In the heart of French Canada, the whole Church faces declining numbers, declining funds, and declining interest. But in the Anglican Diocese of Québec, an eclectic mix of clergy looks beyond survival, with hope, into an unknown future.

(This is the full-length version of “Cooperation across Québec” [TLC, June 3]. Click here if you have already read the first half in the magazine.)

By Matthew Townsend

Take a walk through the streets of Old Québec, the UNESCO World Heritage Site that lies inside the old walls of the larger Québec City, and you will find the experience deeply reminiscent of Europe. Stone buildings with colonial French aesthetics adorn the narrow streets while horse-drawn taxis clack toward public squares, their passengers photographing each passing sight. As you move toward la Place de l’Hôtel de Ville de Québec, you pass by boutique shops and restaurants, and the hot smell of the fryer (essential for poutine) mingles with crisp air that flows fiercely from the St. Lawrence River below. And indeed, French conversations surround you, spoken by students, workers, professionals, even other tourists.

The oldest Anglican cathedral built outside of the British Isles, Holy Trinity Cathedral in Québec City brings in tourists — as well as the city’s small but devoted Anglican population. Pierre-Olivier Fortin/Wikimedia Commons photo

When you arrive in the Place — the old city’s most prominent square — you will stand between two significant structures: the Hôtel de Ville, Québec City’s classical, Châteauesque city hall, and La Basilique-cathédrale Notre-Dame de Québec. The Catholic basilica offers an impressive neoclassical exterior, and its stunning interior might remind you of the power and influence the Roman Catholic Church used to hold over Québec’s majority francophones. Towering above the altar, Christ offers a cross in one arm and salvation in another, standing atop a globe supported by massive arches. The whole visage, like the statues surrounding the altar, is ensconced in gold leaf. People have worshiped on this site since 1647.

After visiting the basilica, a quick walk around two corners will take you to Chez Jules on Rue Sainte-Anne, a little brasserie with a decidedly Parisian menu and atmosphere. Out the window you might notice another cathedral right across the street — not far from the centers of power. Past the wrought-iron fence topping the close’s wall, a Palladian church of white stone rises into a modest vault, topped by a prominent steeple the color of aged copper. Simpler than the basilica but grand in its own right, you are seeing Holy Trinity, the cathedral of the Anglican Diocese of Québec and the oldest cathedral built outside of the British Isles. King George III paid for the building; the impressive collection of silver Communion wares he donated to the parish is on display inside.

And as with any church in Europe, questions about the future went from looming to pressing years ago.

After the Conquest

Holy Trinity’s location in Québec speaks to the role Anglicans played after the English conquest of New France in 1760: visible and present, a little off to the side but also favored by those in the highest levels of power. Québec’s French majority had always been Roman Catholic. The newly arrived English — the people who would colonize the colonizers — brought Anglicanism with them. As in other parts of the world where Anglicanism was planted, its parishioners were never in the majority by population, but they held a level of privilege that many outside the church could not. They were English speakers, the new ruling class of a British and then Canadian Québec.

By the 1960s, the Québécois electorate had become distressed with the dominance of Anglophone power structures in the province. Likewise, the Catholic Church’s power within Québec — it ran health and educational systems and kept very close tabs on the lives of workers — was called into question. Some saw English magnates and the church as in cahoots. The answer to both problems: the Quiet Revolution, which booted the church out of all public affairs, enacted significant protections for the French language, and began a massive, nationalized project of rural electrification. Separatist movements also came along, in further reaction to the circumstances in which francophone Québécois found themselves.

Cynthia Patterson at her 2016 ordination to the priesthood. Anglican Diocese of Québec/Yvan Bélanger photo

“Both the church and government were found wanting and were toppled in their forms at the time,” said the Rev. Cynthia Patterson, a priest based on the Gaspé peninsula of Québec. “You went from having church fathers, male authority figures in government and church, to nothing.”

Descended from nine generations of English-speaking Québécois, Patterson’s maternal family had come to the Channel Islands because of the cod-fishing industry. Her father’s Scottish ancestor had fought at the Plains of Abraham, an important battle in the conquest, and decided to settle in the New World afterward. Her husband, retired Bishop of Québec Dennis Drainville, comes from a similarly long line of French-speaking Québécois. Before her ordination, Patterson worked in rural community development and in community health. She also helped unionize women postal workers in rural Canada.

Patterson told TLC that policies aiming to increase Québec’s birth rate strengthened ties between the government and Catholic Church in the 1950s — and helped lead to crisis. “Priests went from house to house,” she said. In addition to gathering tithes, they would come with a question: “Where’s this year’s baby?”

This happened even in the poorest homes, Patterson said. “People were on very, very small incomes. It would be nothing for a family already to have 12, 14, 16, 18 children, and the priest to still be coming around asking where this year’s child is.” Many women in their 60s and older in Québec, Patterson said, are very reluctant to even talk about religion.

