A Church for All Seasons
reprinted with permission from The United Church Observer 20 June 2000, p.42
While Jane Austen felt that a single man with some money must be in want of a wife, a contemporary group of clergy feels people with "Reverend" in front of their names must be in want of a church.
So the interdenominational Clergy Support Network has created the All Seasons Church for ministers who are, for one reason or another, without one.
"It's just the same as the United Church," says All Seasons administrator Casey McKibbon, "only it's not quite as big."
With no large office towers or spacious sanctuaries, its most visible manifestation is a Web site, complete with a listing of clergy willing to perform weddings in Ontario and Quebec. However, marriage ceremonies (as well as funerals and, rarely, baptisms) are only a small part of the church's purpose. McKibbon, the former United Church minister from Metcalfe, Ont., who founded the support network, says All Seasons has really been set up "to support clergy who have had their credentials lifted for no apparent reason. This is just something we have in place to help them get started again -- a safety net for certain clergy."
All Seasons' government-supplied charter gives it the power to recognize their unique ministries. "If someone wanted to start a ministry in a casino -- although no-one has -- or in an airport, or wanted to work with the homeless downtown, we could recognize that."
About 30 clergy from across Canada are associated with All Seasons. They have already attended seminary and have had credentials to marry and conduct funerals and do pastoral care -- but the majority have fallen out with their denominations.
Which doesn't mean the three-year-old church takes on everybody. There is an ordination committee, ministers are accepted into All Seasons on a case-by-case basis, and credentials are reviewed yearly. Some were from "evangelical churches where they looked sideways and got tossed out." Others, like McKibbon himself, or Rev. John Wesley Oldham of Bracebridge, Ont., voluntarily placed themselves on the United Church's discontinued service list. All, McKibbon says, are from recognized denominations, "not the local Church of Banana Bread."
Nor is it the only one of its kind. The idea for All Seasons came from a similar structure for ex-Salvation Army personnel.
The formation of the church is part of McKibbon's ongoing work with the clergy support network, an organization that comes to the aid of ministers caught in a congregational dispute: "One of our guys was destroyed in a church fight, and he supports himself now as a security guard. We were able to ordain him, and give him his life back. He can look his former colleagues in the eye."
But some who offer All Seasons weddings have no quarrel with their church. They are simply retired clergy without the congregational base that lets them officiate readily at marriage rites. A structure like this to assist them might be welcome in provinces where there are no marriage commissioners to perform civil ceremonies.
As Rev. Steve Chambers, general secretary of the United Church's Division of Ministry Personnel and Education says, "there has been some controversy over the years as to whether ministers should officiate at marriages where people have little connection with the church." Some ministers regard it as a form of evangelism. Others refuse to be involved. It would be helpful, he says, "if there were appropriate options" in a secular society.
At the moment, All Seasons can only provide credentials to perform marriages in Ontario; each province has its own requirements. This is not as large a problem as it might seem, since some All Seasons clergy are from denominations that allowed them retain their licence to marry. "We have two or three guys active in the Maritimes, for example," says McKibbon, "and they still have their own credentials."
Although All Seasons will refer prospective couples to marriage preparation sessions hosted by other denominations, "not everyone wants to do that." Many people who come to them are unchurched, or divorced in a church that won't allow them to remarry. Also, he says "there's a trend away from weddings in buildings. If someone wanted to get married at their cottage or on a boat, we would do that." The Web site lists golf clubs, hotels, even Parliament Hill (where McKibbon recently officiated) as possible locations. A couple from Vietnam, who couldn't prove they were already married, recently remarried in his office so "they have a paper trail."
A larger question about All Seasons, though, is not who should preside over weddings, but what is the purpose of a denomination. Chambers says one thing a denomination must do is provide order. "Their order may not be like our order, and that's fine. But, especially when people are seeking a relationship with a community of faith, they do need some assurance that there is accountability that is meaningful and appropriate." He wishes the All Seasons clergy well, and says this may be "an appropriate way for people who feel unconnected with other denominations to find a new home."