This article, the first in a semi-regular series on religion in Peterborough, was planned before six people were killed praying at a mosque in Quebec City, and that event has left me feeling a responsibility I didn’t expect, though I should have. What we say about religion has consequences. But the shooting and the religious discrimination on display worldwide right now have left me even more certain of the necessity of a column like this, because religious illiteracy is partly to blame for the ignorance that leads to fear, and then hate.
I believe this illiteracy is, in many cases, the result of a secularism that teaches religious practice is a private affair, and thus something that can’t be shared with non-adherents. But the opposite is the case, and I look forward to telling stories from Peterborough’s faith communities in this paper, so that readers of all faiths and none can share in their celebrating, their mourning, and their pursuit of truth and goodness.
This month, we begin with a celebration. In October 2016, Trinity United Church on Reid Street marked the 100th anniversary of their church building with a special Sunday morning worship service. Two other United congregations from Peterborough joined them, and the Moderator of the United Church of Canada, Jordan Cantwell, was guest preacher for the occasion.
Cantwell spoke about some of the challenges and opportunities facing the United Church as its membership declines. “One of the gifts of being small, and less wealthy,” she said, “is that we need each other more. We need our neighbours, we need our fellows in other churches, and we also need the people in the community who we could kind of get along without before.”
“God doesn’t want us to get along without them,” she added for emphasis.
In Peterborough many religious communities, Christian or otherwise, are experiencing exactly what Cantwell describes: falling membership and lean budgets, but also an increased willingness to work together, share resources, and collaborate, not only amongst each other but with the non-religious community as well. It may have been born of necessity, but it is encouraging to see nonetheless, especially considering the tense history some denominations have had with each other, and the religious intolerance being displayed in many parts of Canada and around the world right now.
In some cases this collaboration is leading to formal amalgamations. Last summer, George Street United and St Andrews United merged to form a new congregation called Emmanuel United. The new congregation worships together at both locations, alternating month by month, though maintaining both buildings might not prove to be sustainable in the long term.
The City’s Anglican and Lutheran churches are also exploring options for consolidating their congregations, a process made possible by global and national ecumenical movements that are bringing the two denominations closer together. With more than 500 parishioners combined, the Anglicans and Lutherans in Peterborough are a viable faith community, though not if they remain spread out over five churches as they are now. The five congregations are currently voting on a plan that would see three of the five churches close. They plan to continue worshipping in a variety of styles, to reflect the diversity of the five original congregations, but in spaces they share to keep costs down. With any luck, this will not only conserve resources but inspire dialogue and strengthen outreach initiatives as well.
Of course not all religious communities in Peterborough are shrinking. The city’s mosque, like many in Canada, is growing rapidly as Syrian refugees settle here. The Kawartha Muslim Religious Association has purchased new land next to the mosque, and is planning on renovating the building to accommodate the increased numbers.
But the Muslim community’s growth doesn’t mean it isn’t building relationships with other faith groups. Every summer, for example, Muslims in Peterborough join with the city’s Jews and Christians for their annual Abraham Festival, which celebrates the three faiths’ common roots and shared values. The Festival organizers plan other events throughout the year as well, and were instrumental in arranging for the Muslim community to worship in Peterborough’s synagogue after the fire-bombing at the mosque left them without a place of worship last winter.
For other, smaller, religious groups in Peterborough, sharing space with more established groups is the best way to maintain a regular worship schedule. The Unitarian Fellowship of Peterborough worships on Sunday mornings at the Beth Israel Synagogue on Weller Street, an arrangement which gives the Unitarians access to a worship space they might not otherwise be able to afford, while helping to support the upkeep of the Jewish community’s only synagogue. Similarly, the Buddhist Place, a group that meets twice a week to meditate and study Buddhist teaching, uses the side chapel at St John’s Anglican Church on Hunter Street for their gatherings. The Quakers, another small but dedicated religious group in town, use space at Sadleir House for their Sunday morning meetings.
All these groups are embracing the opportunity identified by Jordan Cantwell. It isn’t always easy, especially when amalgamation means the closure of churches, or when sharing resources means making compromises on how they get used. But there is good reason to believe that the religious communities in Peterborough will thrive in the future, as long as they are committed to building relationships with people who worship differently from themselves, or perhaps don’t worship at all. If they do, they’ll likely find they have the resources not only to sustain themselves and their worship, but to give back to the wider community through the compassionate practice their faiths call them to.”
Photos by B Mroz.