The Quiet Revolution offered a new and substantial vision of secular governance, especially under the political leadership of René Lévesque. What it did not offer, Patterson said, was a reimagining of faith now divorced from power.

“In the absence of a new vision of faith, people went to no faith at all.”

Québec, which had perhaps been the most religious place in North America, was now the most secular. Most people in Québec want nothing to do with any church.

At a Precipice?

Once a plant of conquering anglophones in a nearly theocratic land, the Anglican Diocese of Québec finds itself trying to be a church under these new circumstances. In a place where English is no longer prized and religion is scorned, what’s an English-speaking church to do?

Bishop Bruce Myers. Photo by Jesse Dymond

“Québec’s such an interesting, frustrating, wonderful, paradoxical place,” the Rt. Rev. Bruce Myers, OGS, told TLC in his office within the cathedral close. Myers, like so many of Québec’s Anglican clergy, defies expectations. Belonging to the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, Myers is a professed member of a geographically distributed religious community. He used to be a journalist and is only 45, and says he is the oldest person working in the synod office. He is from Ontario but fully bilingual, and his ministry began in the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. He also served as the Anglican Church of Canada’s national ecumenism officer.

Myers was elected coadjutor in 2015, ordained as bishop in May 2016, and took the helm in April 2017. A Borg cube — a Christmas present — sits atop one of his bookshelves. He shares the neighboring bishop’s rectory: Canon Theologian Jeffrey Metcalfe [TLC, Feb. 25], Metcalfe’s wife, Julie Boisvert, and their two young children live with Myers in the large home.

“I actually think this is one of the most interesting mission fields in the world right now, for all its challenges, for all its history, for all of the supposed latent hostility towards institutionalized religion, especially Christianity.

“We have a real opportunity to do some very meaningful, call it what you want: evangelization, engagement with the world, spreading the gospel, being church as best we can.”

Opportunities exist — Myers said he sees an increasing appetite among the diocese’s four or five thousand Anglicans to better understand their faith and to grow through loving service. The work for the diocese involves connecting the dots between theology, pastoral care, and helping those in need. “The challenge is: how do you do that when we don’t have a full staff, even a full complement of parish clergy, and a relatively small number of clergy, themselves, have a classical formation for the priesthood?”

While Québec’s Anglican presence is still privileged, in many ways, the church is close to the bone and has been for a long time. The days of one priest serving one parish ended two generations ago, Myers said. No priest serves just one parish in the Diocese of Québec, including the cathedral’s dean. And by the time a synod meeting is held next year — if one is held next year — it will have been four years since the diocese has formally gathered. In spite of changes at the 2015 synod meeting to reduce the size and scope of the meeting, the diocesan executive council, which governs while synod is prorogued, recommended postponing the larger meeting again due to financial constraints. Low pay and long hours take on extra meaning for Québec’s clergy, too. And Québec, like Canada at large, is experiencing extreme rural depopulation, especially in rural anglophone communities — an additional challenge for Anglican churches in the Eastern Townships, Gaspé, and the Lower North Shore.

Under such conditions, a romantic might imagine the faithful of the Diocese of Québec as wayfarers in a post-Christian yet pre-apocalyptic sci-fi drama: a ragtag group of Christians, fugitives from other provinces of the faith who find themselves on a lonely quest to build God’s church in a place where it barely survives. Meanwhile, our heroes are pursued by ruthless demographics inside and outside of their parishes, fueled by relentlessly resurrected resentment about mistakes made by previous generations of Christians, some of them long dead.

Cynics might take a different view, declaring the end of a struggle for souls that the church long since lost. Think less Battlestar Galactica, more Titanic: this boat will inevitably sink. Shake the dust off your feet and abandon ship.

Are the Anglicans of Québec a cadre of the brave or a voyage of the damned? The clergy and parishioners would say no to both questions — but at the end of a long day, it may be tempting to puzzle over it. “There is a lot of anxiety out there, among our local congregations who see numbers diminishing, who see buildings crumbling, falling apart sometimes, and realizing they may not have the financial resources or the human power to repair them,” Myers said “And recognizing that the pool of people from whom they’ve traditionally drawn their membership either isn’t there anymore because of demographic change, or they’re not interested in being a part of the way the Anglican Church is expressed in this place — or any church or any faith community. It’s 21st-century Québec. This is one of the realities were facing.”

For his part, Myers does not perceive that reality with pessimism. “I never fear for the ultimate survival of the church. I have a pretty robust belief in the Doctrine of Indefectibility of the Church. The Church will, in its most authentic form, survive in some way, shape, or form, somewhere, until Christ comes again and redeems all things and the kingdom is fully consummated. And the Church has a role in that in-between time in which we find ourselves,” the bishop said. “So, with that as my baseline, I don’t have a lot of anxiety about the future of, in our case, the Anglican expression of the Church in central and eastern Québec.”

