What would it be like if your rector retired after over 30 years as your priest and pastor? Ask the people of St Philip, Victoria.
After a dedicated ministry of over 30 years at St Philip’s, Christopher Pagehas retired. One might expect to hear words of reaction like trauma, shock, grief, panic, anxiety and the like. As the interim priest in charge, I can attest that only two of those really apply — grief and anxiety.
Naturally there is grief when any pastor leaves for whatever reason. As one who has lived through retirement, I know that a departing rector also goes through some significant sadness. Some clergy experience “leaving grief” many times over — six times for me — and Christopher, I’ve no doubt, is going through that phase right now. The same can be said of the parishioners of St Philip’s. We would be kidding ourselves if we said that there was no mutual regret at the church or in the Page household.
Nonetheless, that grief can’t be described as traumatic. There is something far more important at work here than the influence of or the attachment to any incumbent. I have found at St. Philip’s a deep desire to worship, to walk in the path of Christ, and to put the gospel in action. Our parishioners care for each other and they care for what happens in the wider world. The announcement by Bishop Anna Greenwood-Lee of the appointment of Allen Doerksen as St Philip’s new rector, beginning in March, has injected a new sense of hope into the community.
To explain, St Philip’s is not just recovering from the closing of a long and positive pastorate. Like other congregations, we are recovering from the aftermath of the pandemic. For a time, St Philip’s had to adapt to being an online “Zoom congregation” as many others did. Then as our reopening began, the main Sunday service morphed into a live-stream one — a veritable cornucopia of technology with the entire service put on screen via a carefully prepared PowerPoint presentation (we averaged about 90 slides per Sunday), and the use of laptops, cameras, microphones and sound equipment for our praise band.
Currently, Eli Diefeld, our part-time youth minister, gathers a group of teens for special events, as well as for Sunday morning services. At the same time, our Sunday school leader, Shannon Carmichael, expects to teach some half dozen children, as families once cut off by COVID-19 begin to worship in person once again. These are encouraging signs, but the future is not clear. Certainly, the numbers tell us that the interruption of the pandemic has had a drastic effect on church attendance.
Besides grief, there is anxiety as to what is to come. After Bishop Anna preached at St Philip’s in July, a number of parishioners began studying the book she quoted from, Facing Decline, Finding Hope, written by Jeffery Jones (for those interested, we have study sheets to accompany the book, which can be obtained in electronic form, free of charge, by writing to [email protected]). Jones addresses the anxieties we all face in our churches, challenging us to let go of some of those worries, including the future of one’s parish, maintaining building infrastructures, declining attendance and donation levels, unsteady finances, and so forth, and ask instead — where is God at work in the community? How can we better align ourselves with the teachings of Jesus?
As St Philip’s awaits its new rector, our congregation wrestles, like any other, with the anxiety of moving forward. One thinks of the call to Abram, “Go to a place I will show you” — but without a mission statement or Google Maps. With this in mind, St Philip’s is still a place listening to what God is telling us and looking for the reign of Christ: a kingdom of justice and compassion proclaimed by word and example.