Condemned, reprieved, and flourishing Little Trinity Anglican Church, Toronto First Sunday in Advent, 2005
In 1950 the Anglican bishop of Toronto appointed a commission to decide whether to close a declining inner-city church called Little Trinity, whose rector had just retired. It was situated among derelict houses in an industrial part of town. Virtually everyone in the dwindling congregation lived far away. The church's physical plant had deteriorated, its endowment had largely evaporated, and its debt had mounted. At the same time, development was booming in the suburbs, and that, it seemed, was where the diocese should be focusing its efforts. The commission recommended beginning a process of dismantling Little Trinity's parish status. The oversight of the church should be transferred to the rector of a neighboring parish.
The spunky little congregation fought the recommendation. It had a friend in the most influential rector in the diocese, and later bishop, Fred Wilkinson of St. Paul's, Bloor Street. No Anglican church in Canada, he declaimed, had "rendered a more distinctive service of witness and influence for good." The executive committee of the diocese voted to keep Little Trinity open for a probationary period of three years. The bishop appointed a rector named Maurice Flint, a theologically firm English evangelical, formerly a missionary in Baffin Island. His tireless ministry focused on improving Christian education for adults and children, expanding lay fellowship and ministry, and reinvigorating community outreach. Within a year attendance had increased and offerings had doubled. The diocese lifted its probation, and the church kept on growing. The powerful evangelical preaching of the next rector, Harry Robinson (1963-1978), attracted standing-room-only crowds, largely professionals and students. Little Trinity continues to draw impressive numbers. In the 2004 statistical returns of the diocese of Toronto, its average Sunday attendance of 306 ranked it in tenth place of the 260 churches listed. It's larger than any of the suburban churches that the diocese opened with such enthusiasm after World War II.
Why does a church flourish? Is it leadership? Does it help if it's filling a theological or liturgical niche, or serving compelling missionary goals? Is it sometimes a special personal chemistry that animates the congregation? For most Anglican leaders in Toronto in 1950, the chief predictor of success was geography and demographics. If a church were near people, especially people of British descent, it would be filled; otherwise, it would remain empty.
In other words, the parish system, developed centuries earlier in a predominantly rural European Christendom, still influenced Anglican thinking in modern urban Canada. In England, according to a likely historical theory, the parish system had triumphed after twelfth-century papal reformers began transferring control over clerical appointments and ecclesiastical revenues from temporal leaders to ecclesiastical. In particular, tithes came to be collected by church authorities according to a person's place of residence rather than by manorial authorities according to a person's tenancy. It accordingly became essential to define parish boundaries clearly. These boundaries then determined where a person would go to church, seek pastoral care, and receive sacramental ministry. Did the parish system have any place in Canada, where Anglicans were in a minority, and had no obligation to support the church financially or to attend worship locally, or indeed anywhere? For John Strachan, the first important Anglican leader in Toronto, and the first bishop of the diocese (1839-1867), the answer was yes. For one thing, he long harbored the hope that the mother country might yet provide Canada with an effective Anglican establishment. Moreover, a parish system suited his vision of a network of Anglican churches strategically placed across the vast frontier, ordered to provide a widely scattered population with social, educational, liturgical, and evangelistic ministry. …