Once upon a time, we assumed that every Anglican had a parish that they belonged to. When the clergy visited hospitals, they could ask to see the ‘Religion List’ and find a list of all the Anglican patients who had been admitted. That way they could easily find all their parishioners and visit them that day. The privacy implications of that are staggering, and it is just as well that those days are gone, but that arrangement is a perfect example of how the sense of ‘belonging’ used to work in Newfoundland.
People will also tell stories of how the clergy used to go to the church on Sunday afternoons, and anyone who had just had a baby would come around to ‘get it done’. If anyone showed up, there would be a baptism that afternoon; if not, the priest went home early. The assumption was that all the Anglicans in the community or the parish knew how to get a baby baptized. They didn’t need to call their priest when someone was sick or in hospital. If you wanted to get married, you went to see ‘your’ parish priest and made arrangements, because if you were Anglican (or United, or Roman Catholic) you belonged somewhere.
Those days are gone. Much has been written about the rise of the ‘Nones’—those with no religious affiliation—as the fastest-growing religious group in North America. Our late Bishop Geoff Peddle did his doctoral research in a distinctly Newfoundland trend. He found that even though people were less likely to attend church regularly than in previous generations, the sense of belonging to the Anglican church was still as pronounced as ever. People still make connections to ‘their church’ for baptisms, weddings, and funerals, even when they have no strong sense of belonging to a specific community of faith. I suspect that this is what ‘Newfoundland Nones’ look like. It’s not that they have no religious affiliation; they can still have a strong personal sense of being Anglican. However, they often have no specific parish they belong to, and no specific clergy that they turn to for support.
I have seen this in parish ministry when bridesmaids from weddings I have officiated at have called me when they wanted to get married themselves. I have been specifically asked for to conduct funerals for relatives of people I buried years before. I’ve had people that I went to school with call me when they’ve needed a priest or spiritual advice, not necessarily because we were particularly close years ago, but because they simply don’t know any other clergy. Many families almost insist that the priest who married the parents ought to baptize the children, even when they’re retired or moved to another parish. Most clergy can tell similar stories
More and more these days, the foundations of pastoral relationships are built not on geography or what parish you belong to (because most people don’t) but on personal relationships. This means it’s more and more important for the clergy to have wide-reaching relationships outside of the church. After all, we are responsible for bringing the good news of God’s kingdom to the whole world, not just caring for the people who are already part of the community of faith. The irony is that the longer we spend in parish ministry, and the more the congregations decrease in size, the less opportunity we have to spend time outside of parish circles, since a larger burden falls upon an ever-smaller, ever-older core group of parishioners.
How are your clergy doing these days? These might be important things for parishes to talk about with their clergy. Have they established healthy enough boundaries that they are able to pursue other interests and involvements outside of church circles? It’s important for churches to realize that the church’s changing role in society means that these kinds of outside interests are not just part of the personal life of the clergy, but part of the way that they can be the presence of Christ in the world. This is not just important for their own mental health and wellness, but for the good of the church’s mission. Are there times when the maintenance of the church is actively holding back the mission? If we’re not building relationships outside of the parish, who will the ‘Newfoundland Nones’ be able to call when they need pastoral care?