A Road Less Traveled

Regardless of your interpretation of the Diocese of Québec’s circumstances, its churches stand at crossroads of promise and struggle, each intersection unique to a parish’s local context. Two interesting and contrasting examples: Holy Trinity Cathedral and St. Michael’s Church in Sillery. Like Myers and Patterson, their clergy defy expectations.

By Québec standards, the cathedral is a thriving congregation. In fact, the building hosts two Anglican congregations on Sundays — French-speaking Tous les Saints at 9:30 a.m. and the English-speaking (though sometimes bilingual) Holy Trinity at 11. Incorporated separately, Tous les Saints — All Saints — is part of a handful of French-speaking congregations led by francophone clergy.

Schreiner kicks off an Easter Sunrise service at Holy Trinity. Matthew Townsend photo

The Very Rev. Christian Schreiner, dean and rector of the English-speaking congregation at the cathedral, told TLC that Holy Trinity has been growing at a slow but steady rate in the last few decades: about 50 would come 30 years ago, 68 would show 20 years ago, and 75 when Schreiner arrived a decade ago. Now the average is 88. The service at Holy Trinity is fairly high, and a talented choir offers traditional Anglican music and was most recently led by classically trained opera singer Sandra Bender. The congregation is friendly, though it may take a few visits to become a known quantity: tourists come and go from the cathedral, so newcomers blend in with one another.

This makes for an unusual environment because, as Schreiner says, the church is not a typical urban congregation. “It’s very much like a small country church,” he said. “Historically, the parishioners are the anglophones, and there are not that many around, and they don’t live in the city — or many of them don’t.”

Yet, the church is in the middle of an urban area. “It’s right in the center of the city, and we’re neighbors to city hall and to the basilica. They sometimes listen to us. I’m this Lutheran pastor from Germany, and here I am — just this week, on three different occasions, I met with all the elected leaders, with the rich and famous of the city. It’s a funny place.”

Schreiner said that the church is a cultural gathering, as well, for anglophones. “But less and less so. You can still see that in some the country churches, or Trinity Church in Sainte-Foy.”

Many anglophones in Québec may be inclined to prefer English, especially in church, as part of an embattled sensibility “for people who say, ‘We’ve been forced, ever since the [Quiet] Revolution in the 1960s and ’70s, to either speak French or leave.’ Most left. Those who are left here say, ‘We live with that reality that this is a francophone world and we are forced to speak French. So at least leave us our Sundays, where we can be among ourselves.’”

Schreiner said he did not encounter that attitude when he first came to the cathedral. “The people are different. There, we have lots of young families who are bilingual. The group that is growing fastest in our parish are unilingual francophones. For one reason or another, they want to live their spirituality and they don’t find that in their home church, their Catholic church. They have had really bad experiences over the years, and so they want something new. And they find it charming to have this warm and welcoming place that is different, that speaks a different language.”

Local executives will also come to the cathedral during the week to quietly reflect, he said. And during the cathedral’s midnight Christmas service, about half of the 300 who typically come are local francophones. After his arrival at the cathedral, Schreiner began offering a simple German Christmas service, which also draws French-speaking Québécois.

In fact, Schreiner’s willingness to experiment and his background — he was ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Bavaria before being received, through a novel process, into the Anglican Church of Canada — have proved an asset for the congregation. “The first few years, I thought I needed to be Anglican to fit in. That was actually not what they were looking for,” he said. “I had done an internship here in 2004 and 2005, and already then, what people loved was to have somebody from outside with other perspectives.”

This outside perspective has helped the cathedral connect to its surroundings a bit more. Generations of francophone Québécois had always been told that no one can enter the cathedral close — that was for the English. “The cathedral, it’s almost as though it’s not there. Many, many people who lived here had no idea what this was. It’s just a place where you don’t go. There are artists on Rue de Trésor next to the church — they park their bicycles within the cathedral close. But when you talk to them, they have no idea what the building is. They paint it, but they don’t know what it is.

“That was more [common] 10 years ago. Part of my job was breaking down these barriers, and I’m, in a way, perfectly suited because I’m neither English nor French. I’m this weird Lutheran guy, I speak both languages, I’m from Germany, I’m neutral. I’m not an Anglo who tries to convince the francophones or the other way around. I’m the joker in the game.”

