ALMOST 60 years ago, a young priest, Bill Wright, having completed a two-year curacy at Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa, was making his farewells to the dean, a gracious priest of great wisdom and pastoral experience.
He said to the dean that there was no way he could adequately thank him for all that he had received and learned during his time at the cathedral, or repay all the kindness that the dean had shown him.
The dean responded, “You are quite right. There is no way you can adequately thank me because you are not supposed to. The way you ‘thank’ me is the way you some day welcome and teach and treat a priest who will be your assistant.”
And 20 years later an assistant was saying goodbye to, and thanking, Bill Wright in exactly the same terms as Bill had thanked the dean. So Bill repeated the dean’s message.
What makes the story fascinating for me is that the dean in question was Howard Clark, who eventually became the ninth primate of the Anglican Church of Canada (and the first to occupy the office as a full-time position).
And the assistant to whom Bill told the story was myself, the eleventh primate.
I knew Howard Clark well – he was my diocesan bishop in Winnipeg – and we had many direct connections. But the most important connection is this indirect one through Bill Wright.
This year Anglican Video will release a presentation from the Primate’s Commission on Evangelism entitled Paying it Forward.
The title comes from a movie called Pay it Forward, the story of a junior high student who turns a system around by refusing to accept the principle of “paying things back” but urges the principle of responding to favours by “paying them forward” to others who may not even know why this good thing is happening to them.
This month I will go to a parish, St. James, Vancouver, to give thanks that 50 years ago I, as a university student and a lapsed Anglican, was invited by some friends to that parish to rediscover the church, the faith, and the person of Jesus. And I will thank them for all they gave me.
But the challenge of the video from the Evangelism Commission is that we not spend our time solely in giving thanks for what we have received, but that we share what we have received with others as it has been shared with us.
Our churches are full of people who are deeply grateful for all that the Gospel and the community of the church means to them, but who cannot find it in them to actually invite someone else to share in it.
The Evangelism Commission was formed to respond to the call of the Lambeth bishops in 1988 for a decade of concentrated effort in evangelism, and it is certain that attitudes towards “the E-word” as we called it 10 years ago have changed during that time. And it is time to bring that specific task to an end, and to move on.
What better way to move on than to set our feet on the long path towards the time ahead when we can be characterized as a church best known for “paying it forward.”
Archbishop Michael Peers is primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.