British priests drawn to far north

Published May 1, 2001

AFTER AN AD in the Anglican Journal seeking priests did not pay off, the diocese of the Arctic decided to go further afield and in 1999 ran ads in two British newspapers – Church of England News and Church Times.

This time, the diocese struck gold. Two British priests, brimming with enthusiasm for the adventure of the Canadian North, have arrived to start their new positions in Arctic parishes after over a year of interviews and immigration procedures.

Rev. Malcolm Palmer, 54, worked as chaplain to HM Prison Blakenhurst in Worcestershire, U.K. He was ordained in 1983 and he and his wife Ruth will be at St. Andrew’s church in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, at the end of June. Mr. and Mrs. Palmer are spending time with Bishop Larry Robertson in Inuvik, who is teaching Mr. Palmer to speak Inuktitut, the language of the indigenous Inuit people.

Rev. Ann Bush, 53, also came from prison chaplaincy, but in London. The two priests did not know one another before they separately answered the ads to take up parishes in the north. Ms. Bush was born in South Africa but raised and educated in Kenya. She moved to England at the age of 17 to become an air traffic controller.

In 1990 Ms. Bush began training for the priesthood at Oxford Ministry College and was ordained in 1994. She and her husband Gordon will be joining St. John’s church in Fort Smith, N.W.T.

Mr. Palmer said that after 11 years of prison chaplaincy he began to feel dissatisfied. “I discussed it with my wife, and we began to look at ads for parish work in England. There were lots, and I would go ahead and fill out the application and everything,” he said in an interview.

“Every time I got to the post box something said ‘no’, and I wouldn’t mail it. Nearly drove my wife crazy.” This went on for about a year, Mr. Palmer said, until he spotted the ad for the Arctic. “When I saw the words ‘step out in faith’ I knew,” he said. “I cut out the ad and slipped it under the altar cloth and waited for a weekend before I told my wife. When I mentioned Canada she got very excited. Explaining that it was close to the Arctic Circle took a little more doing.” Mrs. Palmer has bought herself a sewing machine and is eager to learn how to sew native clothing, he added. “We love it here,” he added. “It’s absolutely gorgeous and we are amazed by the midnight sun.”

Both priests said they have found the north to be very beautiful. “I longed for wide open spaces,” said Ms. Bush. “When we read the ads there was a big resounding ‘yes’ in our hearts to this ministry.” Her British husband, who worked for Air Canada in England, went to college in Saskatoon before returning to England. He hopes to find a job at the Fort Smith airport, Ms. Bush added. “He was very keen to come back, too,” Ms. Bush said. “We feel very privileged to be here.”

The “more simplistic way of life” was the attraction for Mr. Palmer and his wife, he said. “We describe ourselves as two orphans because we have no children and no family left in England. This gives us great freedom,” he said.

Asked how he was making out with the language lessons, Mr. Palmer chuckled and said in his thick Cumberland accent, “Not very well. And they can’t understand my English, either.” He wants to be able to conduct a service in Inuktitut by the end of June, he noted.

Most of his new congregation are Inuit. “As a sign of respect, I need to learn some of the language,” Mr. Palmer noted.

Ms. Bush said that the congregation at Fort Smith has dwindled, and she plans to do a lot of listening and supporting at first. “They kept it going without a priest for a long time, and they need to be loved and encouraged. I want to look at their needs. I haven’t come with any great mandate. “


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