It is the Lord who has brought us to this moment in time

Bishop Andrew Asbil speaks.
Bishop Andrew Asbil delivers his Charge to Synod, rooted in the scripture passage John 21.
 on January 2, 2024
Michael Hudson

O God, take our lips and speak through them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and fill them with love for you. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

Stands on the Rock (Peter) and the other followers of Creator Sets Free (Jesus) were all gathered there. (First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament) And so we are gathered here. It is so, so, so good to finally be gathered together in one place. It is so good to be in a familiar space that we have not occupied since 2019. It is so good to hear the buzz and chatter of Anglicans gathering in the crush court and gathering around tables and meeting new friends and seeing old friends. It is wonderful to hear Anglicans singing again in harmony and in unison, and not in muffled, semi-muted tones online.

It is wonderful to be able to gather. Chaplains from independent schools, from hospitals, lay readers, lay leaders, deacons, priests, leaders in parishes large and small, from the four corners of this diocese, from the Kawarthas to Mississauga, from Penetanguishene to Brighton. To be able to be in this space. We have longed to be in each other’s presence. And in the name of Jesus Christ, welcome.

Bienvenue, bienvenida, bienvenido, ben vindos, Tawow, huānyíng. All of the languages of the planet of the Earth are also gathered in this place. We may be confined by the borders of a diocese, but we actually come from all over the planet. And we bring our unique gifts, our unique customs, our unique languages and perspectives, and we gather on this traditional land with deep humility, always conscious, as we heard in the land acknowledgement just a few minutes ago, of how our colonial ways of the past – and our colonial ways that persist in the present – continue to bring harm and alienation and hurt to so many. And that we are summoned as collections of communities, together in this diocese, to sow harmony and reconciliation in the name of Jesus Christ.

We come as parishes, some with very long memories – 1797, St. James Cathedral – and some that are just getting started – Church of the Holy Wisdom, 2021. And all the dates in between. One of the great joys of being a bishop is visiting different communities every Sunday and to mark important anniversaries in the life of the community. It’s wonderful to go into a community celebrating an anniversary and to hear the stories of the past and the present. To hear from members of the community who will tell you that they were there for the first service in a portable or in somebody’s home. Or that they are linked to a family that traces its roots all the way back to the beginning of a parish that streams into the past many, many generations. Or those who are just starting to belong to a community, who speak glowingly about how their lives are being transformed, and how their lives are being literally saved by their faith.

When I go to celebrate anniversaries, an image that I like to place in the midst of a community is to have them imagine if the walls of your church could speak. The stories that they might tell. Imagine if the pews and the kneelers could speak of the prayers that had been uttered heavenward. Or collecting all of the clergy who in time, in their own way, have broken open the Word, have joined hands in matrimony, buried the dead, poured water on baptism and broken bread and poured out wine and invited a community to step into a sacramental way of living. Imagine the deacons, who have, in their own ways, pointed and proclaimed the gospel and uttered in God’s name the invitation to serve the most vulnerable among us. And lay leaders and lay members who in their everyday life say yes to the Kingdom and the realm of God by living out their baptismal covenant. We bring them with us in this space. The communities of which you are a part are here at this Synod with you and with us.


Standing on the beach

In his book Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, James Smith says, “We live into the stories that absorb us. We become the characters that captivate us. Then our actions become kind of a script. Unconsciously we are drawn in through our imagination.” One of the scripts that has captured our imagination over the last 15 months or so is chapter 21 of the Gospel of John. A perfect reading that invites us through a time of COVID to stand on a new threshold on the beach, looking to the future. Of a community that is drawn by God in Jesus, resurrected to new life, that summons us into a future. And so I base this charge back in this same text and using the First Nations version.

In its telling, it brings the story to life with new imagery. Creator Sets Free revealed himself by the Lake of the Circle of Nations, and by the lake also known as the Rolling Waters, this way. In the text, we are told that not all of the disciples were present; only seven, in fact, are named. Some are missing. In the same way, when we gather, we are conscious that there are some members of this Synod who have been longtime members of Synod who are missing, who are not with us. Some who have died, some who have moved on, some who have let go. And we are conscious of the contribution that they have brought to the wider community of Anglicans in this diocese.

