Church 22 – St. Margaret’s Anglican

This will be a short article, as I unfortunately arrived very late for the Sunday morning service at St. Margaret’s Church last week.  However, despite my tardiness, I had a very positive visit.


The building is only 12 years old, and has a wonderful airy design.  From the sanctuary you can look out through windows on either side directly into the subdivision the church is located in.   The architecture gives the church a feeling of being rooted in the local community.

I had an interesting conversation after the service with Reverend Stephen Pessah.  We talked about the fact that for churches located in urban cores, usually the needs of the local community are very obvious.  Poverty, crime, housing difficulties and so on are usually quite visible.  But in suburbia, although the needs may be very real, they are frequently hidden behind a veneer of respectability.  You cannot immediately distinguish between a a resident who is comfortably well off or on the verge of bankrupt – they may both drive an SUV, dress smartly, and so on.

Furthermore I’m convinced there are more forms of poverty than simply financial.  Our community can frequently suffer from relational poverty, as we isolate ourselves in our detached houses behind our ‘good neighbour’ fences.  Or we can suffer from poverty of imagination, as we trudge through a lifestyle we find unfulfilling but can’t imagine changing.   Or we can wrestle with poverty of hope – an inability to dream that life might one day be different than it is today.

St. Margaret’s will be holding a series of contemplative services during Lent, which I’m pleased to here.  I’m convinced that the church in Barrie needs a healthy contemplative stream of Christianity.  Brian McLaren, in his book ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’, says

I’ve noticed that among the people most dedicated to missional activism, you find either (a) people burned out because of the difficulty of the task, or (b) people who have best learned to undergird their activism with contemplation, with quiet resting, with finding God in the center of normalcy… Contemplation isn’t only for passive, withdrawn people, but also for active, involved ones.

Overall, I felt very welcomed at St. Margaret’s.   In many ways, Anglicanism still feels like ‘home’ to me.  I find that good Anglicanism strikes a very healthy balance: formal without being stuffy, orthodox without being exclusivist, liturgical while remaining accessible; a global denomination constructed entirely of local communities.



This month I’ll be starting a new series exploring modernism and postmodernism.

I’ve become more and more convinced that the distinction between these two ways of seeing the world is one of the most significant cultural distinctions in our society, and that understanding the differences between the two is invaluable in understanding the world we live in.

Le Corbusier, a famous modernist architect, said that houses should be ‘machines for living in‘.

The swedish company Ikea I believe has applied this exact same philosophy, and created a ‘machine for shopping in’.

I love the Ikea experience, in part because of the fascinating way that the company has taken the idea of a production line and applied to it to retail. Just imagine your last trip to the store. You arrived in the front door, dropped your kids of at the Småland and then were guided carefully along a pre-planned route, following a pattern designed and refined from uncounted time-and-motion studies. Every corner, every display, the length of time taken to walk through the store, has been planned to make parting with your money as comfortable for you as possible. And even though you came in to just pick up a few dish towels you walked out 2 Billys, a Duktig and a Skärpt.

However, if I’m really looking for a bargain, I don’t go to Ikea. I turn to Freecycle, or Kijiji, or eBay. In these environments, the distinction between vendor and consumer is much more blurred. I might be selling a couch but buying a bike. I’m not dealing with a single efficient corporate entity like Walmart, but an uncountable number of individuals. The experience is less organised, less controlled, more inter-connected, and perhaps more chaotic.

If Ikea represents the pinnacle of Modernist design, then I expect that decentralised internet marketplaces may be the post-modern equivalent.

Postmodernism recognizes that there are many different perspectives on the world, so rather than trying to present formal definitions of these two philosophies, I’ll instead be taking a meandering journey through my own observations. So, first some characteristics.

Characteristics of modernism and postmodernism

  • Moderns look to experts for advice. Postmoderns look to their networks.
  • Modernism is structured. Postmodernism is organic.
  • Modernism cares about being efficient. Postmodernism cares about being healthy.
  • Modernism talks about principles. Postmodernism tells stories.
  • Modernism is a symphony orchestra. Postmodernism is a drumming circle.
  • Modernism is linear. Postmodernism is fractal.
  • Modernism is ordered. Postmodernism is chaotic.
  • Classical physics is modern. Quantum mechanics is postmodern.

