ST. STEPHEN’S VISION
Ten years ago the people of St. Stephen’s had a vision. We foresaw the day when our church would be lively on Sundays with worship and busy during the week with community activities. We saw the church not only as a gathering place for our own members but also as a cultural hub for the community. More and more, this vision is becoming a reality.
Last weekend we saw no fewer than three concerts performed in our sanctuary, and a Saturday choral workshop that took place throughout the entire building. During the week we hosted three different Lifelong Learners events, two Cantare choir practices, an after-school chess club for teens, our own Guide and Pathfinder groups, and three AA-related meetings. Meanwhile, a dozen artists continue to work away in the affordable studios we created up in the Memorial Hall.
Our own church programming this week included a congregational conversation on same-sex blessings, a Tuesday meditation group, the weekly Education For Ministry course, our open chapel and labyrinth on Thursday, followed by choir practice, plus all the usual chancel activities to ready the church for Sunday.
St. Stephen’s is not just a busy place these days; it is a vibrant place. And the word is getting out. Every week Lynn our Administrator fields requests from community groups wishing to hold meetings or cultural events here. And every Sunday we welcome visitors and newcomers who want to see what all the excitement is about. Ten years on, we are living the dream.
We have now been in our renovated worship space for a full year. It has been a year of challenges as we have adjusted to the quirks and demands of the new space—like setting up and taking down the chairs, finding the right mix for the new sound system and theatre lighting, and figuring out how best to offer our space to the surrounding community.
But it has also been a thrilling time, as we have discovered all the things our new space can do—like accommodating everything from orchestra concerts to art shows, while still providing diverse arrangements for our worship, from our weekly Sunday Eucharists to special one-off services like Maundy Thursday (where we all gathered around a single table).
The new space, with its brightness and its flexible utility, now showcases the possible. At the same time, it shows up the older parts of our building, like the Canterbury Room and the Lower Memorial Hall. These are the parts of the building people see during the week, especially those from the wider community who rent our space.
So in the months to come we will begin a needs assessment of what we are calling the Centre Block—the former education wing that now houses our administrative offices. What are its present uses, and how might it offer the same range of activities as our worship space? How might our offices be more welcoming? How might the Canterbury Room become an attractive mid-week gathering place? Your thoughts?
IT’S TIME TO TAKE A STAND
This week we at St. Stephen’s are engaging in a process of discernment to decide if we wish to offer a Service of Blessing to same-sex couples who seek it.
Across the country and in some parts of the church, this would seem to be a foregone conclusion—that the church would offer to bless adult Christians in their relationships.Some might even ask, “Do we not already do that?” But the answer, in this diocese, is, “No, we don’t.” Furthermore, it is nowhere on the agenda, nor even on the horizon. It is an issue whose time has come (… and gone, some would argue) and that demands a response from a parish church known for its intentional inclusivity.
For us, there are two issues before us. The first: do we wish to extend to same-sex couples who call St. Stephen’s home the same privilege we do to heterosexual couples, namely, a blessing upon their relationship in the name of God? The second: are we willing to prod the diocese into taking a public stand on this issue by pushing out the boundaries of what is currently permissible?
This issue has been divisive throughout the church worldwide. It forces us to confront the fear and homophobia inherent in our Christian tradition, indeed, going right back to our very scriptures. It also makes us take seriously what God is already doing in our world to break down walls of prejudice and hate. Inescapably, it calls us to take a stand.
ST. STEPHEN’S IS BUZZING WITH ACTIVITY
One of the reasons we entered into major renovations a year ago was to create a meeting place between St. Stephen’s and the wider community. Waiting for our neighbours to come to church on a Sunday morning would be a passive—not to say presumptuous—approach to that relationship. So our worship space was re-conceived as a flexible performance space suitable for worship, concerts, rehearsals, and art shows as well as for religious rituals and spiritual practices.
We are pleased to see that this is precisely what is happening! The renovated space opens doors to new configurations for baptisms, weddings, and funerals, not to say also for our regular Sunday morning worship. Our weekly “Learning to Breathe” meditation group is well accommodated on Tuesdays and the labyrinth attracts spiritual seekers every Thursday.
Even more exciting are the many arts and cultural groups who have found us and who are now using our space for their activities. The Cantare Children’s Choirs are well established here now. But coming up are performances by the Westwood Cultural Group, the Renaissance Singers and Players, and the “One Voice” Chorus, to name just a few. The Madison House will hold its Christmas fund-raising concert here and even our own rector will be holding the launch for his new book here.
As imagined almost ten years ago, when our visioning for renewed space began, St. Stephen’s is buzzing with activity—not just our own, but the activity of a grateful neighbourhood.
THANK YOU AND WELCOME
Inn From the Cold is one of the defining ministries of St. Stephen’s. The well-known, multi-faith, city-wide outreach program started here, with a homeless person sleeping beneath our front steps on Christmas Eve and a timely sermon by then rector, Bob Purdy. By May the following year we hosted our first Inn … and the rest is history.
We have been blessed through the years by caring and competent leaders who have given sacrificially of their time and talents to ensure that our guests receive a warm and thoughtful welcome. So it is with sadness that we say goodbye to Sue McPhee, our IFTC Coordinator these last three years. Sue has been part of the Inn from the very beginning and has brought both her expert knowledge and her big heart to the job. She has worked tirelessly behind the scenes, overseeing supplies, coordinating volunteers, and attending most Inns herself. She has been an inspiring example of Christian service!