In the same way, congregations that have made choices since our last gathering in person, some to close and some to amalgamate to create something new. And we remember that their presence is missed in this room. St. James, Lisle. St. John, Harwood. St. Mark, Warsaw. St. Luke, Dixie South. St. Ninian, St. John the Divine, St. Peter, Scarborough to become Church of the Holy Wisdom. Christ Church, Norwood. Christ Church, Omemee. St. Stephen, Maple. St. Leonard. We remember the faithful witness of gathered communities over a stretch of time that have contributed to the life in their context and to our wider lives, too.

Stands on the Rock (Peter) says, “I’m going fishing.” And the others said, “We’ll go with you.” And they pushed their canoe onto the lake. And they worked all night long under the light of the moon and the stars. And they threw their nets, and they gathered them in. Empty.

We know something of the experience of feeling empty over the last three years of COVID, of emptying out our buildings, of emptying out the streets in our communities, of emptying out our places of employment, of emptying out our schools, of emptying out our stores. We have lived the length of time on empty.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the joy of celebrating a new ministry, the beginning of a new ministry at St. Matthew, Oriole. It was a wonderful event for the whole community and for Sherri Goliski. At the end of the service, a few of us were standing in the worship space, and I looked down on the ground and there on the carpet was an arrow. And there was another one over here and another one over there, a reminder of what it took to take direction to get to the table in the three-year period. Sherri said, “You know, we lifted the tape from that arrow. But the sun faded the rest of the carpet.” And it has left an indelible stamp in the carpet itself, in the same way that the experience has left an indelible mark on us, the likes of which we haven’t yet fully comprehended.


Casting our net

Cast your net on the other side, the right side. We cast our net in COVID in new and creative ways. When the churches emptied out, we went online and we tried new skills, as awkward as we could, used our best audio-visual skills, tried to sound like CBC – that didn’t work. Tried other narrators – that didn’t work, either. We learned to visit in a parking lot or in a park or in somebody’s front yard. We learned to deal with the horrors and the hurt of losing so many people, especially in long-term care homes. And we deal with the long-term legacy that has affected our mental health, especially amongst our young and our elderly, and the effects of long-term COVID. We still have not wrestled with all that has happened to us, and yet we also cast the net, I would say, by being more honest with each other. More vulnerable with each other. Of having different kinds of conversations at clericus. Different kinds of conversations at parish council. Different kinds of conversations amongst friends and family and around the table of the College of Bishops.

Suddenly you can imagine that net being filled with 153 fish. And it is John who says, “It is the Lord.”

There have been moments in the last three years when we, as communities large and small, wondered if COVID would ever end. And there have been moments when, if you’re anything like me, running on empty, still having the sense that somehow it is God’s voice that whispers to us again and again: “Peace. Be still and know. It is the Lord.”

It is the Lord who has brought us to this moment in time. We have not done this all on our own. It is Jesus who has summoned us and the Holy Spirit who has bound us together. As the disciples were hauling in 153 fish, the Diocese of Toronto has been hauling in 202 congregations up back onto the beach to dry out. Like Peter, many of us have felt sodden. Burned out, tired, crackly. We have felt so tired as members of the laity, as wardens, as treasurers, as clergy, who have held the thing together seemingly forever. And now as we come back onto the beach, we sort through our congregations, and some of them are smaller and some of them are the same size and some of at them are bigger, praise God. And some people are missing, but new people are coming. And it is specifically in this moment that we have asked ourselves to enter into a visioning process.


Casting visions

The other bishops will tell you, as I tell you, that over the last number of months as we go through and we visit parishes, there is a lightness and a gladness that is slowly but surely beginning to return. I don’t think we’ve quite figured out the Peace yet. Never really sure what we do now with the Peace. Do we shake hands? Do we keep bowing? Do we hug? It’s a little like adolescents at the school dance. Haven’t quite figured it out. It takes a while to get your land legs back.

But it’s the perfect time, as a whole community, to cast visions and seek how God is calling us. And we are so grateful to all of our consultants. To Canon Ian Alexander, to Dean Peter Elliott, to Dr. Anita Gittens, ODT. To Dr. Kathleen Johnson and to our steering committee, so wonderfully led by the Rev. Dr. Alison Falby and Dave Toycen, ODT.

Listening takes discipline. It’s not easy to listen. In August of 1993, our then-primate, Archbishop Michael Peers, was invited to the National Native Convocation in Minaki. And he was given really strict instructions to listen to the stories and the legacy of hurt and abuse at Residential Schools. He would be given an opportunity to speak at the end. And Archbishop Michael once said that was one of the most helpful instructions to be given. Because when we think we’re listening, we’re actually formulating our response. But when we allow ourselves to listen, we are absorbed into the telling. And the absorption in the telling would lead to an apology that would set a course for all of us as we move into the future, knowing that we are agents of change and reconciliation.

