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Laity in mood for change and renewal, consultations find

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By Stuart Mann

As they emerge from the pandemic, many lay members of the Diocese of Toronto are in the mood for change and renewal – to cast the net on the other side of the boat, as one said.

That’s one of the top findings coming out of Cast the Net’s consultations with about 450 lay people. The findings were presented to Synod Council on May 25.

The Diocese’s visioning and strategy process, which takes its name from the Gospel of John, chapter 21, has been consulting with clergy and laity in the Diocese since last fall. The steering committee hopes to bring recommendations to Synod in November that will set a course for the Diocese for the next several years.

In the consultations with lay people, participants were asked what it might mean for them to cast their nets on the right (or other) side of the boat. They were asked to imagine that it was five years in the future and there was a feeling of new life and energy in their church and the Diocese. They were asked, how did your church try a different approach that resulted in new life? What new or different things did you focus on that brought energy and drew you closer to the life of Christ? What did you need to let go of to allow new things to happen?

In response to these questions, many participants referred to young people, including children, youth, young adults and young families. They felt that attracting young people to church was key to their parish’s future, and they hoped the Diocese or another church would tell them how to do that. They were concerned for young people’s well-being and wanted to hear from them directly.

Participants suggested changes to liturgy and music to appeal to younger people and newcomers. They desired more energetic, informal and engaging liturgy, and worship that is relevant to community concerns and social justice. They suggested shorter services, updated liturgical language, modern music, relevant and interactive preaching, and different physical spaces and scheduling for worship.

Another common subject of discussion was relations with the wider community, in particular evangelism and outreach, social justice and the Church’s public image. Many participants said evangelism should focus on parishioners who haven’t returned to church since the COVID-19 pandemic, younger people, new Canadians and the “unchurched.” While some expressed enthusiasm for evangelism, others described barriers to it, especially a lack of ability to express their faith and a desire to do so.

In the area of social justice, participants felt the primary focus should be on meeting the material and social needs of those in the community, especially the provision of food and shelter. Advocacy and teaching and learning about social justice issues were also priorities.

Participants said a negative image of the Church may affect engagement with the wider community. They highlighted the Church’s role in the Residential Schools and Anglicanism’s British heritage as two causes of its negative image. They said the image of the Church and the image of Anglicans must change.

In suggesting these changes, participants discussed the roles of lay leaders and volunteers, clergy and the Diocese. Some favoured a larger role for lay leaders. “We have to expand lay leadership training,” said a participant. “We have to empower the laity, too.” However, others were concerned by the burden that would be placed on them. “It’s not easy or viable to have churchwardens doing all this work,” said another. “There are so many issues, and we are not supported. It is a tremendous burden.”

Participants had high expectations of clergy. They wanted clergy to be emotionally available and relatable, to be leaders in reaching out to the community, to make preaching and liturgical leadership relatable, and to have spiritual acumen. There was a desire for younger, more diverse clergy. They said pastoral transitions and incumbent vacancies were a significant source of stress in many parishes and encouraged different approaches to staffing. Only one participant mentioned clergy burnout.

Some participants were displeased with the Diocese, for taking either too big or too small a role in parish life. They said the Diocese could contribute to parish life by supporting outreach, creating a centralized approach to technology, helping with property issues and facilitating collaboration.

Throughout the lay consultations, there was a strong, consistent desire for collaboration among parishes and with other faith and community groups. There was also affirmation of the positive role of technology in parish life, although some feared that it discouraged in-person attendance and put a strain on the parish’s finances and staffing.

Buildings were seen as both a burden and an opportunity. Participants felt congregations needed to get out of their church building as well as welcome the wider community into them. The cost of keeping buildings open was a burden, they said, and many buildings had accessibility challenges. People spoke about letting go of buildings for the good of the community, such as providing affordable housing. Others advocated for a greater investment in buildings, which were seen as anchors for evangelism. They felt that church buildings were often the heart of the community.

Some participants expressed thoughts that were different from the dominant narrative of change for the sake of survival and growth. As a starting point for naming key values, they reflected on why they are part of the Church and moments when the Church had been particularly significant in their lives. They expressed a desire for spiritual connection with God and going back to the basics of their faith. They named a need to be the Church beyond Sunday by living as disciples of Jesus Christ every day.