Where I’m going

So, I have a lot of ground to cover. In the coming months, I hope to at least touch on: the Enlightenment, Francis Bacon, the Industrial Revolution, Henry Ford, the production line, the rise of modern sanitation, healthcare and education, Newtonian physics, the Ultraviolet Catastrophe, determinism, thermodynamics, the Holocaust, quantum mechanics, Schrodinger’s cat, chaos theory, Kurt Godel, modern architecture, Le Corbusier, Conway’s ‘game of life’, the Toyota Production System, the concept of ’emergence’, and probably quite a lot else.

In doing so, I hope to demonstrate how Postmodernism isn’t ‘anti-modernism’, or a passing fad, but rather a logical and inevitable consequence of modernism.

Church 21 – First Christian Reformed

When I told my daughter I’d visited the ‘First Christian Reformed’ church on Sunday, she asked me if it really was the first ever Christian church. I told her that, no, despite the name, it wasn’t.

However, it is a warm, friendly congregation.  Unlike some places I’ve been where I’ve been able to stand around at coffee hour for twenty minutes without anyone talking to me, at this church three or four people had introduced themselves to me, got me a coffee, and started to get to know me before the service had even started.  So full marks for hospitality!

This is another of Barrie’s larger churches, with several hundred people in the Sunday morning service.   The format is very typically Evangelical.  We sung several songs accompanied by a small band, there were announcements,  a short message for the children, a brief prayer,  and a thirty minute sermon.

I’ve found myself asking recently when and why the sermon replaced communion as the central sacrament of the Protestant church.   I’m sure no Catholic would feel that they had really ‘gone to church’ if Mass had not been celebrated.  And likewise, I suspect an Evangelical feels that they have not ‘gone to church’ unless they have heard a sermon.

It may not formally be referred to as a sacrament, but it certainly gets treated like one.   It’s clear to a casual visitor of this church that the sermon is the main point of both the Sunday morning meeting and, in fact, the entire building.   Just as an Anglican or Catholic church has as an altar as its focal point, this church clearly is centered around the pulpit.

I’m fairly sure that the point of the ritual of the sermon is about more than simple information transfer.  This is not just about educating a congregation.  Not least, there are clearly more efficient ways to transfer information.  You could read the texts for 52 sermons in a few hours on the first day of January.  And there are certainly more effective ways to transfer information.   Any decent degree program complements its lectures with tutorials to discuss the material, with practicals to investigate the subject first hand, and with exams to monitor progress.

As far as I know, most churches don’t have a formal curriculum, nor any way of assessing student progress, so I really don’t think that the point of a sermon is fundamentally about education.  And indeed, as I’ve been asking people on this journey why they go to church, I’ve rarely heard the answer ‘to hear a sermon’.

And yet we construct buildings, hire staff, and organise services largely in order to deliver sermons.   I can only assume that this is because we believe that sermons do, in fact, have some kind of sacramental value.  That maybe people are influenced in some spiritual way by the act of sitting in a chair and listening to somebody talk for thirty minutes.   And that this has to happen on a consistent, weekly basis to have the desired effect.

Understand that this is a general question, and not a criticism of First Christian Reformed church.  Pastor Mike Borgert gave an engaging message on Mark 1:29-34, although he somehow managed to talk for thirty minutes about a four-verse passage that includes multiple healings and exorcisms without really talking about the supernatural elements of the story at all.

But my question remains – why the centrality of the sermon?  When did this become the focal point of ‘doing church’?  And what are we fundamentally trying to achieve?

Church 20 – St. John Vianney

Yesterday I visited the third and final Catholic church in Barrie.   Liturgically it was very similar to the others, of course, although I did notice that unlike the other churches, as St. John Vianney they give both bread and  wine at communion.

