Peace Lutheran Church, located for 37 years within Square One Shopping Centre, received notice in November 2011 that their lease would not be renewed in April 2012 due to the mall’s decision to expand the food court. Deeply grieving this loss of the only church home they had ever known, the community nevertheless resolved to continue in a new space; after extensive research, they realized there were no suitable affordable locations available. This, then, meant a turn to another option: renting space from another church. Given the existing full communion relationship with the Anglican Church of Canada, the logical starting point for the search was local Anglican churches. In an amazing moment of the Spirit’s work, this procrastinating pastor felt strongly urged (nagged, even!) to immediately begin the task of approaching parishes; upon arriving at the first church, I learned that all of the area priests were gathered for their monthly meeting. The work of asking about rental space throughout the whole city was done in a single morning!
At this gathering of priests was the incumbent of Holy Spirit Anglican Church, the Rev. Judith Alltree; she had almost skipped the meeting, feeling discouraged about parish finances and unsure of how she could help make better use of their church facility and secure new tenants. A colleague (incumbent at the church which was the pastor’s first stop, in fact) encouraged her to come. After hearing Peace’s story, she immediately approached me and said “I can’t believe you are here and I am here today – we need to meet and talk about this some more.” The displaced people of Peace needed an economical new place to worship – the struggling people of Holy Spirit needed a new community to share their financial burden and their space. Shared need was a good starting point.
We did meet – the very next day – and excitedly shared our hopes and dreams for bringing these two congregations together in one place. Not long after, each of us met with our own congregation’s lay leadership; then, we brought together the two groups of leaders to sketch out how this sharing of space might work. Motions were prepared for presentation at each community’s upcoming Vestry/Annual Meeting, and these passed easily. To celebrate the beginning of this journey together, we gathered for a joint service in February 2012. A busy two months of packing, planning and organizing ensued. Then, on April 22, Peace Lutheran worshipped one last time at Square One, and that week moved to Holy Spirit. There, they were warmly and graciously welcomed, as were their beloved worship furnishings – Reverend Judith insisted on creating a chapel in the rear of the sanctuary with Peace’s altar, ambo and stained glass cabinets, and invited Peace to hang four lovely hand-quilted banners on the front wall behind Holy Spirit’s main altar. From the very start, it was clear Peace was to consider this beautiful space not just a temporary rental – it was their new home.
Change and challenge brought learning and growth
Reverend Judith and I had marvelous plans for working together in deepening the relationship between our two communities (and ultimately merging them, we thought, even at that early stage); sadly, the deepening debt of Holy Spirit, even with Peace’s arrival, meant they simply could not sustain supporting a full-time priest. Reverend Judith needed to resign, and so not long after Peace arrived we found ourselves helping Holy Spirit say goodbye to her. This ushered in a period of great change and challenge.
During the summer of 2012, Bishop Philip Poole of the Diocese of Toronto asked me to serve as Holy Spirit’s interim. The two parishes worshipped together over July and August. We began by experiencing both “full-on” Lutheran and Anglican liturgies, surveying worshippers each week about what they liked and what challenged them about the liturgy of the day. We discovered that there were no significant challenges identified in either liturgy, and that all worshippers shared a love for hearing Scripture read and preached and for singing hymns – shared key elements of Anglican and Lutheran worship! From there, a small group of parishioners from both communities created a blended liturgy combining the loveliest elements of each tradition’s worship; we used that blended liturgy for the balance of the summer, along with hymns from both Evangelical Lutheran Worship and Common Praise. There was some resistance to the change in both communities, and a handful of departures from the parish, but the vast majority of parishioners entered into this exploration with open hearts and minds. The people of Peace, were still mourning the loss of their beloved home, and their new Anglican friends were mourning the loss of their priest – again, a shared experience that helped bring us closer.
Fall 2012 brought the arrival of an Anglican interim priest for Holy Spirit, the Venerable Stephen Nduati, a Kenyan cleric pursuing his doctorate at Wycliffe College in Toronto. Father Stephen brought great wisdom and skill as a priest and leader; he reached out to the whole Anglican parish and gave them encouragement and hope for God’s continued working in their midst. During his time as interim, the two communities worshipped separately other than joint services at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but shared some fellowship, Bible study and outreach work.
Upon Father Stephen’s return to Kenya in February 2013, Bishop Poole appointed me once more to serve as interim, this time with the understanding that this interim posting would only last until the two communities had come to some conclusion about the viability of merger; Bishop Michael Pryse of the Eastern Synod of the ELCIC concurred. We agreed this process needed to be completely organic; the desire to pursue a shared future would have to emerge from the two communities over time, not be engineered by any church judicatory body.
During the spring of 2013, the two congregations continued to worship separately, with Anglican services at 8 and 11am and a Lutheran service at 9am. We continued joint Bible study and outreach, though, and members of the two congregations would often take time to chat between services on Sundays. We once again held combined worship over the summer that year, using the blended liturgy crafted the year before. In September, just after we returned to our separate worship schedule, I received an email from an Anglican parishioner; she reported that a number of folks chatting in the parking lot that Sunday said they missed being together for worship, and were wondering why we couldn’t just continue doing so. The desire to merge had, at last, organically sprung forth from the people of Peace and Holy Spirit!
Bishop Poole came for a town hall meeting with Holy Spirit to explain how the process of exploring merger would proceed. The two communities continued to worship together, and the lay leadership of both communities took on the task of researching how to structure the merged congregation and craft the required merger document. St. David’s Orillia and St. Mark’s Midland were extremely gracious in sharing their merger processes and documentation with us, and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude for all their help. Both Bishops and the staff of the Diocese of Toronto and the Eastern Synod also provided outstanding support along the way. Both congregations were given the opportunity to review and comment on the merger document and the proposed merged budget prior to the Vestry / Annual Meeting, held simultaneously in early 2015. On that Sunday after worship, each community held its own meeting up to and including a separate vote on the merger; once that vote passed with a sizable majority in each congregation, the two meetings became one, and the combined membership considered a merged budget for the balance of 2015. From March onwards, the congregations proceeded as if formally merged, with all offering pooled in one bank account and all expenses merged. Members were invited to submit ideas for the new parish name to the Diocese/Synod; Holy Spirit of Peace, a parish favourite, was approved by both bishops. A final ratifying vote was held in late 2015; this time, the vote to officially merge was unanimous! The parish also voted to ask Bishop Philip and Bishop Michael to consider me for the position of incumbent, and they ultimately decided to do so.
The Church of the Holy Spirit of Peace officially came into being on January 01, 2016; the long-awaited merger was liturgically celebrated with a standing-room only service on February 28, 2016, led by both Bishop Philip and Bishop Michael, with retired Bishop Terry Dance preaching and both Anglican and Lutheran choirs from neighbouring churches taking part.
There is no doubt in my mind: right from the start in November 2011, the Holy Spirit was patiently leading us to this moment. Thanks be to God for doing this new thing among us! I pray that our story can inspire and encourage others to explore the tremendous benefits of coming together to love and serve God and neighbour with exponentially greater strength as a merged Anglican/Lutheran congregation.