But we are pleased to announce that Shelley Brisby is taking over from Sue. Shelley and her husband Brian were guests of the Inn in the early days. In gratitude for the hospitality they experienced during that difficult time, they have served the Inn as volunteers ever since, often taking the hard-to-fill overnight supervisory position. Needless to say, Shelly knows the workings of the Inn from the inside out, bringing a valuable perspective on the needs we are attempting to meet. We welcome Shelley and pledge to her our enthusiastic support.
Our attention is drawn this week to our heroes of the faith. On All Saints’ Day we remember that “great cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us to clear a path and set an example. We are inspired particularly by Stephen, whose name we bear and whose patronage we seek, the church’s first deacon and martyr. His deeds were as powerful as his words in giving witness to a God who loves unconditionally, even in the face of persecution.
On All Souls’ Day we recall all those “souls” who have died during our lifetime. If we had a churchyard we would likely process out among the headstones and give thanks to God for the legacy they have left us. We think, for instance, of Bob Rhodes whose love for St. Stephen’s and whose leadership are legendary and remain inspirational. We think as well of Zelda Yeoman whose compassionate heart touched so many. And there are many others!
While we do not have a churchyard, we have a memorial garden, though it remains a little known treasure to our own members and a complete mystery to the wider community. In the coming year might we consider giving the garden the attention it deserves? We have a small crew that tends the garden. But does it now require some new design elements to set it apart—with benches for resting and signage for identification? As we honour our heroes of the faith, let us make them proud in our own day.
AT THE EDGE
As an organization ages, you don’t look to the centre for signs of new life, where the leaders are expending more and more energy trying to protect the old ways. You look to the edges. There the organization is still alive to its environment, still alert to new possibilities.
This weekend we hosted our annual Midtown Mosaic. This is one of our “edges” at St. Stephen’s. It is an enormous effort—a labour of love in particular for its creator, Ginny Binder. But it puts us in direct contact with the wider community—in this case, the arts community. At the same time, down in our lower hall, we connected with our book-buying neighbours through our used book sale.
Our recent renovations were all about supporting opportunities at the edges. Our large flexible worship space can double as an art gallery, a concert hall, or a meditation centre. Our creation space houses our Sunday School program, but also a community chess club for teens, a rehearsal space for choirs, and a meeting room for local condo associations.
One of the supporters of our renovations was the Anglican Foundation, whose Executive Director, Judy Rois, knows a thing or two about new life in the church. The Foundation exists to support churches doing innovative things, whether through bricks and mortar or through creative programming. We support the Foundation with an annual donation; and each year the Foundation supports dozens of innovative church projects across the country.
New life happens at the edges.
GOD IN OUR MIDST
At St. Stephen’s we are exploring the language of Soul as a way of talking about how God moves in our midst. It means looking not so much for signs from heaven as for earthly signs. It takes seriously that God is with us in our everyday human experience and that we are given everything we need here and now to live the life to which God calls us.
One of the ways we discern God moving in our midst is to pay attention to what is happening within our church family. This week that means both sadness and joy as we grieve the loss of Joan McCollum and celebrate the marriage of David Roach and Linda Malakoff.
Turq and Joan McCollum became members of St. Stephen’s after Turq retired –and then retired again—from active parish ministry, both here and in the North. They were the model “clergy couple”, Turq serving as priest, Joan serving as an active church member—playing the organ and teaching Sunday school. Joan’s generosity and common sense, her ready laughter and her big heart will be missed by all.
David Roach has been an active member of St. Stephen’s for over ten years, providing leadership and support to our meditation group and men’s meetings, and providing kitchen hospitality countless times for our social events. We have all enjoyed meeting Linda as David began introducing her to us. They are a fabulous couple and we are pleased to share in the joy of their marriage.
BECOMING A “SOULFUL” CHURCH
There was a time when it was organizations with the longest view that thrived, devising five, ten, and even twenty-year plans for themselves. Working toward those plans helped to clarify the direction of the organization and the roles of all the staff relative to the goal.
How times have changed! The organizations that succeed nowadays are those with the shortest view, not the longest. They are structured for speed: fast on their feet, imaginatively entrepreneurial, responsive to the latest cultural shifts and market changes.
To ask what the next five years might look like for us here at St. Stephen’s is risky business because, really, none of us know. But we might identity a direction, such that we are working towards a vision of the future, even if that vision must constantly be tested and altered along the way.
The question we are asking ourselves about the next five years is: What would it mean for us to become a more “soulful” church? In last Sunday’s sermon Brian our Rector identified “soul” as a word that has potential for describing the kind of church we are. It means that we are more interested in the quality of life here and now than in some future glory. We celebrate a God who is with us in our everyday lives, loving us deeply. It means we enjoy this world and work to make it a better place.
What do you think it would mean for us to be a more “soulful” church?
Parish Council met this past week to continue a conversation we might call “values clarification”: what are the core values that help determine our priorities at St. Stephen’s? Before we make decisions, what is our discernment of where God is leading us and who God is calling us to be in the first place?
It is fascinating—and reassuring—how quickly we can identify qualities we value about our church experience: inclusivity, authenticity, happy chaos (at times), tradition, and a gospel that invites intelligent critique. Outreach is important to us, but we may have some work to do in
finding new ways of connecting with the wider community, especially through the arts—a value we have named but perhaps have not yet completely embraced.
If these values could be gathered under one heading, that heading might be “Soul”: we value a church that has soul. This is what the rector is exploring in this week’s sermon, the second instalment of a three-part sermon he is preaching on “What I Learned on my Summer Vacation: Reflections on Church, Soul and the Next Five Years”.
Soul has less to do with the ideals of our faith tradition—what we’re supposed to do, and who we’re supposed to be—and more to do with what we’re actually doing and who we actually are. The difference, theologically, is between a God who is distant and judgmental, and a God who is in our midst, loving us into being. There will be more to come.