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Moving Church

After losing a court appeal, the largest Anglican congregation in Canada learned it must move church. Julie Lane Gay, a member of St. John’s Vancouver, formerly St. John’s Shaughnessy, tells how it felt:

The prospect moving church felt like a mandatory road trip with ten children in a dilapidated minivan across endless dirt roads. While the actual distance would be only two kilometres from our church of many years to a rented Seventh Day Adventist one, the logistics looked overwhelming. We had new empathy for Noah.

Within our congregation, we dreaded saying goodbye to where we were baptized and married. We dreaded a new space that might not draw our hearts to worship. We ached leaving the remains of our loved ones in the Memorial Garden. We worried about squishing into smaller classrooms, and leaving behind coffee makers and chalices. Most of all we dreaded our fragility. Was it possible to move 800 people?

As with other daunting journeys, we did what large families sometimes do. We prayed, planned and categorized the tasks. Five committees were formed: Saying Goodbye, Saying Hello, Doing Sunday, Physical Move and Communicating. Through these five, we set out to do everything from helping kids say farewell to their church home to establishing strong relationships with our new landlords to creating a familiar Anglican aesthetic in a decidedly non-liturgical space.

I cannot say if it was the high stakes or the Holy Spirit, but nearly everyone seemed willing to help. Countless people volunteered. The degree of ownership and attention to detail became astounding. Out of our pews stepped artists, architects, carpenters, audio specialists, experts in large-scale logistics and many willing to do absolutely anything. Kneelers were built, lecterns carved, and family heirlooms were donated. A gift registry was set up in which parishioners could commit to cover the cost of needed items – everything from alms basins to utility carts. What was remarkable from the first was how deeply people cared that we do this move as well as possible: that we attend to every possible detail, and ensure that each other’s experience of what felt like a rotten pilgrimage – an ousting – was as good as possible.

As painful as leaving was for us, the desire to be gracious with those who would take over our church home became a high priority. Children made banners for successors listing the building’s highlights – Bibles, the comfy couches, the cookie drawer. The Saturday before we left, 80 adults showed up to scrub every cupboard, wash every floor, and polish every piece of silver. Notes were written to explain the dishwasher. Prayers were offered.

While our morning services are usually held at 9 am and 11 am, the clergy and staff wisely opted to keep us all together during the move. So at 10 am on Sept. 18, we gathered one last time on the corner of Granville and Nanton Ave. The sanctuary was jammed – people stood squished even in the aisles. One last time each of us heard the Gospel preached and the best words of all, “the Body of Christ, given for you,” in that familiar place we loved so much. Then, behind the silver cross lifted high, with our clergy before us, tears rolling down cheeks, we processed out the front doors, singing with sadness and gratitude.

But not five minutes after we processed, we did what we dreaded most. We crammed into cars and drove to our new church. We filed into that new building to pray and sing two hymns. We were stunned. We had made it. We greeted each other like shipwreck survivors without a casualty.

This mid-service move was brilliant. It got the first look over with, but more importantly each of us now knew that we wouldn’t be the only one there. We now knew that when we sang a hymn in a new place, we still sounded like us. When our rector prayed, and spoke to us with his wonderful candour and humour, David Short was still our David. The most precious pieces were with us.

The next Sunday, still as a combined service, was even better. In six days, parishioners had painted walls, laid a new carpet to resemble our old one, and perhaps most meaningfully, hung a huge banner above the altar, replicating the enormous etched-out cross of our former home. This cross called out “Home” as little else ever could. The pastor of the Seventh Day Adventists came to greet us with a warmth and godliness that seemed like manna. After we had felt maligned and homeless, the Seventh Day Adventists were thrilled to have us, to know us.

Now six weeks in, what has surprised and encouraged us most is the remarkable spirit that has coloured our transition. As you might hope in your wildest dreams that your children actually might behave well when the chips are down, that they might see the peril and fragility and need for them to think more about their family than themselves, so God has enabled us to make this move with astonishing pleasure.

Not long after our first Sunday, I saw a young woman who had been at St. John’s for several years and asked her how she was coping. She confessed, “I actually feel a part of St. John’s in a way I never have before. It’s as if we are all equal now, whether you have been there six months or sixty years.” The following week I ran into an older and often curmudgeonly parishioner, who had attended St. John’s for probably 40 years, and nervously inquired, “How are you faring with the move?” He looked at me almost apologetically. “I would never have seen it coming but you know I really enjoyed it. I think it has been good for us.”

We seem to have taken far better care of each other during the move than we have ever done before – not only physically but spiritually helping each other to cross Oak Street.

This article was first published on Anglican Planet: www.anglicanplanet.net/frontline-ministry/2011/11/14/moving-church.html.

Photo caption: Rev. Daniel Gifford, Canon David Short and Canon Dr. J.I. Packer stand outside the church buildings after the final Sunday service at the Granville Street location on 18 Sept, 2011. Credit: St. John’s Vancouver

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