Church’s shepherd prepared to take on even bigger flock

Published July 3, 2007

Archbishop Fred Hiltz exchanges pleasantries with a visitor outside a Winnipeg church after his installation as primate (national bishop) of the Anglican Church of Canada.

The image of Jesus as shepherd is one that Archbishop Fred Hiltz particularly loves.

He has committed to memory passages of the Bible referring to Jesus as the shepherd that tends to his flock, leads them to other pastures, and asks his disciples to, in Archbishop Hiltz’ words, “shepherd one another, and together shepherd the world.”

The shepherd is an image that has constantly guided him, so much so that when he was the young, new rector of the historic parish of St. John’s in Lunenburg, N.S., he once incorporated in his liturgy the presence of live sheep that children could pet after the service.

All went well until the farmer came to pick up the sheep and he (Archbishop Hiltz) and his then postulant, Dianne Parker, had to lead them out of the church and dung started dropping on the floor. “As I was cleaning, I remember looking up and seeing him behind me and we started laughing and I told him, ‘you’re going to remember this when you become bishop,” said Archdeacon Parker, now rector of St. Margaret of Scotland and archdeacon of the Chebucto region, diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

On June 22, Archbishop Hiltz was elected primate (national bishop) of the Anglican Church of Canada. It is the top position that makes him the shepherd of a flock that is in many respects, at a crossroads: Canadian Anglicans are not just diminishing in numbers but are also embroiled in a dispute over the issue of whether same-gender unions can be blessed by the church.

Those who know him are confident that Archbishop Hiltz is up to the challenge. “He’s a wonderful pastor. He has a sense of care and concern for your well-being,” said Rev. Randy Townsend, also from Archbishop Hiltz’s former diocese. “It may seem that he’s not saying much, but he’s really listening. He’s also a wonderful mentor.”

At church gatherings, children and people of all ages often gather around him, observed Archdeacon Parker, who has known him for 16 years. “He is so present to everyone in the context of full grace … He draws people unto him and in turn, he draws them into Christ through him.” He will, she said, “touch many people as he has touched us (in his diocese).”

On a personal level, she said he was “a grace-filled shepherd” for her family as they struggled with the illness and later, death of her husband in 2004. “I had moved in with my husband and we made the private room in the hospital into a palliative care unit and he would come late at night, after everyone else had gone,” she recalled. “I referred it to being tucked in prayer because he would come into the room and there would be a low light on and he would be right there and you would see a grace-filled being enter the room. You could sense who it was, you didn’t even have to open your eyes.”

An unassuming, tall man, with brows that seem perpetually furrowed, Archbishop Hiltz is known in church circles for his quiet demeanour. He is not shy, said Mr. Townsend. “He may not be the life of the party, but I wouldn’t call him shy, he’s just a humble man in the true sense of the word.”

Frederick James Hiltz, 53, was raised in Dartmouth, N.S., by parents who were active parishioners at Christ Church. At an early age, he said, he already felt a strong connection to the church. He attended Sunday school, sang in the choir and was an altar server. “I think it was being a server at the altar that really, I began thinking, ‘I’d like to do more here,'” he said. The priests at the church – including Leonard Hatfield, who later become bishop of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island – were a big influence. “I was always impressed by the kind of people they were – their kindness and compassion toward people.”

Still, after high school he pursued a bachelor of science in biology at Dalhousie University, Halifax, and thought about pursuing an education degree. One day, however, he picked up a brochure at the Atlantic School of Theology complex, and thought, “I think I want to check this out.” He became a priest in 1978.

“I’m a great lover of liturgy. Nothing makes me happier than being with the people when we’re gathered at the altar,” he said, when asked to describe himself within the context of the church. “I like liturgy that’s creative (hence, the live sheep) and meaningful. I like services that strike people (and) it becomes a memorable, moving, sacred moment that they can take away.” He strives to be someone who “invites people into conversation” and tries to be “a prayerful presence” to them, he said. “I like to try and raise people’s sights and say, ‘there’s a world out there and we can sometimes get so preoccupied with what’s here, we don’t lift our heads up to see the world that needs to hear Christ’s word.”

His interest in liturgical space has led him to take continuing education courses in architecture. “I love going to places where there’s flexibility in terms of how you can arrange the furniture … It’s fun to kind of play with that and think, ‘how does that enable people’s experience of the sacred in the liturgy?'”

A supporter of same-sex blessings, Archbishop Hiltz acknowledged that media are not off the mark by labelling him a liberal. “Another word that people would use if not liberal is modern,” he said. “I try to have an appreciation of where people are around the issue.” He added: “The driving force within me that pushes me to struggle with the issue is pastoral care. And the two questions that keep coming back to me are what were referred to in the 1998 Lambeth Conference: ‘What constitutes loving and responsible pastoral care for gays and lesbians? Can we see in their relationships the working of God’s grace?”

Outside the church, Archbishop Hiltz and his wife, Lynne, enjoy gardening. She tends to the vegetables and he, the flowers. Their son, Nathan, is a jazz musician in Toronto.

Woodworking is in his blood, Archbishop Hiltz said, recalling that his father, Fred, “could do anything with his hands.” In recent years, the archbishop has made it a point to go away on an annual retreat – often at the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine in Montreal. “I join the daily eucharist, read, walk, pray quietly and just enjoy the silence. It’s so refreshing just to get away from it all.”

It is a ritual that he intends to keep, although on a different scale. He has already asked the sisters of the same order in Toronto if they would welcome him for one day a month – noon to noon – when he formally assumes office this summer and bears the huge responsibilities that come with being a shepherd of people.


  • 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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