Congregational Ecumenism on the Prairies

 — Mar. 15, 199815 mars 1998

Growing up in Winnipeg, I had a stereotypical image of Saskatchewan and Alberta. Albertans were cowboys and oilmen while people from Saskatchewan and rural Manitoba were all grain farmers. Saskatchewan was flat, dull, and almost barren. We used to joke, half seriously, that when driving west from Winnipeg one should leave in the evening so as not to endure the bleak Saskatchewan landscape. The typical Saskatchewan town according to the stereotype, has one intersection, one bar, one bank, one grocery store, one hardware store, one grain elevator, and six churches.

Like most stereotypes this one has a little basis in fact, and a great deal of prejudice behind it. While southern Saskatchewan is somewhat flat it has considerably more vertical elevation than the prairies around Winnipeg from which we scorned our western neighbour. And the prairies are far from barren or dull. Teaming with wildlife, the prairies boast to be the world’s bread-basket, and enjoy a cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity found almost nowhere else.

The only truth in the stereotype is that churches surpass the grain elevators in both numbers and importance within the communities. The architectural distinctiveness of the prairie grain elevators dotting the landscape draw the eye across the horizon. Competing for the eye’s attention there are spires and domes of every distinction. The sun glinting off the Orthodox or Ukrainian Catholic onion dome, the turning of the weather vane atop the Anglican belfry, and the squeak of the first step at the United church are as familiar to those who call the prairies home as the cry of seagulls in Halifax and the shadow of the Rockies in Vancouver. And yet, in recent years, railway line abandonment and elevator closures have occurred side-by-side with ecumenical cooperation and church mergers.

Across the Canadian Prairies two factors combine to draw churches over denominational barriers into cooperation and dialogue: demographics and distance. While much of the Prairie population is now urbanized, a large rural population remains, and many of the city-folk have roots in the rural communities. The distances between the cities of Western Canada sometimes surprise visitors and even give rise to a few jokes at their expense. These factors result in a “frontier” mentality which holds that firstly, “nobody is going to look after us, we’ve got to take care of ourselves”; and secondly, “we can only take care of ourselves if we put aside our differences, whether they are cultural, racial, political, or theological.”

An excellent example of this mentality at work was displayed in the 1997 Red River flood, where tens or thousands volunteered to sandbag the homes of strangers. In one memorable news clip, the men, women and children of a Hutterite colony in Southern Manitoba was helping to sandbag a distant community. When asked why they were helping strangers from miles down river, they replied: “They’re our neighbours.”  This response is all the more poignant when one considers the strong prejudices that Hutterite colonists still experience in both rural and urban communities.

Similar kinds of cooperation and mutual support are found in church circles. The Prairies were the birthplace of the Union churches which later formed the foundation for the United Church of Canada. And, today, the three prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta are home to a diverse array of inter-church shared facilities and shared ministries.

A shared facility is a church building shared by two or more congregations. Sometimes these facilities are built by the sharing congregations, and sometimes the sharing happens after some disaster in one congregation leads to an invitation to share on a short or long-term basis. However it happens, the sharing always leads to a mutual learning and frequently results in one asking the other “Why didn’t we do this long ago.” Shared facilities are found frequently in smaller communities, but larger facilities are also found in Winnipeg and Calgary.

Shared ministry occurs when a particular person in ministry is shared by two or more denominations. While one would think this was most likely with Sunday School teachers and youth ministers, oddly enough, the most common form seems to be the sharing of a pastor. Once again this can take many forms. In one instance I happened across the pastor had two congregations and two buildings, in another instance two congregations but just one building, and in yet another instance one combined congregation. In one interesting example, there was one combined congregation in a six-point parish served by two pastors. Generally these kinds of sharing begin as interim measures and then become permanent.

Most of these shared ministries have involved the Anglican, Evangelical Lutheran, United and Presbyterian churches, or any combination of two or more of these churches. However, a recent development in Winnipeg will see a United Church, and a Disciples of Christ congregation merge with one building, one pastor and one Sunday worship service. In the late 1980’s in Alberta, a proposal to create a separate judicatory for shared ministries was developed. The intention of the proposal was that the shared ministries would be able to avoid the problems of multiple jurisdictions. The proposal was not implemented due to concerns relating to the relationship of the congregation to the sponsoring denominations.

Other forms of sharing abound, both in rural and urban situations. Pulpit exchanges, church picnics and suppers, Bible studies, Vacation Bible Schools, and the Week of Prayer. It is not uncommon in many rural communities for neighbouring congregations to prepare “funeral lunches” for each others’ funerals. Whether formally or informally, rural churches without a resident pastor rely upon the pastoral support of pastors from other local congregations.

Very few communities can be found where there is not an active ministerial association or council of churches, particularly in rural communities. At one recent gathering of church leaders, a consensus was expressed that the primary source of ecumenical learning for those in the larger cities should obviously be the experience of rural communities.

Posted: Mar. 15, 1998 • Permanent link:
Categories: OpinionIn this article: Canada, ecumenism, Saskatchewan
Transmis : 15 mars 1998 • Lien permanente :
Catégorie : OpinionDans cet article : Canada, ecumenism, Saskatchewan

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