Recently at St. Olave, Swansea, the Rev. Dr. PJ Carefoote, our honorary assistant, presented a series on the history of the Church in Toronto. I was in charge of running the live stream. As I sat up in the balcony behind the camera, watching the YouTube feed on the computer monitors and clicking JPEGs of archival images synched to PJ’s words, the irony was not lost on me. “What about the future of the Church?” I wondered.
It’s a perennial question among the faithful, usually accompanied with lots of handwringing and action lists. This constant questioning of what the Church needs to do ensure its future forms the backbone of the Rev. Canon Martha Tatarnic’s new book, Why Gather? The Hope and Promise of the Church.
As we emerge from the pandemic, many people in parish leadership may be asking themselves this question daily. Despite our herculean efforts to keep parishes connected with live streams and phone trees and Zoom worship, many churchgoers have been slow to return to the pews. Are we ever going to be back to the way it was? Will people gather together once more?
Canon Tatarnic brilliantly articulates so many things that I have experienced as a warden during the pandemic, trying to serve the church, serve God, pay the bills, keep everyone’s mental health in check (as well as my own), support online worship and keep the community together when we couldn’t gather.
Why Gather is part memoir of Canon Tatarnic’s ministry as rector of St. George’s in St. Catharines. She shares stories about people being touched by faith and God’s grace, connecting them to Jesus’ ministry throughout. It is compelling.
Though she started asking the question “why gather” before the pandemic, the answer was shaped by lockdowns, nasal swabs and mute buttons. Jesus preached that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves and that everyone is our neighbour, but COVID-19 showed us that we are connected on an even more visceral level. We quite literally infect each other with our germs every day, connected by airborne particles, says Canon Tatarnic. “Whether we like it or not, the world is set up for us to be biologically and spiritually and emotionally infected with and connected to one another,” she writes.
Before she was called to the priesthood, Canon Tatarnic wanted to become a lawyer. It’s not surprising, because she essentially builds a case for why we need to gather as a community.
This messy, infectious imperfection, this connection, is what makes the Church the body of Christ, she says. Church is not perfect, nor should it be. We gather, she writes, “to be better tuned in to what God is doing in our lives. Tuning in to this truth matters to us in ways that are urgent and consequential because it is exactly this – to be in relationship with one another and in relationship with God – for which we are created.”
In other words, our faith is built on being connected, being together.
Coming out of two years of lockdowns and online worship, parishes across the country are under pressure to promote attendance and encourage giving. We want life to get back to normal already. But to fixate on the numbers is to misunderstand our mission.
Our mission is to lift up “the stories of grace, of transformation, of blessing, of how God has met us in the mess of our lives, of where we have been surprised by love, given second chances, and shown a way forward that we didn’t know was possible,” writes Canon Tatarnic. We gather to share these stories and in doing so reconnect to God and to each other.
Why Gather? The Hope and Promise of the Church is available in paperback or Kindle eBook at Amazon.