Church with a warranty

Vincent Lam, Toronto Star
September 3, 2006

M y church, St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, isn't in a field. It's wedged in at Bellevue and College Sts., flanked by streetcar tracks, a firehouse, and the busy walkways that stream in and out of Kensington Market. When snow falls, the church's brazen red double doors open to shelter the homeless from the cold. Sunday morning breakfasts are served for anyone who would like to partake.

My wife and I found St. Stephen in the spring of 2004. Our previous cash-strapped church had closed, and we were searching for a place to pray. For several months we wandered in the wilderness of the houses of God. It's surprisingly hard to find a church that "fits," even if you're already a Christian. Sampling churches is like having a blind date every Sunday morning — it's awkward, and it would be easier just to stay at home, but how can you meet "the one" unless you go out? We visited churches that, for our taste, were too interested in icons and symbols, others that we felt lacked sufficient attention to scripture. We attended churches where everyone's handshakes seemed too enthusiastic, and some where no one seemed to speak much to each other or to visitors. Our hope was to find a church where we felt at home, yet challenged. We are modern church-goers; faithful, critical, and hard to please.

At St. Stephen, the congregation's commentary upon sermons often rivalled the sermon itself in length. The dogs who attended mass were impeccably behaved. Moments of reflection were signalled by the resonant cry of a Tibetan prayer gong which faded into a sublime silence. The church's French, English, and Spanish congregations matched the immigrant and refugee kaleidoscope it served. The incumbent pastor, Kevin Flynn, was thoughtful and genuine, and had an interest in the application of yoga to prayer. No one looked twice if someone attended in a cowboy hat and sunglasses, yet communion was honoured by the formal Anglican ceremony of prayer with incense swung from the censer.

We told Flynn about the demise of our previous church. He warned us that St. Stephen was threatened with closure, that the Anglican Diocese of Toronto did not feel it was pulling its financial weight. Flynn also observed that the church had faced this threat recurrently over its century and a half of existence, was once burned to the ground, was rebuilt, and it was still there. So we stayed, suitably warned of its threatened closure, and deciding that we would have faith in God's will for the church.

The official dedication is Church of the Holy Martyr, St. Stephen. In 1857, Robert Denison commissioned it to be built on his family's estate, at a time when College St. went only as far as University Ave., beyond which there lay a dirt road. The church was intended for the working class Torontonians who lived on what were then the outskirts of town. St. Stephen was penned by Thomas Fuller, who soon designed the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. It was constructed in the middle of fields, its Gothic buttresses and open bell tower the most solid elements of the wind-blown, grassy landscape. I suspect it acquired the name "in the Fields" as a convenience of description. One might have given directions to it saying "... along a foot path beyond University Avenue is St. Stephen, in the fields..." Names stick because they fit.

It still has the name, St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, although the fields in which it first stood have long since been swallowed into the heart of a city. To the south of the church, the sidewalks of Kensington Market are squeezed narrow by overflowing produce stands, and the streets surge and ripple with people and bicycles. The north gables of the church peer toward the heavy book-shelved houses of the Annex, shaded beneath their branches of oak and maple. The view to the west, from the bell tower, is Little Italy and Little Portugal, once the peripheral laneways of working-class Toronto, though each year transforms this quarter into something yet-more-hip. To the east, if one peers through the delicate stained-glass windows of the church's soaring sanctuary, one's gaze winds through Chinatown and toward the upward ambitions of the financial district. The towers of downtown punctuate the sky — as if their glass and metal exclamation marks seek to reach heaven.

The two years we have attended St. Stephen-in-the-Fields have been both wonderful and difficult. My son was baptized at our church, our spiritual home. Before walking, he learned to crawl up the steps ascending to the church's mezzanine. Meanwhile, the financial debates facing St. Stephen have placed it in bitter confrontation with the Anglican Diocese of Toronto. It's harder to worship when someone wants to close my place of worship. However, it forces me to scrutinize my faith, and spurs the discovery of things both difficult and true. We have made friends at the church, and seen some of them leave. Meanwhile, new faces often wander in, much as we did.

St. Stephen's website offers a warranty on usage. First, it admits, "Many people are attracted to Christ; it's Christians who give them trouble." It promises not to tell people how to dress, act or feel. It goes on to say, "We promise to nourish the hunger and hope that are in us all. If we breach this promise, you are entitled to reclaim your misgivings about 'organized religion.'" Our time at the church has convinced us this is a true warranty.

We worship because we desire a connection with the sacred. We seek an earthly place to act as a conduit, hoping it will both draw us toward itself and shield us from some of the compromises of the rest of the world.

To fulfill this role, I realize I've always looked for a church in the fields. St. Stephen, once on the rural fringes of a colonial town, is now in the centre of a swirling metropolis. Yet, it stands in the fields of my inner landscape, where I've always wanted a church to be. In this mental geography, it remains intact despite changes of season, weather and politics. It is visible from a distance, so that if I glance over, I am reminded of it. To get to it, I must walk through the grasses, the building growing slowly as I approach.

Even if I wander away, it peers at me, reminds me that it waits patiently for my return. It is my church in the fields, patiently allowing its landscape and circumstances to change and shift, yet holding its ground.