The ecumenical “Blessing of the Maples” and Muslim-Anglican interfaith dinners bring together faith-filled residents of a secular place — unions encouraged by Schreiner, an ecumenical wonder in his own right. Holy Trinity Cathedral photo

Schreiner first came to Québec by way of his spouse, Esperanza — whose mother is Québécois. After they met in Chile, they decided to move to Québec City, which brought Schreiner from Munich. The internship at Holy Trinity proved a good opportunity, and they married there in 2005. In 2006, they moved to Bavaria but did not stay long before deciding to return to Québec. The Anglican Communion office had to get involved with bringing a Bavarian Lutheran permanently into the Canadian church. No existing document linked the Anglican Communion with the Bavarian church, which does not have apostolic succession. Schreiner would be the first to take this road. Because of the warm welcome Esperanza and he had felt in Québec City, however, they decided the effort was worth pursuing.

Today, the combination of Schreiner, young families, curious francophones, relocated Episcopalians and Canadian Anglicans, and lifelong worshipers seems to work well. The growth “is totally countercultural, especially in a place the Anglos have all left. It’s kind of fascinating that we’re still growing. We’re still here. In terms of giving, we had the best year in the history of the cathedral in 2017. So, it’s good.”

The cathedral has also been making substantial efforts to build relationships with Québec City’s Muslim community [TLC, Feb. 25], and services have taken on more bilingualism over the years — such as prominent funerals and the recent ordination of Joshua Paetkau, a young priest now serving in the Gaspé area with Patterson. The Sunday service is not formally bilingual, though Schreiner celebrates the Eucharist in both English and French. Sometimes, a little German is tossed in.

The Providence of God

A few decades ago, St. Michael’s Church in Sillery — a suburb about 15 minutes from Old Québec by car — decided to embrace a formal identity as a bilingual congregation, a unique choice in the diocese. It also became more liberal, in the hopes that more would feel welcome at the parish. Some parishioners left during that period, and the church has failed to grow. Myers serves as the parish’s incumbent and the church is diocesan property; efforts to sell off underused parts of the church’s campus, including the parish hall, have been active for some years.

The church’s future is uncertain, and parishioners will tell you about it. Some have a sense that the church is dying and cannot be saved — perhaps the congregation will merge with Holy Trinity, eventually. Others hold out hope that the parish will find its footing.

While Myers serves as administrative leader of the church, pastoral care has been provided by an interim priest: the Rev. Thomas Ntilivamunda.

Like Schreiner, Ntilivamunda grew up far from Canada. His ministry within the church, like Schreiner’s, presented a few challenges. Unlike Schreiner, his ministry had always been Anglican — but that ministry did not draw him to Canada.

“I came as a refugee first, because I was seeking asylum and got an opportunity to come to Canada, specifically to Québec,” he told TLC. In fact, Ntilivamunda, his wife, Yaël, and his children had lived as refugees for 21 years before coming to Canada. Originally from Rwanda, they fled to Kenya in 1994; sometimes they lived in an apartment and sometimes in camps. Since Ntilivamunda was ordained in 1990, he brought his ministry along with him, even if he could bring little else. People found ways to help him and his family. A few of his grown children live in the United States, welcomed on a special visa for Rwandan youth. The rest are with him and Yaël in Québec City. Because of their history of displacement and movement, they typically speak at least three languages in their modest but comfortable Sainte-Foy apartment: Kiswahili, French, and English.

Once in Québec, Ntilivamunda was introduced to the cathedral by a professor at Laval University. “I introduced myself, I saw the [previous] bishop, and we talked. And then I told him my story.” Initially, there were concerns about receiving Ntilivamunda into the church — there were few positions open, and he had come from a very different branch of the Anglican Communion.

The Rev. Thomas Ntilivamunda’s polyglottal skills opened a ministry opportunity for him in Québec — but his experiences as a refugee and an evangelist could prove equally valuable. Matthew Townsend photo

In November 2016, after continued conversations and paperwork, he was invited to practice ministry in Québec. He began by assisting Schreiner at the cathedral, where he remained for a year. When the United Church of Canada pastor who was serving as interim at St. Michael’s left, Ntilivamunda’s bilingual ability made him a candidate. Myers, who had since become bishop, appointed him to the role in mid-2017. The job is very part time, so the priest continues to support his family by working as a nighttime security guard.

Ntilivamunda said the mixed nature of the church, especially the low-church elements incorporated into worship, has helped him feel more at home. But many of the challenges are new to him. “I would say it’s my joy to serve here, though I have some concerns about the future of the church,” he said. “I have come here at a moment where the church is in a critical corner. They are selling the properties and may have to move somewhere else, but whatever happens, we still have a few years to be in this church.

“I don’t know whether we can do something, in those few years that we still have here, in order to maintain the church.”

Like Myers, Ntilivamunda avoids pessimism about the state of the church — and even describes it as one of the church’s challenges. “My concern is, first of all, the attitude of the church in general, because they have accepted the fact that the church is dying. Yes, we have to be realistic and see what is happening,” he said. “From my background as an evangelical priest, I believe the church belongs to God. He has promised even the gates of hell will not prevail. I believe in that. So, I still have hope for the church, even where we don’t have hope. But that hope has to be carried by a few people.

