By Matt Gardner
Bishop John Watton recalls a story he heard in the early 1990s from congregational development author George Hunter.
A farmer plans to harvest wheat the next day. He goes to sleep soundly, knowing that he will be blessed with a bounteous crop. When he wakes up in the morning, he looks out to find that his entire wheat field has changed to grapes. It is now a vineyard.
The farmer has no idea how or why this change has taken place. All he knows is that the crop belongs to him, it is on his land, and he must harvest it. He jumps out of bed, goes into the barn, starts up his combine harvester and ploughs into the grapevines with it.
“In essence, that’s what we’ve been doing as a church,” Watton says. “We haven’t paid attention to the fact that the harvest has changed…. The basic question is, what are we being called to do? How can we speak theologically into the questions that the world is asking now?”
For Watton, the solution lies in a renewed focus on mission, which now guides the diocese of Central Newfoundland as it embarks on a time of jubilee.
On April 2, Watton wrote an open letter to the diocese announcing the jubilee. The financial committee and diocesan executive had decided that for the months of April, May and June, parishes would not have to remit their diocesan assessments.
Instead, these funds would stay in parishes, on the condition that they submit proposals outlining how they would use that money to develop new programs for outreach and mission.
“With COVID-19, we made a decision to just use the term [jubilee], throw it out there, and let people know that this was our immediate response,” Watton says.
“We know there’s no possibility of us worshipping in public sessions, at least until September,” he adds. “We know that. But my hope and prayer is that at some point, we’re going to be able to get back on track with that, because I don’t see any hope for the church outside mission. We have to have a reason for being here, because the traditional church is dying.”
Compared to decades ago, Watton says, younger generations today are far less likely to be involved in the church—to get married in a church, to have their children baptized there, or to attend regular worship. Many prefer more “self-directed” forms of spirituality.
At the same time, he says, “there’s an emergence, a sense in the church among people that if you can help us in our spiritual journey, then you do have something to offer us. We’re trying to get into tune with that. And to the extent that we are, our church has taken on a whole different face here in Central Newfoundland.”
For years, the diocese has been discussing how it might reorient its ministry to reflect shifts in cultural attitudes towards religion and the church. In 2017, it published the document Policy on Sustainable & Intentionally Missional Ministry, which declared that the task of the diocese now was to move from survival to mission.
The document explains how the diocese defines mission. Anglicans in Central Newfoundland, it says, are called to create “communities of hope” by providing a welcoming space for all who seek spiritual support; by creating ministries that reflect and respond to the diverse needs of communities and that resonate with young people; by being “courageous and persuasive” advocates for the homeless, poor and marginalized in their communities; and by looking outward and sharing Christ’s message to influence social policy and realities.
Originally, the diocese had planned on rolling out a jubilee in 2021 or 2022 to help churches be intentionally missional by using funds freed up from their diocesan assessments. But the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically accelerated those plans.
The launching of the jubilee followed discussions among Bishop Watton, Executive Archdeacon Terry Caines, and Diocesan Treasurer Lori Wheaton.
“We had been talking for the last little while…in regards to what ministry looks like in the diocese and what can we do to encourage our parishes to think outside the box…challenging their faith, but also increasing their faith in what they believe in,” Caines says.
Looking at diocesan investments, the trio pondered how to give back to the parishes. Rather than capital works projects such as buildings and maintenance, which Caines describes as always ongoing, they sought to channel the money into helping parishes and churches become intentionally missional.
COVID-19 may have hastened the jubilee, but it also influenced the ways that parishes have used their funds which would have otherwise gone to diocesan assessments.
With public worship suspended, clergy have been holding virtual services and reaching out to parishioners online. As a result, some parishes have used their funds to sign up for Zoom accounts and purchase iPads as a means of enhancing their technological capacity to carry out mission.
“The [money] that they’re not sending us in regards to assessments is now being used to help them in social media form more than anything else, because it’s difficult to gather…. We have virtual Bible studies going online, which we did not have prior to [the pandemic],” Caines says. “But in a lot of cases, some of our parishes did not have the ability to do that, [whereas] they do now.”
In some ways, the use of technology has helped Anglicans in Central Newfoundland reach new audiences. Bishop Watton, for example, is currently hosting an online lecture series called The Bible 101 and has been “overwhelmed” by the response, with more than 500 people registered for the course.
Other parishes have used their jubilee funds to develop Sunday school curriculums and resources such as colouring books for smaller children. Support for parish newsletters is also playing a vital role in sending out information and keeping people connected.
The Rev. Moses J. Tucker, rector of the Parish of Lewisporte, says the jubilee has had an “uplifting” effect on many people in his parish. On one hand, it has shown that “our head office is trying to help out as best they can during this very unique and complicated time.” On the other, it has enabled congregations to “think outside the box” in their approaches to mission.
“It’s been exciting, and I’ve actually used the word ‘revival’ unironically, because that’s what it feels like…. Directly down on our level, I think it’s given folks less to worry about from the day to day so we can focus on what are we going to do in terms of reaching people as a church,” Tucker says.
In the case of Lewisporte, the parish has used its diocesan remittance to look at new ways of doing online youth ministry. One plan is to expand its incorporation of Godly Play, an approach to childhood faith formation incorporating storytelling objects and materials that may be purchased online.
Tucker adds, “I’ve found it to be encouraging to try and find new ways to do things.”
Diocesan leaders planned to assess the jubilee in June and determine what their next steps might be.
As Wheaton notes, “We’re giving our people the relief so they can look inward and see how they can grow, and to feel that they’re a part of something again and a part of the diocese…. We’re all part of the same family.”
Matt Gardner is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Gardner worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014.
Anglican Journal, June 10, 2020