Percy Coffin, bishop of the diocese of Western Newfoundland, will begin his new duties as metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Canada later this month after the current metropolitan Archbishop Claude Miller retires. Archbishop-elect Coffin will be installed in the office on Sept. 18.
Coffin was elected on the second ballot in an electronic vote by provincial synod members at the end of May. With his characteristic self-deprecating humour, he told the Anglican Journal that his initial reaction was “fear and trembling,” but then he said more seriously that it was exciting to see how the election was unfolding. Reached more than a week after his election during a break in a hectic schedule, he said he still feels his election is “a bit overwhelming,” but he added, “I’m a firm believer in calling, and when you have that conviction, there’s a strength that comes with it in the belief that you are sustained in this by God and also by the people you work with.”
It is a challenging time for the seven dioceses in the province, in large part because the church is shrinking drastically in most areas, he said. Anglophone Anglicans have migrated away from Quebec and many rural communities are losing population to urban areas. While the Anglican population in the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, which includes St. John and the economic activity produced by offshore oil, is holding steady or growing, in the diocese of Western Newfoundland it has shrunk by two-thirds, Coffin says, from 37,000 Anglicans in 1977 when the diocese split into three, to under 13,000 now. That drop, he said, is consistent with figures from the last three Statistics Canada census reports, which have shown drops of 12 to 20 per cent in the population of rural communities.
Coffin noted, however, that last year was the only year in recent time where every parish in this diocese paid its assessment, allowing the diocese to pay its apportionment to General Synod. That’s an indication that “the church is still very important to the people who are left,” he said.
In response to the church’s changing situation, Coffin explained that resolutions at recent provincial synods have directed dioceses to re-examine their boundaries and look for ways to share resources. The dioceses of Montreal and Quebec are expected to have discussions, as will Fredericton with Nova Scotia and P.E.I., and the three Newfoundland dioceses. Newfoundland, for example, might revert to the sort of structure it had prior to 1977, he said. “There are some serious implications in those resolutions that would need to happen on the ground in each diocese.”
Aside from outmigration, Coffin noted that the church is also challenged by the fact that faithful Anglicans are aging and dying, and in an increasingly secular society, they are not being replaced by younger generations of Anglicans.
“In Western Newfoundland, I suspect that we have one foot in Christendom and one foot in the 21st century,” he said, recounting a recent conversation with a priest who commented that kids aren’t available for Sunday school on Sunday anymore because they are busy in activities such as figure skating and hockey. “Because it can’t happen on Sundays, it seems that we’ve given up Christian education. I think pitiful is a good way to describe it, for the most part,” Coffin said. “My response to that issue is that Christ came and took us as we are on whatever the day of the week it was he came. Maybe it’s not going to be a Sunday morning or Sunday afternoon,” he said, adding that the church needs to find ways to reach out to people beyond Sunday church services.
Coffin added that more Christian education for adults is also needed. “We are largely a biblically illiterate society. People are just as likely to quote a hymn or Shakespeare, thinking it came from scripture. We don’t know the stories of creation, deliverance, prophecy and salvation, and we have to recover that,” he said.
Coffin’s own faith formation began almost from infancy, he said. Born a few days before Christmas, underweight and struggling, his parents asked the priest to come to their home to baptize him. It was only in recent years when Coffin’s sister told him that a bowl in their mother’s home, which his mother often used to deliver soup to neighbours who fell ill, was, in fact, his baptismal font. “I said I’d like to have that bowl. Mum, who was well into her 90s at this point, said, ‘I’m not finished with it,’ ” he recounts, acknowledging that indeed his mother’s ministry of caring for the sick wasn’t finished. The bowl has since been passed down to him and he says it is a daily reminder of his baptism. He added that Bible stories his parents and grandparents read to him and a pre-school Sunday school class taught by his mother’s cousin, “Aunt Lucy,” were an important part of his Christian education.
He said he first heard a call to ministry as an undergraduate student at Queen’s College in St. John’s. He spoke to the principal of the college at the time, but was told “Young man, I think you’d better give this more thought,” he recalled. At almost the same time, his friend David Torraville, now the bishop of Central Newfoundland, also spoke to the principal but was told to get out of the man’s office, a memory Coffin says the two bishops recently joked about.
In Coffin’s case, time for more reflection “and salt air deprivation” while he spent a year with the medical corp. of the military in Calgary was useful, he said. When he returned to Memorial University and Queen’s College in Newfoundland, he took the calling seriously, finished his undergraduate degree and completed a master of divinity degree. He was serving as a priest in Newfoundland when he met his wife, Monica, with whom he has four children, the last of whom is just graduating from university, he said. The family has lived in Corner Brook for the last 18 years.
Coffin spoke of the value of consultation and fellowship. He has made a habit of leaving his sermon notes on his desk for suggestions and input from Monica, who is also ordained. “I have a wonderful staff around and people available for consultation, and I have regular contact with other bishops for advice and just to converse with,” he said, noting that he appreciates people who challenge his thinking or plans. “It’s always healthy to have people around you who will do that…to make sure you don’t get into hot water. It’s a fellowship I rely on.”
Editor’s note: Several minor corrections have been made to quotes in this article.