Interview with The Rt. Rev. Tom Corston (Bishop of Moosonee, Retd)
Council of the North Communications(CNC): Tell us about the changes that are taking place in Moosonee.
Tom Corston(TC): The diocese over the last few years has started to see some difficult changes, mostly brought about by the economic situation in the one-industry towns in the southern part of the diocese and the church has struggled because of that. You know, if the industry dies, the community struggles. So the church has been struggling along with it. And shortly after I became bishop, we realized that while we had a lot of finances tied up in investments, we didn’t have the necessary funds to keep us going—without doing some desperate restructuring.
CNC: What did that look like?
TC: So we developed what we call a “Vision Quest team” and we looked at different avenues, which ways we could go and how could we guarantee the future of the diocese beyond. And what we came up with was to create out of the diocese a mission district that would remain exactly the same as far as the physical boundaries were concerned, as far as the Church was concerned, and the ministry of the Church in the diocese—but that the administration would change. The ecclesiastical province of Ontario would take it over; the Archbishop would be the bishop in charge;…the synod office would basically change or shut down and we’d have a part-time priest/administrator, part-time book keeper and they will do the administration of the diocese. The Archbishop will be the episcopal overseer and then there’ll be an episcopal visitor who will do the confirmations, the ordinations, and do the travelling.
CNC: Do you know who that will be?
TC: That could be any bishop in Ontario, but for the time being, I’ve agreed to stay on in that capacity because I can do it from home—and I can travel in the good weather. So we’ve got it all worked out so that when I’m gone, it should just roll over into the new entity.
CNC: Is your diocese comprised mainly of indigenous people/parishes?
TC: The diocese is basically divided into two: the southern half of the diocese is for the most part non-indigenous, one-industry (pulp and paper, mining industry towns) and while there are indigenous people in every congregation, it’s basically a non-indigenous part of the diocese. And then the northern part of the diocese and on into Quebec, around the James Bay and inland Quebec, are all very strong indigenous communities. And they are quite different, of course in culture, but also in ministry. They are very active parishes, very big parishes, and lots of future, lots of building going on. So there’s a striking contrast.
CNC: How will the coming structural changes affect the parishes?
TC: Ministry stays exactly the same. You know, there have been places in the southern part of the diocese where we’ve had to actually deconsecrate churches and close out congregations, but mostly very tiny ones—either just a handful left or, in a couple of cases, nobody left. While we have smaller numbers of clergy, since I’ve become bishop we’ve developed a new program of raising up local leadership—people in their own communities–to carry on in an ordained capacity, in a non-stipendiary capacity. And I’ve ordained 3 people in that already, who were basically already working toward it and I have 2 more this summer that are being raised up locally and have had enough training. And there’s a commitment on their part to continue with training as they go forward.
CNC: How significant is it to maintain an Anglican presence in the parishes or communities of Moosonee?
TC: In many of our communities, the Anglican Church is the only church presence there is. It’s interesting that on the Quebec side of our diocese, most of our parishes don’t have a Roman Catholic community in them, which is quite interesting in Quebec. And we have in every community now, pretty well, a Pentecostal presence. But in some communities, the Pentecostal church has grown and has really affected us; but in a lot of them, we work in partnership now and they haven’t affected the Anglican Church to a great extent. So that’s been good. And so for many of our communities, particularly the indigenous communities, they would be devastated if there were no Anglican presence.
CNC: Seeing what’s happening in Keewatin with the creation of a northern, indigenous diocese, can you see something similar happening in Moosonee?
TC: There is a movement afoot—it isn’t very strong in our diocese at this point—but there is a movement afoot with some of our indigenous leaders that they would like to see an indigenous diocese in that part of the James Bay area. I have one parish that is very strong and has developed a group of people who are adamant that this is what they want to do. I have tried to help them to enter into the process properly but they’re not ready yet to move forward….
And while that has presented itself formally at our synod and at the James Bay Deanery gatherings when it comes right to a vote–it’s the indigenous people that always carry the vote (there’s more of them)—they have been very emphatic in our diocese: “No, we don’t want an indigenous diocese, our grandfathers created this diocese with the bishops and so we will remain as a family.”
CNC: How will the economic situation, demographics, etc. play into that movement?
TC: I’m concerned that if the southern end of the diocese does start to diminish, you know, that the northern part of the diocese, the aboriginal communities, will end up being on their own. And at that point, I think there probably will be strong leaders that will say, “We’re on our own now.” But it takes a lot of resources, a lot of teaching, a lot of money…the northern Keewatin situation didn’t happen without a lot of commitment, a lot of money. And one of the things that northern Keewatin has is that all of Bp. Lydia’s clergy are non-stipendiary. And the communities in the Diocese of Moosonee, our indigenous communities, while they may be subsidized heavily by the Council of the North, they are still stipendiary clergy. So that’s a whole mindset to get through. And on our Quebec side—well, even all around the James Bay side of our diocese–these are large parishes. And there’s not a lot of people that want to do all of that ministry, with what goes into ministry in the native communities [without pay]…. There used to be a time when we had elder clergy–who basically lived on the land–and they were non-stipendiary. But we’re raising up people now who are college or university educated, and they’re not going to work for nothing. And they can choose to go South and most of them are very educated leaders in their communities, so it’s quite different today. So who knows? We’ll see what happens.
CNC: It seems you’re retiring at a very interesting time, possibly with some changes on the horizon.
TC: It’s an exciting ministry, and I love it, and retirement is coming and part of me thinks, “You know, I’m going to miss it all.” But I see that we have done all that we can in our restructuring work and I believe that if we have done all correctly, I need to step aside and allow it to happen. The Diocese has the right to reverse the decision and ask the Archbishop to allow them to elect a new Bishop and that gives them some sense of hope that they are in charge of the process. But, for now, everyone is of the same mind to suspend the Diocese for the next few years to get it on a more sure footing. I have good hope that it’s going to be a good few years.