Since its founding in 1888, the congregation of Cumberland United Church has been central to the life of the village, contributing to the moral and spiritual fibre of the community, providing a central meeting place for the village, and supporting local families through their touchstone celebrations and sorrows.
Through the years, the congregation has reflected changes both in the church and in the broader society.
Originally established by the Presbyterian Church to provide a house of worship for the early miners in what was then the Union Mines coal operation, the Cumberland congregation became a United Church shortly after Church Union in 1925.
The congregation stood alongside local residents through the difficult years of the Depression, sandwiched between two world wars. Then, in post-war prosperity and the early baby boom years of the 1950s, the congregation shared in the heyday experienced by so many denominations across North America.
When counter-cultural winds began to blow in the 1960s, the United Church made controversial and courageous choices that led to its signature place at the forefront of social change across Canada.
With such choices also came the disaffection of some members. That, along with the general trend of declining attendance throughout mainline churches since the late 20th century, has left its impact on Cumberland United as well.
Still today, the landmark church stands proudly at the corner of First and Penrith — with its pipe organ that remains unique to the Valley — but with dwindling membership that struggles to maintain its building and to fund a half-time minister.
Yet, despite its challenges, the congregation perseveres in faith.
Every Sunday morning at 11 o’clock, the bell rings to call villagers to worship just as it has done for generations. The choir, under the able leadership of Eve Mark, leads the congregation’s praise. The Sunday School welcomes and nurtures energetic and delightful children each week.
On Saturday mornings at 10, the bell rings again to call neighbours to meditation. And throughout the week, the community continues to find the building a good place to gather for important community events and for many concerts and cultural presentations.
Just as significantly, the people of the congregation live out their faith beyond the walls of the church building, caring for neighbours in need, taking responsibility for the well-being of the community and the environment, and standing at the forefront of the issues that challenge and shape the character of contemporary society locally, across Canada, and around the globe.
Right now is a particular time of change for the congregation. At the end of 2012, the Rev. Julianne Kasmer resigned her position as Minister of Cumberland United Church to answer a call to become chaplain at the Our Place Outreach Ministry in Victoria.
While the congregation regroups and searches for her replacement, Rev. Ted Hicks is providing transitional ministry for the congregation to ensure the continuity of pastoral services and to help the congregation re-imagine its future.
Hicks brings a wide range of experience to help lead the congregation through this period, including hospital chaplaincy, congregational ministries across Western Canada, and streetfront ministries in the inner city cores of Winnipeg and Washington, D.C.
Recently retired as the minister of Comox Valley Presbyterian Church, he has continued to be active locally as a workshop and retreat leader, spiritual director, columnist, and community volunteer.
Part of Rev. Hicks’ background is in interim ministry, helping congregations through trauma and transition. Although his work with Cumberland United is not officially an interim appointment, he sees his experience in this field as helpful.
“Cumberland United has an inner spirit and an eclectic mix of people that belie its outward appearance as a declining congregation in an older building.
“In fact,” he says, “in changing times within the church and society, smaller congregations will be where the real action is, well placed to let go of outmoded institutional structures and traditions and to recover some of the vision and energy of the original church in the time of Jesus and the Apostles.”
Comments Linda Safford, a Cumberland resident and current secretary of the Church Council, “I am encouraged by what is happening here. We hope others in the village and the Valley will catch the vision, join in, and help us continue to provide a caring fellowship for our members and a vital outreach in the community.”
— Cumberland United Church