I also finally had the chance to sit down with a priest after the service and talk a bit about the church.  This is the first chance I’ve had to talk to an ‘official’ representative of the catholic church.

I have a lot of questions I’d love to ask the entire Catholic hierarchy, not least ‘how can we patch up the appalling mess that we all made during the Reformation, and while we’re at it, the Great Schism as well, and get on with this whole Kingdom of God business?’

However, my time was limited.  So I stuck to my usual questions: “why are you here,” and “what is God doing in the city?”  And I got probably the most comprehensive answers I’ve yet heard.

The priest talked to me about the church being a place where people are both drawn in to worship God, and then inspired to go outwards and serve the poor and the needy.  God, he said, works through people, and he calls each of us to serve others.

Within the formal structure of the Catholic Church in Barrie, there are various organisations such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul, the Knights of Columbus, and the Catholic Women’s League that provide specific opportunities for individuals to serve the poor and demonstrate Christ’s love.   And St. John Vianney tries to pool its resources with the other churches in the city to more effectively have an impact on society.

All this I deeply respect, of course.  But I still find the lack of communion between Catholics and other denominations deeply troubling.   In answer to my inquiries the priest told me that yes, I really did have to pick one side of the fence or the other.  If you want to take communion in a Catholic church then you have to first take Catholic baptism, and having done so you would not be allowed to share in the Eucharist at another church.

As I’ve said before, I’m a passionate believer in open communion.  I don’t want to have to pick sides in a fight that happened centuries before I was born. I want to be able to eat, pray, and worship alongside my brothers and sisters from across the Christian spectrum.  And it saddens me that there are still ecclesiastical rules that forbid me from doing this.

I will say that I felt listened to and respected as I talked about this yesterday.  We may struggle with a great deal of historical baggage, but I am grateful every time I encounter someone who shares my desire to bridge the gaps that divide us.




Church 19 – ‘M’

Yes, today we visited a church who’s name is a single letter.  Because that’s pretty hard to search for in Google, here is their website!.

‘M’ was quite a contrast from last week’s Catholic service.  Instead of large, structured and formal, this morning’s service had an almost improvised feel.  ‘M’ is a new community, and so I suspect that at the moment there is no such thing as a typical gathering.    This morning was billed as ‘Bring It’ Sunday, a chance for all members to share a song, a thought, a poem, a reading, or a painting.

Personally, I love this kind of interactive environment.  ‘M’ meets at the Creative Space in downtown Barrie, which is an ideal venue for getting a bunch of folks together in a circle to drink coffee, share ideas, listen, talk, and learn.

In some ways, this feels very contemporary, but the idea of group-led worship is nothing new.  The Brethren movement has been doing this kind of thing for more than a century.  Following Paul’s suggestions in 1 Corinthians 14:26, a typical Brethren service, although centered around communion, sets aside a generous chunk of time for anyone present to share with the group a thought, a prayer or a song.

The difference between this kind of church service and a more formally structured one is, perhaps, like the difference between going to a classical concert and taking part in a drumming circle.  The former may be more polished, more predictable, and perhaps ‘safer’.  The latter may be more chaotic, but is definitely more participatory.  Everyone plays a part, and when done well, everyone listens to and responds to each person’s contribution.

‘M’ is still figuring out what it wants to be, I think.  But, if you’re the kind of person who prefers dialog to lecture, or improvisation to formality, then I’d recommend that you pay them a visit.


Church 18 – St. Mary’s Catholic Church

This visit was slightly different as we had been invited to St. Mary’s to attend the baptism of a friend’s child.

While I am very familiar with a large range of Protestant denominations, Catholicism is still a bit of a mystery to me.  However, it’s one that I am determined to come to grips with.  St. Mary’s is one of three catholic churches in Barrie, and there were probably around 350 people in attendance at the service we were at, the second of the day.   Barrie has a large Catholic population, as well as a number of Catholic schools and social agencies.