“Secularization has really affected Christians. We have several Christians who will tell you, ‘Oh, the Bible is not really the word of God.’ I have heard it even among the clergy.”

Ntilivamunda said this kind of disbelief is a great challenge. “To me, it is an issue of coming back to basics, to the priority of the church,” he said. “The priority of Jesus was not to perform miracles — we can get them just by God’s grace. His focus was on the preaching of his coming, his death, his resurrection, as the center of the gospel.

“I don’t know how much time I have here, but I believe as long as I’m here — or whoever gets in touch with me among the elders, among the Christians — it is a matter of telling them that we are not dead, we are alive because God is alive. We have hope because our God is powerful.”

He acknowledged the difficulty in reaching a surrounding population of people devoted to secularism — atheists, agnostics, and the otherwise disengaged. Figuring out how to even approach them and talk with them, he said, is not easy. Therefore, coming to know and understand God inside the church comes first. “After that, with the people, we can study the culture and see what model of the church, of evangelism, we can put into practice. This is something that may take years, because when you try out a model of evangelism, it may fail. You then have to come back to your drawing board.”

On his presence — a doctrinal, evangelical priest in a struggling, progressive parish in suburban, secular Québec — Ntilivamunda cited the providence of God in the movement of peoples around the world, even those in crisis. And in many ways the priest’s differing background does not set him too far apart from others in the church. As Myers and other clergy in the diocese said, the church’s efforts to survive often defer concerns about political or theological difference. Conservative and progressive, gay and straight, French and English manage to coexist.

“I think there is quite a bit of diversity, probably theologically, among the clergy, among the folks who are the members of the church week in and week out,” Myers said. “I think part of the reason we probably haven’t seen some of the larger, drag-’em-out debates that we’ve had in some of the wider expressions of the church play out in this diocese is because our reality is such that many of our congregations are more focused on their immediate survival. And so, one of the outworkings of that is you tend to be fairly inward-looking and less [concerned] with some of the preoccupations of the wider church, whether it’s national, international, or even diocesan.”

An Easterly View

Outside of Québec City, Anglicans in the Diocese of Québec face related challenges, with additional opportunities and imperatives unique to each locale.

The Eastern Townships is one of the other populated regions within the diocese and is home to English-speakers. The St. Francis Deanery remains, in many ways, the heart of the Diocese of Québec, with more than a dozen parishes scattered around Sherbrooke. In spite of the presence of anglophones, however, the townships are not isolated from the forces of secularism and depopulation.

Myers, Simonton, and parishioners gather for the 150th anniversary of Church of St. Peter, Cookshire. Deanery of St. Francis photo

A few years ago, the deanery entered a new model of ministry led by the Ven. Edward Simonton, OGS, archdeacon of the deanery and vicar general of the Diocese of Québec, and Ruth Sheeran, rural dean. In this model, active clergy, retired clergy, Episcopal priests who are licensed in Canada, and lay readers serve in a pool that provides ministry to the deanery as a whole. No priest serves a single church. Also among the small number of active clergy serving with Simonton is the Rev. Canon Giuseppe Gagliano, canon for lay ministries in the diocese.

While the clergy and lay people of the St. Francis Deanery continue to develop their model of ministry, new and groundbreaking ecumenical relationships have formed between Anglicans and Syrian Orthodox Christians. Like Myers, Simonton is a member of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd (he serves as secretary general of the community), and he cites OGS as a contributing factor to his ecumenical interests. He told TLC that the community’s Canadian representation was somewhat unique, with several professed brothers all involved in ecumenical dialogue in the past few decades: Myers, the late Bishop Henry Hill, the Rev. Canon Philip Hobson in Toronto, and the Rev. Walter Raymond, former dean of Holy Trinity, Québec.

Simonton serves on the Anglican-Oriental Orthodox International Commission. Through this work and OGS, he was more aware of the Syrian presence in Sherbrooke. “We have the oldest Syrian Orthodox Church in Canada,” he said. The church was founded after a wave of immigration in the 1940s and ’50s, during another wave of persecution against Christian Syrians. “In those days, the Anglicans were quite influential in resettling them in Sherbrooke.”

With the advent of the Syrian refugee crisis and renewed persecution against Christians there, Simonton reached out. “It was a natural connection for me to make with the local Syrian Orthodox community. We worked with the Roman Catholic archdiocese, and we raised money to bring in roughly 30 Syrian refugees.”

The relationship, however, did not end there. Simonton and the communities have participated together in Christmas parties. Anglicans have helped fund summer camps for Syrian children, and a few joint events and exchanges have occurred. Most noteworthy among them: when around 75 Anglicans came to share lunch and worship at St. Emphrem’s in Sherbrooke, Syrian Archbishop Mor Athanasius Elia Bahi, “shockingly, gave us all Communion.” Simonton described the event as “quite extraordinary.”

