Going to church in Canada is challenging not just because the sermons are far too long (though often they make English homilies seem pithy). It’s because nowhere better exemplifies the tension at the heart of our Canadian experience: how we’ve travelled thousands of miles to be here and find it – almost – an exact replica of home. The buildings are very familiar: except for the ferocious central heating, they could have been taken from the Victorian streets of London. The liturgy too is recognisable, and has been faithfully handed down from the Book of Common Prayer. Even the quintessentially Anglican atmosphere – a genial befuddlement that largely avoids controversy – has somehow made its way across the Atlantic.
Take, for instance, a recent Evensong at Trinity, the Anglican College at the University of Toronto, where canticles by Herbert Howells and organ voluntaries by Marcel Dupré were performed confidently by the college choir. The music was originally written for King’s College Cambridge and Saint-Sulpice in Paris, but felt almost entirely at home in the gothic chapel (designed, incidentally, by Giles Gilbert Scott, architect of London’s red phone boxes). Playing the organ at services around the city has also been a familiar experience. Only the occasional discrepancy reminds me we’re in Canada: Elgar’s Nimrod is popular here at weddings as well as funerals, and the last line of Jerusalem manages to avoid any mention of England with the words “in this our green and pleasant land”.
Our local church is St James’ Anglican Cathedral, where we’ve been very grateful for the warm welcome from clergy, choir and congregation. The music – led by two fellow expats – is a real highlight of Sunday worship, with exquisitely performed classics of the repertoire alongside much less popular (but equally beautiful) works. The Cathedral also has a strong artistic tradition – Harriet enjoyed exhibiting three photographs in the community’s Lent exhibition earlier this year – as well as an active lecture series that covers topics from the spiritual practice of storytelling to international colonialisms. Saturday sees a ‘Royal Wedding’ party where the dress code is formal wear or pyjamas!
The only real ecclesiastical difference we’ve noticed so far is the process for choosing a new bishop. With the Archbishop of Toronto retiring in January, the election of a ‘coadjutor’ bishop who will eventually take over the role is imminent. Thus we found ourselves at the Cathedral yesterday for a ‘town hall’ gathering, with four bishops, a dean and a canon all presenting their case to the diocesan synod before the vote on 9 June. With repeated references to strategic plans, 360 reviews and three-dimensional ministry, it’s clear we’ve come a long way since the apostles cast lots for Judas’ successor. (Though, even amid this unfamiliar process, the usual theological differences remain: a female evangelical bishop pointedly noted that she is married to a man, just before the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada stood up to speak. (He is too.)) Some of the issues that this Church is called to address are distinctive: reconciliation with indigenous communities, for example, is a recurring theme given the church’s historic role in the practices of assimilation and forced confinement in Residential Schools. Others are more widespread: several speakers highlighted dwindling congregations across the diocese. But for us personally, our overriding impression of the Anglican Church of Canada has been the warmth of its welcome – and for that, we are truly grateful.