Bishop Asbil delivers his charge to Synod. The podium is draped in a net to reflect the theme of Synod and the diocese’s visioning and strategic process, Cast the Net, based on John 21.

In the same way as you have participated in this listening process with us, on this journey of casting the net, we bring now images and a report of what it is that has been heard, in the same way that Peter in our reading was invited into a listening process with Jesus after breakfast. I find it wonderful, the way they tell the story. The Creator Sets Free used the family name that was given to him, One Who Hears (Simon). One Who Hears. Those who have ears, hear. Seven times it appears in the gospels, eight times in the Book of Revelation. When we have ears, hear. Sometimes you have to be asked not once, not twice, but three times. Tend. Feed. Feed.

Some of us in this room are parts of communities who have heard the hunger pangs in our communities. Like St. Paul on-the-Hill in Pickering that started a food bank in 1990 and watch the use of that food bank go up exponentially – 7,800 members in 2012, 14,000 in 2021, over 20,000 in 2022. One hundred families, 150 seniors in Flemington Park enjoy free fresh produce that is grown at the Common Table Farm at Our Saviour in Don Mills. Just two examples of communities in the diocese who hear the hunger pangs in their communities and respond with love. Love equals food, food equals love. Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?

It takes a while for One Who Hears, Peter, Stands on the Rock, to read and to listen between the lines. Some would say, as theologians, that we go back to that moment before the crucifixion, when Peter would deny Jesus three times. It is a sewing and amending of an old relationship and a moment of forgiveness. Yup. But I like the interpretation of Dr. Caroline Lewis, who says it’s a waking-up moment for Peter to understand who he really is, what his identity is in the resurrected Lord, as a follower and as a disciple. It’s Jesus saying, “Peter, it’s your turn to stand on the rock.”


Spiritual renewal

The same is asked of us. It’s one thing for us to say to our circle of family and friends, “I go to church.” It’s another to say to a circle of family and friends, “I’m really involved at a church. I go to this thing called Synod. How do you spell that?” It’s quite another thing to say, “I am a follower of Jesus. I am a disciple of Jesus Christ.”

We heard that again and again and again in this listening process: a deep desire that we deepen our spiritual renewal and our call to discipleship. And so as we stand on the beach in the Diocese of Toronto, an invitation to step into a season of renewal. A season when we come together in parishes and regional groups, in small groups and large groups, to pray, to be reconciled, to learn, to teach, to worship, to sing, in small groups and large groups. To be taught, to hear teachers from outside the diocese, within the diocese. To be tended and fed in our souls. And we have asked the Rev. Canon Dr. Judy Paulsen to be the coordinator of this Season of Renewal, and we will be forming a steering committee to get us started so that we begin after this Synod that takes us through to 2025.

We walked the road with Jesus. What you will hear in the presentation, I hope, from those who have been doing the listening process, a simplified little format that you can put in your hand, a handheld device almost like a compass, that reminds us of how we find our way home. In simple terms that remind us we are disciples of Jesus Christ, whose good news is the joy and the challenge at the heart of our common life. And we want to be able to hear from you your feedback and also to embrace this as we go.


Children & youth

We heard through our listening, or at least I did, a need and a deep desire to bolster our ministry amongst children and youth. As we change and orient ourselves again with areas and territories to make sure that the budget that we have for youth ministry in each of the areas is embedded in our budget for the diocese. To be able to encourage the creative use of resources like the Ignite program in Scarborough Deanery, where 13 parishes come to work together to pray and to bolster and to support our youth ministry. There are youth members in the room with us. Can I hear an Amen?


Creation care

What a wonderful telling in this gospel version. Piercing through the reading, you can hear creation, under the light of the moon and the stars. The sounds of the water lapping in the background, the sounds of water birds heard in the distance, the feeling of the warmth of the sun as it rises. A reminder to us that all that we do needs to bring creation not in the background, but into the foreground of everything that we do as servants of Christ. To take a page from the Gospel of Mark that says, “Proclaim good news to the whole of creation.” Not just to two-legged mammals, but the whole of creation, every creature, land, sea, water. To proclaim good news to watershed, to creeks, to lakes, to rivers, to valleys, to forests. For the sake of life, and for the seventh generation to come.