Harrington Harbour, Quebec. Wikimedia Commons photo

Far from the relative bustle of the Eastern Townships is a very different deanery of Québec: the Lower North Shore, the evermore lightly populated region stretching along the coast of the Gulf of St. Lawrence out to Labrador. The diocese has been working with the United Church of Canada to figure out a ministry model for congregations on the island of Harrington Harbour and the nearby Chevery, on the mainland. Their populations: 261 and 251, respectively. The two are linked by boat in warmer months and helicopter otherwise. Moving between the shore’s communities is easier in winter, when hard-pack snow allows for snowmobiles to travel between the shore’s population centers.

Myers made his most recent visit to both parishes in February. He said he hopes an ecumenical approach can place someone in one of the communities. “This is a model that has been working in Canada, in different parts of the country, for 40 or 50 years now. It speaks to the reality on the ground, which is: in a community of 250 or 300 people, does the capacity exist to have two ministers resident, or even itinerant clergy coming in?

“We’re being confronted with some fundamental questions. What’s more important, our particular confessional identity and our understanding of things like sacraments and ministry? Or is the pastoral reality on the ground something that’s perhaps still more important, having a resident Christian pastor from one tradition or another who attends to all of the faithful people in a given community and lives among them and with them? As opposed to somebody coming in from time to time, dispensing sacraments according to a particular way. It’s a conversation that has to happen.”

Myers said the economic and demographic shrinking experienced by communities on the shore is as pressing a concern as the diminishment of the church in Québec. “It’s not just that people aren’t going to church anymore, like they used to. It’s this community is half the size it used to be because of the cod fishery moratorium, or because of other economic crises that have had a fundamental effect on its way of life and of being,” he said. “What is an authentic, faithful expression of capital-C Church in that place? Does it look like a small-U united church model like we’ve seen in North and South India? That happened there on a national level. We’ve already done that conversation a couple of times in the last century. The Anglicans have always chosen to say no thank you, at least not yet, or not in that particular form. But I think what Anglicans can continue to do in Canada is work as closely and collaboratively as possible, especially in the remote and small communities that are struggling with a lack of resources to provide pastoral, sacramental ministry — and to simply encourage people to live out their Christian discipleship.”

Together, His Eminence Gérald Lacroix, Cardinal and Archbishop of Québec, and Myers carry a wooden cross between the city’s basilica and Holy Trinity Cathedral during an ecumenical Good Friday cross walk. Matthew Townsend photo

Ecumenism will be an important piece in communities like Harrington Harbour, Myers explained — and already is. “As usual, the folks on the ground are usually much further along in these considerations than the hierarchy. Because they live together, they work together, they play together, they marry each other. Whether they’re Presbyterian, United, Catholic, or Anglican, they often don’t understand what the hang-up is with some of these theological or sacramental questions. So, we may be hearing more and more from communities like that: just get on with it.

“Sometimes the praxis proceeds the theological reflection. That’s not always a bad thing.”

Discernment also continues on St. John’s Church in Kawawachikamach. Included in the Lower North Shore deanery, St. John’s is an outlier; it is quite far from the shore — near Schefferville — and on a Naskapi First Nations reserve. Myer said members of St. John’s, with possibly one or two exceptions, are Naskapi. “There’s a number of interesting things going on up there,” he said. “They haven’t had a full-time, resident priest going on close to four years. There’s a locally raised deacon, Silas Nabinicaboo, who works full time at another job, mostly doing biblical and liturgical translation for the Naskapi Development Corporation. He serves as the deacon in charge of the congregation and does the best he can to oversee the life of that place.”

The diocese has been trying to find a way, with limited resources, to provide a priest, “whether it’s somebody that’s raised up by the community, whether it’s somebody who comes from another First Nations community as their previous priest did, or is it a non-indigenous person? Their previous priest was the first indigenous priest that had ever served there,” Myers said. “Part of that conversation for me, especially, is trying to learn what it means to honor the manner of decision-making in a community like that, so I don’t end up making some of the same colonial or neocolonial gestures that we have in the past.”

His goal, rather, is to make space for discernment in the community. Part of the discernment to be done: helping the parish balance a resurgence of pre-Christian indigenous spirituality with the Anglican Christianity present at the church. Structure of governance and support is also a question. For a visit last year, Myers brought national indigenous Bishop Mark MacDonald with him. “As we have this emerging indigenous expression in the Anglican Church of Canada that’s still very much being developed, what does that look like in a place like St. John’s, Kawawachikamach?

