Archbishop Clarke to retire in April

Published March 31, 2009

Archbishop John Clarke

After 45 years of church ministry, 17 of them as bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada, Archbishop John Clarke, 70, says in jest that he is now “being put out to pasture,” effective April 30, the date he has set for his retirement.

His folksy nature is what one immediately notices about Archbishop Clarke, bishop of the diocese of Athabasca and former Metropolitan (senior bishop) of the ecclesiastical province of Rupert’s Land. He likes to crack jokes and tell stories of his misadventures to make people feel at ease. Yet, he is extremely serious when discussing what his job has been all about – focusing on “the servanthood ministry of our Lord Jesus” and encouraging people “to take ownership” of their church.

Originally from Moose Factory on James Bay, Ont., Archbishop Clarke was ordained a deacon in the diocese of Moosonee in 1963 and a priest in 1964. He spent two years as curate of St. Michael and All Angels in Toronto and, despite invitations to stay and make his mark in an urban area where the pay was higher, the distance more manageable and the terrain, tamer, he headed back north where he felt he was needed.

He spent 18 years – from 1966 to 1984 – in the diocese of Moosonee, becoming canon at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Timmins, Ont., and regional dean of James Bay in 1968, holding both positions until 1984.

“I was very involved in the community of Moosonee. I was part of the construction of the James Bay Education Centre and the first high school on James Bay because I really believe that education is the key in the north,” said Archbisop Clarke in a telephone interview. “Having been sent away from Moose Factory when I was 10 years old for a year at a residential school, I made a promise to my wife that we would not send our children away from home to go to school.”

The construction of the centre and high school “gave local inhabitants the opportunity to take their rightful place in the development of their communities,” he said in a written account of his ministry. “Young graduates became social workers, plumbers, electricians, nurses, etc. Previously, all skilled trades and professions were imported from the south.”

In 1984, he felt called by the west, and moved his family to become archdeacon for the diocese of Athabasca in Peace River, Alta. In October 1991, he became its bishop.

His years as bishop and, in 2003, as metropolitan, have been “very challenging” and “very rewarding,” he said.

As metropolitan, “I saw a part of the church that was a real privilege to see, and that was the wider church from outside our own diocese,” said Archbishop Clarke. “I’ve been absolutely thrilled with what I’ve seen and witnessed, especially in the diocese of the Arctic, where the church has real meaning, and faith is a real issue. It’s a living faith, and I firmly believe that the southern urban centres can learn a lot from the faith and witness of the people in the north.” He added, “They’ve a lot to teach us, they really do. It’s not easy living in some of these remote areas but they do so with a great zest for life, great humour, and that is essential to what we are as a Christian community. We need to laugh a lot more and we need to try and find some way that we can accommodate differences.”

In the diocese of Athabasca, which has 33 congregations scattered around an area covering more than 317,000 square km., encouraging people to “take ownership” of the church and moving away from “paternalism” were his biggest challenges, he said.

“As a dear old fellow in northern Quebec – a couple of summers ago – reminded me, in a place called Chisasibi, ‘Johnny, the paternalism of the past is over and it needs to be left in the past. This is a new day.’ I quite agree with that, but that’s the challenge,” he said. “How do we become a new day without following the paternalism that was very much a part of the Anglican church?” He added, “Paternalism is a killer – it kills initiative, it develops dependency and dependency kills. It doesn’t build.”

Over the course of several meetings, parish gatherings and, later, a conference, he said that the diocese of Athabasca has been able to “turn the page” and develop three principles “essential for the future of the church – self-support, self-governance and self- evangelism.”

The three principles “are to be kept in balance,” he said. “It’s a question of people taking ownership of who they are in God’s image and it has made a tremendous difference in our diocese where people are saying – instead of the old paternalistic church – ‘Well, the synod office will pay for it or the national church will pay for it’ – ‘how can we be the church with what we’ve got?'”

There have been successes. He mentioned how small, rural communities built their own parish halls and rectories, and ordained deacons have been raised up in multi-point parishes. “Our multi-point parishes are not St. Mark’s on the corner of First and Second streets. Our parishes are St. Andrew’s, St. Paul’s, and about four others separated by a good two-and-a-half hours of driving,” said Archbishop Clarke. “So we need to look at searching out people with special gifts that will commit themselves to the non-transitional deaconate where they’re working in conjunction with the priest and lay leadership in a parish grouping and continue to develop the church life. Not unlike many other communities, a lot of our communities have very little contact with the church.”
The church’s mission field, he stressed, “is no longer the far north. It’s no longer Africa. It’s no longer the Far East. The mission field is right here in our communities.”

He said one of the Anglican church’s major challenges is “to reach out to those people,” adding, “That’s going to take some doing because there are some communities that get very comfortable in their smallness and to have other people intrude into their space is difficult.”

Archbishop Clarke cites unity as another challenge. “I get disturbed when I see division because I think unity is important. I think inclusion also is important in that unity…,” he said. He expressed the hope that the Anglican Church of Canada, which has been struggling with the issue of same-sex blessings, will remain one. “I hope they (churches) don’t break up because, if they do, it’s a denial of our history. We’ve lived with division. In fact, in the city of Toronto, we built one college on one side of the street and another on the other side of the street,” he said, referring to Trinity and Wycliffe colleges. “And all across Canada, we’ve built an Anglo-Catholic parish in one corner, and an evangelical parish in another, and yet we’ve found the graciousness to be together as a family. I still think that’s possible.”

Archbishop Clarke and his wife, Nadia, have built their retirement home in Peace River and, while he plans to “make myself available to bishops or clergy in any way that I can,” he plans to spend more time with his family. “We’re looking forward to a little slower pace and taking some holidays. I haven’t been good at taking holidays. Now it’s time,” he said.

He also plans to pursue his lifelong hobby – woodworking. “I’ve built or rebuilt quite a number of buildings in my ministry on James Bay, and even here, I’ve rebuilt the bishop’s lodge in Peace River,” he said. “One of the things I really pushed for in my new house is a decent-sized garage that’s heated. So, I’ve got my workshop in my garage – as my wife calls it, my office.”

Still the transition will take some getting used to. “There’s a lot of stuff I’m going to miss: I love going to congregations, whether it’s confirmation or just a parish visit. The people in the congregations need bishops far more than we sometimes recognize,” he said. “And they give you so much courage and strength it’s sort of a life-sustaining experience.”


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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