Can the empty pew be filled?

Filling empty pews is the challenge for all of us who believe that mainline churches are still relevant, writes Sylvia Sutherland

By Sylvia Sutherland Peterborough This Week

It didn’t seem right, somehow — sitting on a recliner in a sweatshirt, track pants and slippers, coffee in hand, dog Rupert on lap, watching the live-streaming of the installation, at the Cathedral Church of St. James, of Andrew Asbil as the 12th Anglican Bishop of Toronto.

I thought of the reported reservations of the Queen Mother and Sir Winston Churchill regarding televising Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, because men in flat caps might be sitting in pubs watching the sacred event while they downed a pint.

The first Bishop of Toronto (1839-1867) — that wily old Scot, John Strachan — presided over a church known as “the Tory party at prayer.”

From his tomb under the high altar, he certainly would not approve of my apparel, or much that went on at the installation of Bishop Asbil that recent Sunday afternoon (in Strachan’s day, bishops were “enthroned;” now they are merely “installed”).

Not the guitars, not the spirituals, not the dance, not welcoming all of any colour or sexual orientation, and certainly not women priests and bishops.

He would undoubtedly feel at home with the “smells and bells,” with “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and with the odd bow to the Book of Common Prayer.

Things have changed a lot since Strachan’s time.

The pews were full in 1865.

In 1965, Pierre Berton was driven to write The Comfortable Pew, warning that perhaps they had become too comfortable.

Today, the comfortable pew has been replaced by the empty pew.

To change that reality is the challenge Bishop Asbil faces — the challenge for all of us who believe that mainline churches are still relevant in today’s world.

At the core of his installation message was the recognition that “it takes time for us as a church to shed those things we don’t need, those things that weigh us down.”

In a church where the beauty of its liturgy and its music are treasured, where shedding the past has always been difficult, it is perhaps more of a struggle to identify those things it does not need than to simply layer on those things that it hopes will be its salvation.

It is now Bishop Asbil’s turn to attempt to fill the empty pew; those of us who believe in prayer, pray for him.

Meanwhile, with a nod toward the high altar and Bishop Strachan, I think I should have dressed for the occasion.

Sylvia Sutherland is a journalist and was Peterborough’s mayor from 1985 to 1991 and from 1997 to 2006.