Crusading Anglican archbishop spearheaded ordination of women

Archbishop David Somerville Photo: Vancouver School of Theology Archives
Archbishop David Somerville Photo: Vancouver School of Theology Archives
Published September 1, 2011

Archbishop David Somerville, known to many as a crusading archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada, died on July 25. He was 95.

Archbishop Somerville was an iconoclast who spearheaded the ordination of women in the Anglican church, advocated for children to receive Holy Communion and campaigned for the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church. He was a highly respected progressive who firmly believed that to become relevant, the church must immerse itself in the lives of people, especially the less fortunate.

Born in Ashcroft, B.C., Archbishop Somerville became a priest in 1940, at the age of 24. He attended the University of British Columbia’s Anglican Theological College, forerunner of the Vancouver School of Theology (VST), where he earned a BA in 1937 and a Licentiate in Theology in 1939.

He worked for 11 years at Vancouver’s inner-city parish of St. James, where he encouraged interactions with the community and mentored a group of young men entering the priesthood. Among them was Michael Peers, who later became a primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.

In 1959, Archbishop Somerville became co-adjutor bishop of the diocese of New Westminster, breaking tradition by being consecrated not at Christ Church Cathedral, but at the Agrodome, where more than 4,000 gathered.

Criticized for eschewing pomp and pageantry in favour of a “cow palace,” he noted wryly that Jesus was born in a stable. He became the sixth bishop of New Westminster in 1971, where he continued to surprise many by, among other innovations, encouraging experimentation in liturgy.

Upon his election in 1975 as metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of British Columbia and Yukon, Archbishop Somerville renewed his campaign for the ordination of women. On Nov. 30, 1976, a year after General Synod gave its assent, he ordained two women in the priesthood: Elspeth Alley and Virginia Briant.

In 1980, Archbishop Somerville stepped down as bishop and joined VST as Anglican chaplain and a lecturer. He was highly sought after, as much for his keen mind as for his kind heart.

Archbishop Somerville was 68 when he retired in 1984. A year later, he surprised many by getting married to Frances Best, widow of Canon Jim Best. The Best couple had been like a second family to Archbishop Somerville when his mother died in 1968.

Julie Ferguson, author of Sing a New Song: Portraits of Canada’s Crusading Bishops, wrote that because he supported unpopular causes, Archbishop Somerville suffered many personal attacks. But he remained calm through them all.

“Somerville always worked quietly, without fuss or confrontation,” noted Ferguson. “Many others have remarked on how much his clergy liked him throughout his time as bishop of New Westminster, even when they did not fully agree with his reforms.” He also had “the gift of making even the newest, youngest priests in the diocese feel like equals and colleagues, which inspired their constant loyalty and unwavering support.”

Asked once by the diocesan newspaper, Topic, as to why he wasn’t afraid to dare, Archbishop Somerville replied: “If it’s something God wants us to do, we must do it.”


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