So, I can’t really say that I’m getting to know the churches in Barrie unless I understand this denomination.  However, so far I haven’t got very far. I’d love to have the opportunity to sit down with a priest or well-informed layperson and get to hear what Catholicism in Barrie is all about.  And because my passion is for reconciliation and cooperation, I’d love to hear stories about how the Catholic churches in Barrie are working with others to impact the city.

So, the service.  St. Mary’s has a large, bright, airy sanctuary, with the light and sight lines all focused on the central altar.

Coming from an Anglican background, the liturgy itself was very familiar.  We sung hymns, listened to readings from the Old and New Testament and from the Gospel, and heard a short homily.  This was very well delivered, and was a meditation on the question that Jesus asks the first disciples – what are you looking for?

Communion at a Catholic church is still something I’m getting used to.  For one thing, it still hurts to be relegated to the role of an observer at what should be a shared meal.  I’m a passionate believer in Open Communion; a priest I know invites all present to share the bread and wine with the phrase ‘We welcome you because God welcomes you.’   I love this approach, because it replaces endless theological wrangling over who should and shouldn’t be allowed to participate in a sacrament with a simple recognition of God’s grace and invitation to community.

There are also some practical issues surrounding Catholic communion that I don’t understand yet.  Why do they only share the bread, and not the wine?  What is the purpose of the locked box to the right of the altar?  What is an ‘Adoration Chapel’, and how does it relate to communion?   Some churches take time to explain what they are doing to newcomers; at St. Mary’s, even during a baptismal service, it’s kind of assumed that you belong here and you know what is going on.

So, if you’re Catholic, and live in Barrie, please get in touch with me!  I’d love to have the chance to have some of these questions answered.

Church 17 – Essa Road Presbyterian Church

Once again I find myself leaving a church with slightly mixed feelings.

This morning I attended Essa Road Presbyterian Church.  This is a friendly congregation, with around 70 people in attendance.  The demographics are weighted towards the older end of the spectrum, but there were several kids and young families there too.

The structure of the service was very much like any other evangelical church: opening music, announcements, some hymn singing and a ‘talky bit’.

However today was also the ‘induction’ of several new elders, which gave me an interesting snapshot into the functioning of a Presbyterian church.

As I’ve noticed before, some churches find it important to be very precise in their understanding of church structure, and that is definitely the case here.  Clearly Presbyterians find church government a topic of high importance.  A significant amount of the service was given over to reviewing the structure of the Presbyterian church, the role of elders, and the way that the congregation is expected to treat them.

To be honest, I felt a little uncomfortable by some of this.  It was clearly stated that “God has ordained these elders” and that “Failure to submit to them is to rebel against God.” A distinction was made between congregants that are ‘teachable’ and submissive, and those that question authority.

I found myself wondering what an outsider would think of all this.   Would all this talk of authority and submission sound reassuring, or threatening?  A lot of the language used  deftly tied God’s authority with the Church’s authority.  I do find this a bit ironic coming from a Reformed church, which by definition rejects the authority that the Catholic church claims to derive from God.

One day I really hope that I have the opportunity to sit down with a catholic theologian, a reformed theologian, and possibly an umpire, and ask them both to explain to me why the structure and authority of their particular church is God given.

Having said all that, I had a very pleasant time after the service, meeting and chatting with folks from the church.  This is a welcoming congregation, and talking with the pastor afterwards I found a lot of support for the idea that the churches in Barrie should be complementing one another, rather than competing with each other.

One of the challenges that we will have to face as we work towards greater collaboration in the Church in Barrie will be addressing how we reconcile our deep convictions about ‘correct’ church structure and governance with our desire to bless and learn from our brothers and sisters in other denominations.



Who are the Peacemakers?

“Blessings on the peacemakers!  You’ll be called God’s children.”

I’ve been thinking recently about this statement of Jesus’.  “Blessings on the peacemakers.”

Jesus also said that some other folks were blessed, too.  The poor.  The hungry.  Those who mourn.  The pure in heart.  The meek.  The persecuted.

Some of these groups are easy to identify.  We could go for a stroll through downtown Barrie and meet the poor and hungry quite easily.  It wouldn’t take long, I’m sure, for us to find someone grieving.   And we’ve heard many stories of people being persecuted for standing up for what is right.

