. An invitation to live in sacramental living with Jesus.

And we bring with us our gifts. Every parish and congregation from around the diocese, large or small, brings all of the gifts that we have together as we meet for Synod. We bring our hospitality and our outreach, our prayers, our discipleship, our bible study. We bring all of that together. We bring our vulnerabilities and our strengths. We share what we have with each other. We learn to work together in a way that we have not worked before. And we live that promise that we are fed. When we say yes to our baptismal covenant, the Reign of God comes near. When we allow God to use those gifts that have been given to us, we are formed into the mystical Body of Christ and the Church is awakened. When we say “yes.”

Theologian Verna Dozier wrote a wonderful book called The Dream of God. In it she writes, sometimes Christians choose to make Jesus an idol, one to be worshipped rather than to be followed. Worship, unless in the use for discipleship, is blasphemy. Worship, unless used for discipleship, is blasphemy. We are encouraged to answer the call to discipleship, and that call to discipleship is an invitation to citizenship in the Reign of God, where we take on the love and the compassion of Jesus, where we are bound not by yesterday, nor afraid of tomorrow, nor do we draw a line between friend and foe or those who are in and those who are out. That is the call.

We are reminded in the last line of the gospel. After our bellies are full comes the moment when Jesus is inviting Peter to a deeper road of reconciliation and love. “Peter, son of Simon, do you love me more than these?”

In our want to make things right and to move together as a Church in the Diocese of Toronto, there are at least three things that we know that we need to work on continually. The first is to renew our commitment to reconciliation with First Nations, Inuit and Metis people of this nation, of this Canada. That we recommit ourselves to call to action and to do all that we are able to do to be emblems of healing and reconciliation.

Antonio Guterres said this week at COP27 – this is number two – we are on the highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator, and if we don’t move and change now, we will tip over into climate chaos. We know that.

Not very long ago, I was asked to moderate a conversation with a panel, and the question was, “What would happen if the Diocese of Toronto took climate crisis seriously?” We came up with all sorts of solutions. But at one point the question was asked, “But what will it take for us to change?” And one of our panelists, Brian Walsh, said “Love.”

To love the stream. To love the creek bed. To love the pond and the forest and the tree and every living creature on this planet. To love. It is love that pronounces a new vision that we hear in our first reading from Ezekiel of waters emanating out of the temple, at first only ankle deep, then knee-deep, then waist deep, that moves out throughout the Earth, that replenishes all living things. Not rivers that are brown or red, but green and full of life. And that vision is the vision that we must live out of as a people of faith in a time of deep and profound need, for the sake of not only ourselves but the generations and generations and generations to come. Our time is now.

The third thing: to commit ourselves to anti-racism and anti-bias. To commit ourselves to training and learning and tearing down all walls that divide us. To commit ourselves each and every day as the people of God to walk in unison and to make no dividing line between those who are in and those who are out, foe or friend. We stand on the cusp of a new time together. We are not to be afraid of what is to come, but to embrace it and to name those places where Christ calls us to serve, even if we’re tired, because we will be replenished. God is coming and counting on us to be present in this moment.

Tonight, as we head into Synod, one feeling that I feel at the top of the list is gratitude. I am so grateful for every lay leader in the Diocese of Toronto that takes their baptismal covenant to heart and says, “yes.” I am grateful for our vice chancellors and in particular our Chancellor Clare Burns, 20 years of ministry. For your wisdom, for your love of the Church and for your presence. For every deacon who reminds us of the needs of the world. For every priest who breaks bread and pours wine. For our bishops Riscylla and Kevin, who signed up for way more than you could ever ask or imagine, especially in this time of transition. The weight has been extreme and you have borne it well, and I cannot imagine doing this work without the two of you.

To the staff of 135 Adelaide, for all of our directors, for our executive director Canon Robert Saffrey, who carries a particular weight with such grace and deep humour. To Mary Conliffe, who keeps everything in order. For Jenn, who keeps it in order again.

And for Mary my beloved, who reminds me every day that all shall be well.