The Richness of the Faith: Two Vibrant Anglican Churches in Winnipeg

By Byassee, Jason | The Christian Century, December 19, 2018 | Go to article overview

The Richness of the Faith: Two Vibrant Anglican Churches in Winnipeg


Byassee, Jason, The Christian Century


WHEN UNITED CHURCH of Canada minister Paul Derry moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, in the early 2000s, there were seven United Church congregations in his quarter of the city. At the end of 2018, he told me, there was only one. The rest have closed and sold for condos or been merged with other congregations.

Most mainline pastors paying attention these days--in Canada as well as the United States--know that their parish is perhaps ten minutes away from closing. If there is a future for this kind of church, it will be one in which every pastor is something of a church planter, seeding life in the midst of the enormous upheaval in institutional religious life. Not many pastors were trained for this work. How do we do it?

I traveled to Winnipeg because I had heard about two Anglican churches there that were doing innovative things and growing in significant ways. I'd also heard that they represented two opposing wings in the Anglican Church.

One is St. Margaret's, a low-church evangelical parish that is traditionalist on issues of homosexuality--the sort of congregation one might expect to bolt from the denomination and sue to keep the property. The other is saint benedict's table (the church prefers "saint" spelled out and the entire name spelled lower case), which is more liberal on LGBTQ issues and more open to expressions of theological doubt in its liturgy.

The two parishes turned out to be more similar than I had expected. Both combine the thoughtful liturgy and preaching that mark Anglicanism at its best. The two rectors, David Widdicombe, 67, at St. Margaret's, and Jamie Howison, 57, at saint ben's, both hunger to work with young people at the city's several universities, and both sense that the ancient and mysterious aspects of Christianity will be more appealing to people than any seeker-sensitive effort of evangelism that strips down the richness of the faith.

The two are longtime friends and admirers of one another. Neither seems to be aiming for anything other than helping to develop the best church they can. Given his achievements at saint ben's, Howison could have written a book on church growth, or joined the speaking circuit, but he shuddered at that idea. The book that he has written is about jazz musician John Coltrane, God's Mind in That Music. He calls the book "delightfully irrelevant to my ministry," and adds: "but Coltrane feeds me."

Widdicombe is only a bit less shy in sharing his ministry insights. He has a D. Phil, in theology from Oxford, where he focused on the theology of P. T. Forsyth and worked under Rowan Williams. He tells of getting thrown out of two classrooms--once by a liberal professor, another time by a conservative one--each time over questions of biblical interpretation.

Widdicombe's sermons exude erudition. The day I'm there he preached from the lectionary text on Israel's demand for a king and God's sad warning: "he will take, he will take, he will take." Never mentioning Trump by name, he portrayed all politics as a revolt against the reign of Christ. In some sense, worldly politics have to fail--or else we would fail to long for the kingdom Christ will bring. With its Augustinian realism about the continued reign of Babylon, the sermon owed something to another of his teachers at Oxford, Oliver O'Donovan.

Widdicombe made no reference in the sermon to himself, those listening, or the world. His only interest seemed to be in Christ and the text. Afterward, I talked to Marilyn Simons, a Shakespeare scholar who teaches at the local universities and who came to faith at St. Margaret's. She said Widdicombe does with texts what the church and the academy have forgotten how to do: he lovingly interprets them.

He describes his approach this way: "I hold up the scriptures, and say, 'You can disagree with this book--but this is the book you will disagree with.'" Yet there's nothing angry about his approach. His manner is cheerful as he reaches the end of a career in which he's seen his approach working. …

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