“How can we work together to best serve this community, him as a non-territorial indigenous bishop and me as a non-indigenous territorial bishop? For me, what’s fundamental is: how can this community best be served? And how can we, as bishops, work together to ensure that happens, without getting caught up too much in bureaucracy and territoriality?”

Back in Gaspé, Patterson and the remaining Anglicans are also focused on practical questions. “The people who are here and active are pretty old. They are exemplars of faith,” she said. “They are so strong in their faith. I’m working a lot with affirming for them their gifts of prayer, their gifts of altar work, all these sorts of things; and encouraging them to feel that they have something worthwhile to pass on, and encouraging the next ones that this is something for them to pick up.”

Among those taking up the mantle — who, as Patterson said, “aren’t too young, either” — the priest has been working to increase awareness that small populations, like Jesus’ 12, can do ministry. “The church is changing completely. We will pray for God’s plan for what folks like us should be and do where we are.”

As cited by Myers, the change that is coming is rooted in the world outside of the church. “Québec has had the lowest birth rates in the West for years,” she said. “If you’re going to have tremendous possibility for mission, you need to have people to do that with.”

Thus, part of her work has been addressing the grief that parishioners feel about the changes and the decline. She has had to work “to move people away from being sad and depressed because we’re different, because we’ve changed, because we’re not going to pass this on in the way the last five generations did,” she said. “You can’t have the closure of huge pieces of the economy and have the same population. We don’t.”

Percé, a town on the Gaspé peninsula. Wikimedia Commons photo.

As in urban areas in Québec, secularism thrives in rural areas. Patterson shared a story of showing up with her husband shortly after the horrifying 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster in the Eastern Townships. Forty-seven people died, and half of the downtown burned to the ground. Drainville was a bishop and Patterson, at the time, a deacon. They were both denied credentials to enter the community to provide pastoral care. “The woman next to me had a dog, and the dog was certified, so she could go in, but we couldn’t,” she said.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my land.’ The people who were making these judgments on who could go in and provide support to people did not think clergy should have the right to do that, did not view us as people who were formed to do that. I love dogs and have a great belief in dog therapy, but I think I can do as well as a dog.”

She joked, “Maybe not always.”

This kind of reaction, even in rural Québec, reveals how the same parishes facing population decline also contend with decreased interest in the church. It also means that more traditional attitudes, a mainstay of rural America, are not necessarily a part of life in rural Québec.

“I find that in our work at the community level, trying to make a space where the church can be understood and be of interest and be attractive and be interesting and compelling — it’s a rough go.”

Looking ahead, Patterson — who serves itinerantly on the Magdalen Islands, as well — says leaders are considering the area’s future as a beautiful place between the mountains and the sea. “We can offer tremendous sacred space. We can offer sacred space for retreats, for people such as myself who are deeply concerned about climate crisis,” she said. “I see mission not so much as a matter of numbers, out here, but as inspiring new manifestations or expressions of what we can do. I see more people coming here and being inspired by this remarkable place. That’s mission, but it’s a different one from raising up numbers locally.”

The Shape of Things to Come?

Feb. 2018 ordination of the Rev. Joshua Paetkau, who serves in the Gaspé region. Matthew Townsend photo

The challenges faced by the Diocese of Québec are not trivial. The province is huge, about the size of Alaska. While the diocese only covers part of that territory, its geography is still arresting. Gaspé is a 10-hour drive from Québec City. A nonstop Air Inuit flight to Kawawachikamach takes two hours and 20 minutes from Québec City, covers more than 600 miles, and is not cheap. Less distance lies between Québec City and Toronto. Reaching the Magdalen Islands requires a flight or a ferry as well.

Likewise, the economic hardship that runs through much of the diocese is real. No one knows if places like the Magdalen’s Entry Island will even be populated in 20 years. Preparing a strategic plan for ministry under such conditions is impossible.

Then there is the secularism, which is palpable throughout Québec. Church is a curiosity among Québec’s young people, but it has not moved from curiosity to habit. It could be easy to conclude that the church in Québec — Anglican or otherwise — could vanish, and few in the province would notice. Many have already closed with little notice.

This raises a question: Should the church in Québec survive? Is it worthy of survival, or should plans be made to shutter parishes and move along?

“I think the church deserves to survive in so far as the church is doing the best it can to live into the calling that Christ has articulated for his Church in every time, in every place,” Myers said. “So, it is in one way, wherever two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name, Christ is present among them. And that’s the numeric reality of some of our communities: sometimes we get two or three people.

“And Christ is present. Can that be the end of it? No. Christ sends us into the world to be the living, tangible expression of him in the world, welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner, tending to the sick, and all of those basic, fundamental works, the outworking of our faith in God in Christ.