Anti-racism and addressing bias

I am grateful to Bishop Kevin, who has served as our Diversity Officer these last two years, and for the Bishop’s Committee on Intercultural Communities. And for those who have worked with Co: Culture Collective in designing a way and strategy forward in how we address issues of racism and bias in our community. And we will be working alongside Bishop Riscylla, who takes over as Diversity Officer, and also to hire a part-time staff person with the skills to help us enflesh this new strategy. It’s a small step, but it will grow as we strengthen together.


Planting new seeds and dreams

For 10 years, Dave Krause served as a consultant in Congregational Development, and now he becomes our Diocesan Missioner, working alongside the College of Bishops as well as Congregational Development in helping us to imagine new communities, new ways of gathering in worship, new ways of working in regions, new ways that God is calling us to plant seedlings of new communities that brings laughter, joy and possibility. Just ask Sarah.


Property and ministry

We’re delighted that Mac Moreau has come on as our director of Property Resources, and working with our executive director, Canon Rob Saffrey and the members of the Property Committee, putting into flesh the desires of Synod in being able to develop and redevelop our church properties for ministry on the frontline, whether that is housing or other developments that we need to address the issues that face us and challenge us as communities.



Later today you will be introduced to the bishop of the Diocese of Brasilia, Bishop Mauricio. He and I have been having conversations online about deepening our relationship and forming a companionship between our two dioceses. His flight was delayed because of the storm in Sao Paulo. He arrived at 5:35 this morning, didn’t sleep a wink on the plane. But he will be offering a workshop later today, and our guest speaker tonight. I’m looking very much forward to a deepening relationship together. We have one of the largest Lusophone communities in the world. And an opportunity for us to plant new community here in the Diocese of Toronto.


Letting go

“When you get older, someone else is going to dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” Now I don’t know about you, but I understand that Jesus was telling Peter the death by which he would die. But I hear it a different way. It’s very difficult to give away and to let go. But to be a Good Shepherd and a good leader, you need to learn the art of giving it away in order to include and invite different perspectives, different points of view. To expand our episcopal leadership by having fewer bishops and engaging archdeacons and a canon administrator and to invite our regional deans to participate at a deeper level and to invite the whole community of every Anglican church in this diocese to learn the art of what it means to let go, to give permission and to invite others to take on. That’s not just for bishops to do, or archdeacons or regional deans. That’s for clergy, and it’s for matriarchs and for patriarchs, too. To make room. And there are going to be things that will happen in your parish that you probably won’t like very much. And it might make you feel a little uncomfortable, and you may learn a thing or two. And that’s OK.

As I’ve said many times before, Meister Eckhart, the long-ago mystic, said the soul grows by subtraction, not by addition. It is in letting go and encouraging others to become part of that the realm of God is made known in our midst.


Capital campaign

And one more thing that almost sends chills, or helps us break into hives as Anglicans, is this notion. When I imagine standing on this beach looking into the future, in helping to sustain ministry and to make the kinds of turns and changes that we need to, to help the most vulnerable communities among us and to strengthen the strongest, we need to engage in a capital campaign. That landed well. I know that’s hard, and I know asking for money is not an easy thing for Anglicans. But I also know that we continue to benefit from Our Faith-Our Hope. We are still able to seed vital ministry because of the last campaign. And this one is to be designed so that most of the funding remains in parishes to help at the frontline. I would invite you to engage in a feasibility study near the end of 2024 to imagine how God is calling us to build resources for ministry into the future.


Deep gratitude

But I must say, more than anything, I feel deep, deep, deep gratitude for being here in this space with you. And I am grateful for all those who have worked with me over these last number of years, especially the College of Bishops. To my colleagues Riscylla and Kevin, for your deep gifts and hard work at a time of transition, taking on way more than you could ever ask or imagine. To our archdeacons and our canon administrator taking on a whole new role. To our executive director, Rob Saffrey. To all of the staff at 135 Adelaide. To Mary Conliffe and Jenn Bolender King, who organize and keep me organized and remind me of my purpose. It’s good to be reminded. For every cleric in this room, for every lay leader in our parishes, deep and profound gratitude for the sacrifices you have made to help us get to this point in time. And finally, just a word of deep gratitude to my wife, Mary. For standing with me through the good and the hard, and always bringing such deep joy and reminding me of the call that we are all summoned to.

So, as they would say in the First Nations Version, let’s hit the road with Jesus. Amen.


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