Sometimes being a Christian pastor in Québec feels like being in the Plague scene in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. There is no shortage of cultural commentators, journalists, and politicians who would love to throw my corpse into the wheel barrow and triumphantly declare me dead or at the very least, “You’ll be stone dead in a minute,” but here I am, shouting, “I’m not dead yet! I’m getting better! I think I’ll go for a walk. I feel happy!”
This week the CBC told me that I would be stone dead in a minute. Its headline, I believe to have been sloppy and imprecise, declared, “Quebec Anglican Church challenged by exodus of parishioners.”
I am not delusional or naïve. I work for both the United Church and the Anglican Church. I have lost count of how many conversations, sometimes sad, more often coldly clinically pragmatic, I have overheard about closing parishes, selling buildings, and archiving records. One rural parish’s entire unsold contents were in a cardboard box on the floor in the office, and I tripped on it earlier this week. I am a pastor and theologian, so obviously I am convinced there is a sermon analogy in that moment. One hundred years of faithful people gathering; baptising, marrying; eulogising… and it all fits in a box, and I tripped over it. So yes, Christianity in Québec is in some serious institutional trouble. I see that.
But, I also see things the CBC did not see.
Sometimes doing youth ministry in the church is like being an obstetrician who has an office in a hallway full of hospice doctors. Yes, I know there is death happening, but I am very busy with all the new birth I keep seeing. The CBC quoted my friend and colleague, the Rev’d Yves Samson as saying that “becoming ecumenical and bilingual is ‘the new reality’ for former anglophone Protestant churches.” Generally I believe that is right. But contrary to the pessimistic vision advanced by the CBC, I see it vibrantly happening.
Once a month, young adults in Montréal gather for a dinner and a worship service. On one hand, it does not look like our grandparent’s church. Couches are arranged in a semi-circle. The opening hymn could be a 19th-century Methodist classic or it could be a “secular” Damien Rice song. Yet, the Communion table and Bible are as old as ever. The sermon is in unapologetic Franglais. And each month we have been growing. Conventional wisdom was that something so “religious” wouldn’t work, and that bilingualism would ensure that, the Anglophones offended by the French, the Francophones by the religion. And conventional wisdom was unwise. And monthly I have watched as five, then twelve, then twenty-five, and lately fifty, young adults come, cook together, pray together, Commune together. No, it is not all old, white born-Québécois; the mix of young adults reflects the diversity of Montréal.
Each Wednesday night, I gather in the basement of Christ Church Cathedral with a group of students. No, the conversations are not dull or traditionally reverent. They are raw and honest. If there is something shocking or offensive in the Bible, we do not pretend it is not there, and we do not pretend that we are okay with it. But we do not casually dismiss the texts handed down to us. It is beautiful and frustrating in a vibrant, living way.
A few times year, I gather with dozens of teenagers at church parish halls across rural Québec where we set up camp, air mattresses and all, to spend a weekend together, to build a safe place and rich community. We start with games on Friday night, learning names, favourite ice cream flavours, and what super power we’d each like, and by Saturday night we are kneeling around candles, sharing our deepest prayers with God and, no less movingly, one another.
In August for the last three years, I have seen ever increasing numbers of young people eager to march with their churches, St. James United and Christ Church Anglican Cathedral, to show a vision of loving and inclusive Christianity at Montréal Pride.
Last week, I stood in front of five hundred youth from across Québec and Ontario at a full and frequently loud United Church in Ottawa, blessed bread in English and wine in French, with two outgoing and eloquent youth, bilingually assisting me at my side.
We’re not dead yet. But even if the way Christianity “has been” in Québec dies, I am not afraid. The God who raised Jesus can resurrect us, too. We’re getting better. Let’s take a walk together. And seriously, when I think of the present and future of our Protestant churches in Québec, I feel happy.
The Rev’d Jean-Daniel Williams is the Anglican-United Christian chaplain at McGill University, the youth and young adult minister for the Montréal and Ottawa Conference of the United Church of Canada, and a PhD student of practical theology at Université de Montréal.