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On the Dock of the Bay

Cottage area churches often lack a minister, electricity, road access and denominational affiliation But in `God's country,' surrounded by nature, people tend to feel more spiritual, writes Alex Newman

On any given summer Sunday in Muskoka, the Thousand Islands or Kawarthas, cottagers head out, often by boat, to worship God in quaint wooden churches or from their boats drifting in the ripples of a bay.

Andrew Wagner-Chazalon in his book Muskoka Traditions estimates at least a dozen churches operate summers only in the Muskoka region alone. Built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they have a history as old as the cottages.

Many have no minister, electricity, or road access. In most cases, they have no denominational affiliation, are entirely lay run, and are open for just four months of the year. It's a wonder they're still in "business."

Jonathan Hoskin oversees six churches among his duties as interim incumbent of the Anglican Parish of the Muskoka Lakes, four of which are open only in the summer. He says part of what keeps the churches going is family tradition. Cottage properties, unlike city homes, tend to be passed down through generations. And so do the traditions that go with them.

"When grown children come back to the cottage," explains Hoskin, "they start bringing their own kids to church."

Barbara Black and her family spend whole summers at the cottage and attend 120-year-old Church of the Kettles on Lake Muskoka, near Port Carling, where she was baptized and married just as her parents were. She's also the president of the cottagers' association that leases space from the church.

Caroline Pratt vacations and worships in the Thousand Islands close to Kingston just as her family has for 130 years.

And attendance at summer-only churches is slowly inching up — as many as 90 attend Bannockburn's rustic wood church near Bala, and at Church of the Kettles, benches outside often have to handle overflow. St Peter's on the Rock, a quaint white wood church situation between Hell's Gate and Devil's Elbow on Stoney Lake in the Kawarthas, regularly packs people in.

Some may come out of curiosity, especially when it's a unique service like Half Moon Bay's. Perched on a stone outcropping near Gananoque, the church boasts only a platform, lectern and a few stacking chairs.

And yet every Sunday afternoon in July and August, anywhere from 40 to 60 people arrive in powerboats, rowboats, kayaks, canoes and dinghies from sailboats and cruisers as they have since services started there in 1887. They raft their boats together, sing hymns, say prayers and listen to speakers.

Still others go because they are committed Christians who see summer worship as a natural continuation of their regular walk in faith.

Jim Gilmore, on the board for Bannockburn church, goes to a United Methodist church when he's in Florida, and Bala United in the shoulder seasons. And Pratt is as devout an Anglican at her home parish in Gananoque as she is at Half Moon Bay.

But ties to tradition are only part of it. Black, whose city church attendance is spotty, says: "There's a different feeling here. It's more casual. I feel closer to nature than I do in the city, and there's something transcendent and spiritual. I guess it's closer to God."

Hoskin, too, admits "there's something about cottage country that fills people with a sense of awe." In his many conversations, the term "God's country" often comes up. "I don't believe they're just saying that. There's something deeper that moves them spiritually."

The church buildings — cottage-like, rustic and without embellishment — may help foster that feeling.

The 83-year-old Bannockburn church, Gilmore says "is beautiful and simple, with original fir-lined walls and Petromax lamps hanging from wood beams."

Communicants must pass consecrated bread and wine cups from boat to boat

St Peter's on the Rock, built in 1914, looks out over the lake from large windows framed with white shutters.

As simple as they may be, the churches don't run themselves. Without denominational connections, the grunt work usually falls to a volunteer board, whose members are responsible for everything from finding ministers and musicians to organizing programs and maintenance.

Church members painted the Kettles church inside and out this year. "Some things we have to hire out for," says board chair John Lawson, like the 60-foot arm of the dock that needed replacing. For a church dependent on water traffic to bring its adherents, dock maintenance is as important as having a minister for Sunday service.

At Half Moon Bay, Pratt is responsible for scheduling ministers. Although she inherited a list of willing visiting clergy, she's also always on the lookout for new ones.

Most follow the standard order of service — hymns, lectionary scripture readings, prayers of the people, homily — making adjustments where they like. Some even attempt communion — no mean feat considering communicants must pass consecrated bread and wine cups from boat to boat.

Pratt's only directive is the length of the homily. "I ask that they stick to 10 minutes because sitting in boats isn't all that comfortable," she says.

Arranging for musicians is another task for the board and one they feel crucial to keep people coming back. Although Lawson does his part to keep numbers buoyant by doing pick-ups at nearby Mortimer's Point with his barge, he confesses, "one of the attractions of any church is its music."

The Kettles pays church member and professional musician Frances Hayter a small honorarium for playing keyboard. Half Moon Bay hired a professional church organist from Kingston and Gilmore says musicians are arranged as long as a year in advance at Bannockburn — composer Norman Nurmi is a member and his hymn titled Bannockburn is a hit.

There are some unexpected fringe benefits to the music program at Half Moon Bay. Dogs attend because owners don't wish to leave them alone. "Usually they're quiet," Pratt says. "But when the hymns start, it gets the birds singing, then the dogs get going, too."

One sure sign of a church's health is the number of kids who attend. At a recent St Peter's on the Rock service, kids in life jackets outnumbered adults.

Lawson reports healthy numbers at the Kettles. His wife, Ruth, has a craft and story program at the dock for when "they get too wiggly."

Recently, one parishioner told Gilmore her children jumped on the bed to wake her up, saying they wanted to get over to the Bannockburn Sunday School. "I guess we're doing something right."

One of the real strengths of the lakeside churches is ecumenical co-operation, says Gilmore, who was an agricultural missionary and UN development worker in India for 26 years and worked alongside people of many faiths.

The ministers range from Presbyterian to Pentecostal, and that's a "good thing," says the 79-year-old Gilmore. "The pastors bring diversity and we're getting along very well. When there's work to do, you don't have time to be splitting hairs over doctrine."

Another benefit of ecumenism, adds Pratt, is the low-key atmosphere — a great way for non-churchgoers to get a taste of church without the pressure of commitment.

"We gave those coming who don't seem to have a church connection, and those who come because they want to hear a particular speaker. But when they go away, everyone says it's a unique way to worship — in a beautiful natural setting, close to nature, and close to God."

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