Toronto Bishop's Town Hall

St. James Cathedral Spire in the fog next to  bank and under bare tree branches
The Bishop of the Diocese of Toronto, Anglican Church of Canada (yes, other major churches exist aside from Catholic and way-out-there or judgemental ones) is holding town halls in Toronto.

Bishop Andrew Asbil:
“My intent is really about saying, how do we actually fill the space with all sorts of opportunities and words that are going to help us move forward?”
The first town hall was held at St. James Cathedral Centre on May 1st. I walked to it in the wind and the rain. I arrived early because I’d finished my coffee and had nothing else to do. It got me a front- table seat. A good thing because my pre-brain-injury shy self decided to make an appearance. The only way I was ever going to speak up was if I had a direct, unblocked view of the Bishop. Oh boy. The zeitgeist of hopelessness, of endlessly fighting for being able to live in this society and recover my health was oppressing me.

Women wended their way in, finding old friends, fellow congregants from their parishes (churches), new journeyers on this path of how to grow the church.

It wasn’t all the white-haired brigade, though. Quite a few young women arrived to ask specific questions of the bishop. A few visible minorities peppered the tables. A few men.

I was there on a mission.

Mission was one of the four words that are occupying the Bishop’s mind, we learnt.

He brought up his four words after he gave a synopsis of his first hundred days as Bishop of Toronto.

He spoke out each word in turn. After each word, he asked us to reflect on the word and then speak out in a word or short phrase what came to mind before he presented us with the next word. I noticed a pattern. The people there for the most part responded with hopeful words or usual ideas within the mainstream Christian context or what we hear within the larger progressive movement. I, on the other hand, thought acerbically. Bad me! The Bishop's first word was creation. I detail them below.


I thought about a church that had been growing that the diocese slayed.


I thought about the lack of inclusivity. I said: diversity is a good word, but it’s not executed.


I thought about how common this word is within the Anglican Church, but what does it actually mean? It doesn’t seem to include reaching out; only saying hello to your fellow human when they manage to stagger in to the church or bible study in person.


I thought about how much this word has broadened in meaning from the traditional missionary. I said something like: not reaching out to your neighbour who is familiar and so you don’t think needs reaching out to. I meant a person you see at church who suddenly can’t show up but aside from asking other congregants where they are and nodding to your physically present sister congregants, you don’t pick up the phone or walk to their door and ask, "What do you need? Why don't we pray together? Would you like a bible study here?" In other words, mission means reaching out but not actually doing it.

At the end of the words, a situation arose that my brain injury made me well suited to fling myself into. My brain-injury self that has no fear of public speaking or interrupting pontificating (mostly) men that normal polite Anglicans won’t be so rude as to interrupt, came alive. I spoke up assertively into that situation about what I came to speak about. Phew. Mission accomplished.

When I'd said my piece, the Bishop said he wanted to know more; after the town hall, I filled in the details one-on-one. He thanked me and went on to the next person.

The second hour was devoted to questions from the attendees. I got the distinct feeling that all present but me were insiders. Although technically still a member of a church, I was the only unchurched person there, as far as I could make out. Yet none seemed at all interested in coming up to me after the town hall to pick my brain. Instead, they were looking to each other and the Bishop for answers.

Insiders speaking to insiders about what outsiders are looking for is a bit lame.

One eager group trying to look for help for people they know who are having a hard time with the church and to be aware of the community they live in, brought up how downtown churches include the poor, Indigenous, disabled, addicted, mentally ill. I kind of blinked at lumping us all together as if we only existed to receive their largesse. Not as equals and sister congregants.

But I also wondered: where are the poor and disabled in this town hall? Where are the Indigenous? Where are the mentally ill or addicted who cannot work but can still function enough to attend a town hall? Why are the fair-skinned women speaking for them? Why are they not here speaking for themselves? And why the patronizing lumping together of disparate groups as if we are all the same and face the same problems and only live downtown?

Woke attendees spoke the right things, showed their concern for people not like them.

But it isn’t enough to speak the “right” phrases. Inclusivity means actively inviting people and empowering them if need be to speak for themselves, to tell the Bishop directly how the diocese is fucking up and what we the unchurched are looking for.

What I’m looking for is a live-streamed church service that isn’t a stultifying view of a communion service — ritual doesn’t float my boat, and Jesus wasn’t too impressed either with ritual with his constant thumbing his nose at them. A service that includes the virtual community like truly Christian American ones do (not the old money-grubbing or hate-for-other-filled ones that consume public attention). A service that reaches out to the unchurched with hope, love, life, and prayer. Perhaps even prayer lines, which at the moment only evangelical Christian shows currently provide. The need is out there and growing in these times of politicians slaying our hope for a better future and sowing anxiety in our present. The Bishop said some parishes are looking at that. Unless a parish is super wealthy and has a congregation of thousands, I don’t think one parish can fund the kind of live-streamed service that’ll attract outsiders.

I also think churches outside of St James should find a way to have open doors, to offer services mid-week and mid-day, to hold non-communion services, to have quiet ones for those of us who find music and action and constant stimulation exhausting but who also want to interact with the Pastor during the sermon or worship. People with brain injury have a habit of interrupting speakers, and when a speaker rolls with it, it makes for an inclusive atmosphere.

Pastors are meant to reach out to their congregations, including the ones who stop showing up for health, work, disillusionment reasons. Pastors are not supposed to wait for the lost sheep to show up at their door. That's not exactly following Jesus aka discipleship. I get one Pastor can't do that for a large congregation; that's why the diocese is supposed to ensure assistant or associate Pastors are assigned to them. And those Pastors are supposed to reach out, too, like Jesus. My experience is that stopped happening with younger ones. Too much work? Too much having to think about others, like Jesus did the woman at the well or his parable of the lost sheep or prodigal sons? Too much of a comfortable, entitled life to do anything more than learn the theory but not the empathy to execute it? Whatever the reason, it's a problem. A big one.

Anyway, as I left the emptying room, I hoped I’d planted a seed. I thought: I was glad I spoke up to make the Bishop aware of a travesty wrought by bureaucrats. I walked back out into the wind and the rain alone.