A number of participants named spirituality, including spiritual experiences, core beliefs and values, as key to their involvement in the Church. “Why do I come to church?” asked one. “There are so many changes in the world; our God is not changing.” Some wanted a stronger emphasis on spirituality in the Church. “Church has become more social and less spiritual – get back to spirituality,” said one. Some called for simplicity, getting “back to basics” in teaching, learning and practicing the faith. Another quiet, consistent theme in the conversations called for a shift in focus from Sunday-only worship in church to living as disciples of Jesus Christ every day.

The presentation to Synod Council on May 25 concluded with some observations from Cast the Net’s coordinators. They said the volunteer facilitators who led the lay consultations reported a lot of positive energy in the groups, alongside considerable anxiety. Participants were grateful for being listened to and were keen for more such conversations, they said, and they were willing to change and work for the outcomes they wanted. There was a need to help people focus on spiritual renewal as opposed to institutional survival – transformational rather than transactional change, “resurrection, not resuscitation,” they concluded.

Cast the Net’s steering committee asked Dr. Sarah Kathleen Johnson to analyze the results of both the lay and clergy consultations. Dr. Johnson is a professor of liturgy and pastoral theology at Saint Paul University in Ottawa and oversees its Anglican Studies programs. Her analyses of the consultations, along with other documents, can be found on Cast the Net’s web page.

Reflecting on the lay consultations, Dr. Johnson says it is not a realistic prospect for most churches to have a lot of young people, given changing demographics and societal trends. “The desire for churches full of young people is disconnected from the demographic realities that we are facing in Canada,” she says. “The Canadian population as a whole is aging. Our population grows through immigration, and most new Canadians are not Christian, and if they are, they’re not Anglican. Each successive generation is less religious than the preceding generation. These are demographic realities, all of which are not in favour of churches full of young people. So that expectation is out of step with who lives in Canada now.”

However, she says it is important for Cast the Net’s steering committee and the diocesan leadership to hear that desire from lay people. “Recognizing that this is the direction people are looking in, and that there is this underlying anxiety, will be important for the Cast the Net team in shaping a vision.”

Dr. Johnson says one of the highlights of the lay consultations for her was the participants’ focus on liturgy. “There are ways to see it initially as a focus on attracting young people through changing practices, but listening a little bit deeper, there’s a call for liturgical renewal. I describe it in terms of three characteristics: liturgy that is more emotionally engaging and energetic; liturgy that is more relevant and connected to people’s lives and understandable; and liturgy that makes the connection to everyday acts of compassion and social justice that the Church is involved with. I found that really inspiring, to see that call for liturgy that’s more connected to spirituality and discipleship. Those are principles that can be valuable regardless of the style of worship or who’s part of the worshipping community.”

In her analysis of the lay consultations, Dr. Johnson highlighted the quieter, less prominent voices in the conversations, what she called the “visionary voices.” She says these voices could play a prominent role in shaping a vision for the diocese. “My hunch is that a bold, transformative vision is likely to come from the edge of the Church rather than the centre, and listening to voices that are less central and have historically been marginalized will be important for thinking about ways forward. Looking and listening for those comments was inspiring for me.”

She says it’s important for the Church to listen to those voices. “That’s how we follow Jesus. That’s who Jesus was listening to and was attentive to – those on the margins of his community. One of the ways that we move into our calling as followers of Jesus is being attentive to those who are marginalized in our own context. That’s often where we see God at work, where we hear the prophetic call.”

She was impressed by the amount of energy and engagement shown by the participants. “It was good to hear the energy that was present and the enthusiasm that people had for a chance to gather together to share their stories and learn what other people are doing. I really applaud Cast the Net’s desire and success in listening broadly and deeply.”

Despite the challenges facing the Diocese, she is optimistic about its future. “There’s fatigue and recognition of declining membership and participation – those things are real and important to acknowledge – but this is still a large organization. It has financial resources, social power and more than 400 people showing up for a conversation about the future – that’s a strong place to be starting from. While it’s important to acknowledge the fatigue and changing demographic realities, it’s also important to recognize that the Diocese of Toronto still operates out of a position of strength and can use that to shape a future that really serves communities, that serves congregations, that leads to deeper spirituality and discipleship.”


Comments and questions for Cast the Net’s steering committee are encouraged. Send them to