Ethnic Anglican’ says he does not believe in belief

Published February 1, 2001

Canadian writer Kildare Dobbs


One of Canada’s most distinguished writers, Kildare Dobbs, has a significant connection to the Anglican church and explores spiritual themes in his work, yet is critical of the institutional church and of unquestioning expressions of faith.

Although he says he is not observant, Mr. Dobbs describes himself as “an ethnic Anglican” and adds, “I practically know the Book of Common Prayer by heart, having heard it so often, and the psalms.”

Mr. Dobbs, 77, comes by his Anglican ties honestly – his grandfather, Archbishop John Henry Bernard, was primate of Ireland, and a portrait of him hangs in the apartment Mr. Dobbs shares with his third wife, the painter Linda Kooluris Dobbs.

His career as a published author opened with a bang – his first book, Running to Paradise, won a Governor General’s Award in 1963 – and he does not show much sign of slowing down. Last December, he was invested with the Order of Ontario (the citation described him as “writer, travel correspondent, poet, observer, pundit, man of letters”). He has been named writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto in 2002.

His first book of poetry, The Eleventh Hour, (1977) was called “deeply impressive” by Books in Canada. His latest book of poems, Casablanca, (1999) is a series of meditations on the classic film.

When it comes to faith, Mr. Dobbs states,”I don’t believe in belief. I sometimes don’t know if people believe what they believe.” Born-again Christians, he said, “don’t seem to read (the Bible) in a sensible way. They just shake out quotations.”

However, Mr. Dobbs uses Biblical imagery throughout The Eleventh Hour. The poem titles include “angel,” The creation of Eve,” “Adam’s curse,” “Susanna and the elders,” “Martyrdoms,” “Pilate washing his hands.” Because he loves language and literature, he said, “you have to know about religion.”

His poetic strengths include an extraordinary skill with language and a tone that is both deeply felt and ironically observant, as demonstrated in “Martyrdoms”:

All I know of Sebastian is this

image of tranquillity under duress.

He seems anaesthetized by the ecstasy

of faith. With every vital organ punctured

he preserves his cool and even his colour.

Soldiers and spectators are in their best clothes,

the sun is donating holiday weather,

another great day for archery and Christ.

Born in India, where his father was a commissioner, Mr. Dobbs was educated in Ireland and at Cambridge. He joined the Royal Navy during the Second World War. Mr. Dobbs served as a colonial officer in Tanganyika from 1948 to 1952, during which time he spent a four-month stretch in jail due to a bureaucratic issue concerning a pair of elephant tusks, which Dobbs was accused of stealing. Emigrating to Canada in 1952, he worked as an editor at the Macmillan publishing company, was managing editor of Saturday Night magazine from 1965 to 1967 and book editor of the Toronto Star in the early 1970s.

Running to Paradise is a collection of autobiographical stories drawn from his time in India, Ireland, Africa and Canada. It includes “A Benediction of Bishops,” an account of a visit two bishops in Ireland.

His next work, Canada, (1964) was a travel book produced with the photographer Peter Varley. Mr. Dobbs collected literary essays in Reading the Time and took on the Hudson’s Bay Company in The Great Fur Opera (1970), a humorous history of the company illustrated by British caricaturist Ronald Searle. He has returned to travel writing several times: Coastal Canada (1985), Anatolian Suite (1989) and Ribbon of Highway (1992), an account of his travels by bus on the entire length of the Trans-Canada Highway.

Mr. Dobbs’ knowledge of the Anglican church’s current state of affairs, however, is sketchy. In discussing the residential schools crisis, Mr. Dobbs says, “You can’t tell me the Anglicans, the richest people around, can’t afford to pay for their sins.” (Hundreds of natives who attended government-owned and church-run boarding schools are suing governments and churches.) When asked if he is being unfairly harsh, Mr. Dobbs allows that perhaps he is and adds, “I don’t feel hostile to the church at all.”

Currently, Mr. Dobbs is working on a book about heaven as depicted in paintings. It is a book about “what people wish for,” he said. “There is no such thing as a democratic heaven. God is like a Turkish sultan. His mother is very important – you can’t go directly to the boss. You see it in other religions. Hinduism has all these avatars.”

Clearly, Kildare Dobbs will always be a travel writer, exploring both the physical world and the world of the soul.

Mr. Dobbs will contribute to this page from time to time.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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