Published: March 2008
The Anglican Church has weathered many challenges and changes, some better than others. As one who pastored the Diocese of Niagara for forty years, as priest and Bishop, the Right Reverend Walter Asbil looks on the unfolding history of the Church with a particular wisdom and compassion. "I don't like the word 'optimism, '" he says, "but 'hopeful'may be the best word."
Though society's transformation has led to controversy, Bishop Walter identifies Anglican anchors: "In the middle of Anglican comprehensiveness breaking down, we are at our best as Anglicans. We easily disagree, but feel like a family at the altar rail.
Bishop Walter is disturbed by recent developments in the world-wide Anglican Communion, particularly actions by dissenting clergy in Niagara and by other bishops toward them: "It's a breakdown of our comprehensiveness and not necessary.
"In the last five or ten years, lots of things have broken our understanding. Positions have hardened; then it's hard to get things together again. I'm not blaming anyone, but edges that were fuzzy are now clear. I'm still quite hopeful about what is happening in the parishes. Hopefulness is elusive, but there's a sense of people struggling with their faith."
Since he was ordained priest on December 18, 1957, "The Church has changed considerably, from being totally priest-driven to involvement of the people. Parishes are still pretty dependent on clergy, (but) there's much more acceptance of what it means to be baptised. People live out their baptism in ways that were not there fifty years ago."
Bishop-in-Residence at St. George' s Church, St. Catharines, Bishop Walter describes that parish as an example of hopefulness: "There's a really good atmosphere. It's a happy place; worship is lively and creative with Val (the Reverend Valerie Kerr, Assistant Priest) and Rob (the Reverend Canon Rob Fead, Rector).
"For example, a study group at St. George's attracts up to seventy-five people. They're even looking at the Creed; that's not exciting, but most people want to learn ... Most people are content with anything but a literalist (interpretation). They're prepared to wrestle with it. Lots of people are seeking a non-threatening opportunity, where they can ask any question without feeling stupid. (We) had two sessions on same-sex blessings, with about sixty or seventy people, and a wonderful atmosphere: no applause, just listen to each other. It was open, frank; each person dealt with it in their own way." Mavis Asbil adds, "Everyone remained friends."
When Bishop Walter became Rector of St. George' s, St. Catharines, in November 1970, there was "No way!" the people chose their priest. Now parish parochial committees offer considerable input on appointments. Another issue: "...families moved into town from outlying parishes where their children had been receiving communion--the priest broke the rules--and others would say, 'Why can't my child...? '" In 2007, Anglican altars are places of welcome rather than exclusion.
Mavis describes a personal issue that arose when she and Bishop Walter were married: "It irked me that when I became an Anglican I had to be confirmed--that really ticked me off! I was confirmed in the United Church." Bishop Walter teases, "That wasn't a real confirmation!" Mavis continues, "I had gone to Church all my life. I was happy in the United Church!" Then, relenting, "My Father was an elder, it was dull, awful! Fifty years on, I'm an Anglican, but I would never have changed but for Walter!"...
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