“So, I think anywhere communities, however small, continue to engage in that kind of Christlike work, there the Church will be present. There Christ will be present. Is it necessarily going to take the same highly structured, highly governed, highly organized form that it currently does, with a diocese, with a synod office and a small staff, with canons and constitutions, with clearly defined territorial boundaries? I don’t know, and maybe it doesn’t need to. Or maybe it becomes part of another diocese. Maybe there’s a complete structural change on the horizon.

“I think Québec — simply because our circumstances have forced us to recognize this maybe sooner than some other parts — of the Canadian or North American church — is in the midst of old things passing away without having the remotest, clear idea of what new thing is coming to take its place. There will be something new, but when it comes, what form it takes, how it will work — none of us knows.

“I see part of my role, at this particular weird, interesting, challenging time in the life of the church in this place, is to try and accompany people through that really significant change, which may take longer than my episcopate. Maybe it’ll take a generation or two to get us to that place.”

Myers said he believes, however, a lot of change will come in the next decade.

“When I visit congregations across the diocese, I see with my own eyes just the age of a lot of the really faithful folks who attend our churches, and the numbers of them. I’m reminded, in a very stark way, that there’s going to be some major change in the course of the next five or ten years — unless there’s some spontaneous renewal within the church that’s Spirit-led and happens of its own accord. The writing on the wall, demographically, is that we’ll see some really significant change and a lot of our communities losing the capacity to continue on in the way that they have been. That isn’t the death of the church or the end of the church.”

A January view of Holy Trinity, Château Frontenac, and the St. Lawrence River. Wikimedia Commons photo

Therefore, the question, Myers said, should not be about survival. “We’ve been surviving. I guess the question before is: is it enough simply to survive? Or are we called to something beyond simple self-preservation? I think we’re called to be disciples of Jesus in the world. I think we’re called to be outposts of the kingdom of God in this world, in each of the communities where we’re situated, and to be living, vibrant witnesses to the faith in tangible, concrete ways to those most in need.”

This, he said, means recognizing that the world is constantly and desperately seeking signs of hope and reconciliation. “I think as long as we can try and move in that direction and encourage where that’s happening already, the church will be there. Inevitably, it’s going to look a whole lot different physically, structurally, demographically. I haven’t got the foggiest idea of what that’s going to look like. I think part of my challenge, and those of us really invested in the structures of the church, is to not be bound by those structures and our inherited ways of understanding what the church [should] look like.

“When your hope is grounded in the resurrection of Christ, and when you’re directing your hope in an ultimate way towards a final redemption, that’s when you move beyond optimism to a Christ-grounded hope. Then that gives you the freedom, the liberty, to move into the future in a way that allows you to take some risk, to risk making mistakes. Not to be cavalier and reckless, particularly in communities where people have faithfully labored for generations in supporting and maintaining their churches. But journeying with them, as together we try and discern what the church looks like going forward.

“And it’ll change from generation to generation — our circumstances are constantly changing. Who would have thought, 60 years ago, that Québec would be the most secular jurisdiction in North America, with an almost hostile atmosphere towards organized religion of any kind? It’s part of the climate in which we’re operating now.

“So, we can’t tell where we’re headed. But I remain fundamentally hopeful of the future, even or especially not knowing what shape it’s going to take.”

A Note on the Margins: Treble is Going

Postcard from Québec City

Frederick Legault photo

Holy Trinity Cathedral in Québec City is a community that defies many expectations. Among its unusual attributes: a change-ringing bell tower said to be the oldest in Canada.

On Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings, members of the Québec City Guild of Change Ringers converge upon Holy Trinity; once they begin their work, the sound of very English bells (ringing in very English patterns) echoes down the stone streets of Old Québec.

I did not have plans to write about the cathedral’s bells or the independent guild — but nor could I resist the opportunity to see the 1830 Whitechapel bells and their ringers in action. I showed up with Frederick Legault, a Québécois friend and photographer, and neither of us had a clue of what to expect.

After greeting us, one of the ringers gives Frederick a set of instructions in rapid French. Frederick translates that we cannot touch the ropes, even brush against them, and we should not move once ringing begins. And, with a look of confusion, he adds, “He says not to cross our legs.” Under any circumstances. “Oui,” I acknowledge. The terms accepted, we enter the tower’s ringing chamber.

French and English blend together in the bell tower before one of the ringers — the one on the lightest bell — calls everyone to attention. “Look to,” he says. “Treble is going.” The rope is pulled, and then the bell begins to swing. “Treble is gone.” Frederick and I behold the spectacle as the guild members ring, each with one bell to command. Pattern changes are announced above the din.

During a lull, I ask Douglas Kitson about the prohibition of leg-crossing. Out of respect for the bells? Guild custom? Good posture? Kitson, a longtime ringer originally from Australia, smiles and explains that the looped ropes are quite easy to pull — but are also connected to a counterweight with the heft of a small car. A stray foot in one, and up you go.

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