But peacemakers.  Who are they?  Where do they live?  What do they look like?

I’m  convinced  that reconciliation and peacemaking are essential elements of the mission of the church.  But I realise I know little about the practicalities of peacemaking.  Who should my role models be?  Who are the people that are actively bringing about reconciliation between groups in conflict?  Between Palestinian and Israeli, between rich and poor, between labour and management?  Between landlord and tenant, between conservative and liberal, between Catholic and Protestant? Between Pakistan and India, between Sunni and Shiite, between oil company and environmentalist?

Who are the people that stand in the gap, that refuse to accept the inevitability of conflict, that believe and hope and work towards just and equitable resolutions?

Who are the peacemakers?

What Would a Kingdomology Look Like?

A few weeks ago I had a fascinating conversation in a downtown coffee shop with a new acquaintance.  Among the many topics we covered was his conviction that the Bible presents one concrete, straightforward pattern for church structure and practice.

This got me thinking.   In theological circles we call the study of the Church ‘ecclesiology‘, from the Greek word for church, ekklēsiā.  In fact, theologians have all sorts of ‘ologies’.

  • Christology is ‘talking about Christ’.
  • Soteriology is ‘talking about salvation’
  • Pneumatology is ‘talking about the Holy Spirit
  • Eschatology is ‘talking about the culmination of history’

Interestingly enough, however, there doesn’t seem to be a word for ‘Kingdom-ology’, or the study of the kingdom of God.  I’ve never, ever heard the phrase ‘Basileology‘, which would be the logical term to use.

This seems to me a strange omission.  The word ‘church’ is mentioned twice in the gospels.  But the phrase ‘Kingdom of God’, or ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is used more than 80 times!  So why do theologians talk about the Church so much more than the Kingdom?

Am I missing something?  Is this actually a subject that’s taught at seminary?  Is there such a thing as ‘Introduction to Basileology’ or ‘Kingdom Studies 101’?  What would such a course look like?  What questions would it ask?  Which experts would we study?

In fact, while we’re asking these questions, what is the Kingdom of God?  And who is teaching and studying and talking about this question?


The Family of God

For a long time I’ve liked to use the analogy of a family when describing the Church.

We know about families.  We have brothers, sisters, in-laws, uncles, stepsisters, grandparents, cousins.

Some we like a lot.  Some we don’t know so well.  Some we find, frankly, weird.  Some we don’t even talk to any more.

The church can be like that.  Many of us have a ‘home’ denomination.  We feel safe there.  We’re surrounded by people who are like us.  We understand the language that is used.  We know what is expected of us. We know what to expect.

Perhaps we’re aware of ‘sibling’ churches.  Not quite like us, but similar.  We can get along ok.  We wish they’d change a few things, but we tolerate their quirks.

Perhaps, though, we also have an estranged ‘parent’ church.   A group or denomination that we split away from.  For some the split happened amicably, but for others it was a wrenching, violent, argument.  Maybe the split happened last year, or maybe it was centuries ago.  In both cases the wounds can still be felt.

And then there are those cousins that we’ve never met.  Those strange folks that we’ve heard are somehow related to us, that we’ve seen in pictures, but we really know nothing about.  They might even speak a different language.  Their practices are different.  They’ve focused on different elements of the faith than we have.  We might have a lot to learn from each other, but no one seems to be in a hurry to even start the conversation.

Maybe this describes you.  It certainly describes me.  But there’s something else I’ve learned, too.

I have never regretted reaching out to my family.

Frequently I have found them strange, different, weird, frustrating.  But just as frequently I have learned something important from them.  And just like my physical family, which is spread across the globe, I know I have a deep and profound connection to my distant brothers and sisters in the faith.  A connection that transcends language, culture and geography.

So I’m committed to seeking out the links that connect us.  Our shared faith, our shared heritage, our shared hope.

Because even if you’re weird, and do things differently, and speak a strange language, doesn’t mean you’re not family.