It has now been more than three months since I started as the Community Missioner and I am excited to be able to support the missioners, chaplains, and parishes particularly to develop mission practice for those who have left our churches or who are not Christian and have no awareness or interest in the faith.
I have come to Canada after working as a missioner, parish rector, and mission advisor for over 20 years and as a lay missioner before that for 10 years in the Church of England in the Dioceses of London and Southwark, which is a very different context to the Diocese of Niagara. However, the challenge of turning around failing parishes in England and involvement in forming new missional communities has afforded me some valuable experiences which I hope will help me to support the missions, parishes, and chaplaincies in the Diocese of Niagara and challenging post-covid context and ‘cost-of-living-crisis’ reality. A key focus for my role, working alongside Emily Hill, our parish development missioner, will be to support the exciting opportunity to develop ‘mixed ecology’ parishes and therefore help form a ‘mixed ecology’ diocese. So then, what is a ‘mixed ecology parish’?
Ever since the Christian Church became recognised as the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Church in East and West was held together in two strands—the place of parishes and dioceses as designated geographical area churches, alongside radical mission orientated ecclesial and monastic communities. This ‘both and’ church remains core to the balance of parish and radical Christian missional community. The etymology of ‘parish’ comes from the Greek and Latin to ‘dwell beside, to be near, to sojourn with a stranger’ and has always been associated with the practice of presence as a Christian community, and the offer to all to participate in a rhythm of worship, mission, and community to a locality or network.
This vision and practice for Christians in such a form of parish church was to be sent out to practice the love of Christ with those who live and work in a particular neighbourhood. The Sunday morning Eucharist or Holy Communion service was the ‘missional feast’ for the body of Christ sent out to live out faith in the world every day of the week before being regathered on the next Sunday. At the same time radical Christian missional communities such as the Franciscans, the Carmelites, and the Dominicans, were sent to support parish churches and communities by practicing a deep rhythm of Christian spirituality whilst attending to the missional challenge of the needs of the poor and those outside the church.
In a way, the ‘mixed ecology’ has always been in the DNA of parishes and dioceses, but we have not been conscious of using this term before. The term arises from biology, that deals with the relationship of organisms to one another and to their physical surrounding, advocating a healthy eco-system built on diversity of organisms, where biodiversity encourages an infrastructure that supports the mutual flourishing of diverse life.
Applied to the reality of the Canadian complex cultural context, a mixed ecology also denotes the reality that it is impossible to meet the missional, pastoral, and ministry needs of the incredible diversity of people with different languages, ethnicities, cultures, and other differences who live and work in our parishes by having just one faithful worship service on a Sunday. A strategy to renew parishes by taking a purely attractional ‘come to our worship service’ approach is not going to bridge the gap to the many people who are unlikely to come and participate in a homogeneous worship service.
The ‘mixed ecology’ parish promotes the idea of a ‘unity in diversity’ model, where there are different congregations reaching different socio-cultural groups defined by different languages, cultures, and needs. Such parishes practice mission by having a number of differing missional congregations and activities aimed at building new ecclesial communities as part of a parish, where such parish governing councils and common community life need to reflect a membership of such a diverse parish church.
Many Anglican parish churches around the Anglican Communion including the Church of England are committed to the development of ‘mixed ecology’ parishes because they have proven to be extremely effective in bringing renewal to the parish church by getting back to the root understanding of what a parish is called to be. A good example of a developing mixed ecology parish churches in the Diocese of Niagara are the examples of St. Aidan’s Church in Oakville, and St. Luke’s Palermo where they include Mandarin bilingual congregations and services alongside the Sunday Morning Holy Communion Service and more. Another example is the services led by Fr. Antonio Illas, who leads Spanish services for the Migrant Farm Workers in the parish churches of St Alban’s Church in Beamsville and St. John’s Church in Jordan.
In my own experience of a Parish Priest and Rector in the Church of England, I was able to assist two failing inner city parish churches in London to refocus and grow with a mixed ecology identity. One was a strongly Nigerian parish church adapted to ensure the need for a mission and a congregation of new to faith spiritual seekers, largely made up of university and art school students who needed their own expression of worship, mission, and community in St. Luke’s Church in Peckham. At Christchurch Blackfriars in Central London, which was on the verge of closing, new life was found in a new monastic community founded in a mixed ecology, which brought daily prayer and more contemplative inspired mission and services that engaged with the many stressed out and mentally unwell people living and working in Central London. Both of these parishes would have closed if they had not been renewed by becoming mixed ecology parishes.
The mixed ecology parish therefore seeks to make our diocesan focus of ‘being called to life, compelled to love’ a reality by enabling parishes to respond to the missional possibilities particularly to the un-and-de-churched. Many ‘nones and dones’ are spiritually hungry, but require us to have the confidence to be obedient to Christ, and to follow him and go out into the parts of our neighbourhoods and contexts as he did, to be relationally engaged and to practice the Gospel led by the Spirit. In this way our parishes then can be regenerated and grow in this mixed ecology focus of human flourishing, because of the combination of a deepened discipleship, and a deepened sense of parish.
If I and Emily Hill can help and support you in a parish or chaplaincy context, please do reach out at ian.mobsby@ niagaraanglican.ca or emily. [email protected]. I look forward to meeting many more of you in the months to come.