Bishop Michael Bird does not, at first glance, strike one as being a fighter. His blue eyes are often downcast and his stature is unimposing. When he speaks, his voice is gentle. But Bird, bishop of Niagara since 2008, has seen his diocese through some of its most embattled years.
“He’s very unassuming…He’s got a wonderful, pastoral heart, and a lot of people…don’t anticipate that he has this strength in him,” said the Rev. Sharyn Hall, who has worked alongside Bird since his time as a parish priest at St. Cuthbert’s, in Oakville, Ont.
Rob Welch, the chancellor of the diocese, put it in slightly more colourful terms. “He has an iron hand, but in a velvet glove,” he said, “and I mean that in a very positive way.”
Elected in June 2007 as a co-adjutor bishop and consecrated later that year, Bird succeeded Bishop Ralph Spence as diocesan bishop the following March. At that time, simmering tensions between conservatives and liberals over the place of gay and lesbian Christians in the church had been brought to a boil by the diocese’s decision to go ahead with the blessing of same-sex marriages.
“Just prior to my becoming bishop, three parishes voted to walk away from the diocese of Niagara,” Bird said in an interview with the Anglican Journal. “There was a subsequent fourth one some months after…that.” What he needed to do, he said, was to draw “a good group of people around the episcopal office.”
Protracted and sometimes rancorous legal battles over the ownership of properties followed. The costs of these battles—which Bird said ran upwards of $1 million—were compounded by the recession of 2008, which drove the diocese into serious financial difficulties.
“Finances were an issue,” admitted Bird. “I formed a bishop’s financial task force, and that group met over the course of the year and came back with some pretty serious recommendations about what we needed to do.”
According to Joanna Beck, the diocese’s treasurer and director of finance, many of these recommendations involved selling or more efficiently managing properties and a process of “line by line tackling the budget and saying: what do we need, what do we not need, how can we reduce it?”
Over the past few years, said Bird, “we’ve been able through a number of different ways to basically climb out of that hole, and the financial picture of the diocese is pretty stable.” [INSERT LINK: https://anglicanjournal.com/articles/diocese-of-niagara-cautiously-optimistic-about-future]
Despite Bird’s willingness to play ecclesiastical hardball, the Rev. Bill Mous, director of justice, community and global ministries with the diocese since 2011, said that the bishop’s overall leadership style is first and foremost collaborative. He seeks as much as possible within the confines of his office to engage others in decision making.”
This more consultative form of leadership has been reflected in other areas during Bird’s episcopacy, according to diocesan leaders. Shortly after becoming bishop, Bird held 22 gatherings across the diocese in which he invited Anglicans to share “their hopes…their dreams…their faith stories.” From these meetings, he gathered leaders from across the diocese to create a “definable vision.”
One major outcome of these consultations was a vision of the diocese as being a five-petal flower that emphasizes a “continuous culture of innovation,” “prophetic social justice making,” “generous culture of stewardship,” “life-changing worship” and “outstanding leadership for ministry.”
The diocese then attached a leadership team to each area. “One of the things that I heard loud and clear when we first began the process of developing the vision was that for a long time we’ve gotten things up in news print and we’ve had gatherings where people share their ideas…but we never seem to be able to get to the next level,” Bird said. “So that’s why we put these leadership teams in place to help us stay focused on the vision.”
He noted that this approach has, so far, led to greater accountability, and a “very successful” integration of the vision into the life of the diocese.
While Bird believes strongly that the church is “not just a social service agency or club,” he also feels a deep personal connection to the diocese’s social justice work.
“My grandfather was an orphan in England,” he said, “and his father was blind and played a violin on the street corners of London to try and support his family. That story has been a very powerful one for me—it’s a story I only really connected with around the time I became a bishop.”
Working out of Cathedral Place in downtown Hamilton, a neighbourhood that, as he put it, “has some of the worst poverty statistics in the country,” moved Bird to think seriously about how his own story connected with the mission of the church.
“There was an overwhelming feeling when I first came to that office that this was going to be a significant part of my episcopal ministry,” he said. “There is a very strong gospel mandate to the voice of the voiceless and to reach out to those who are marginalized. So, particularly given my own family background, I find it a powerful lens through which I read the scriptures, and connect and embrace the life of Jesus and the presence of the risen Christ.”
With the diocese achieving a level of stability it has not seen in close to a decade, Bird now has a greater degree of freedom to see what this could look like. He has already taken some concrete steps—such as implementing a living-wage policy at the Niagara synod office and spearheading a drive to sponsor dozens of refugees to celebrate the diocese’s 140th anniversary.
For its part, the team that Bird has led through the hard times expressed confidence that he isn’t about to slow down.