Former Arctic bishop describes transitions

Published October 1, 2001

IN the 20th century Canada came into its own as a nation. In the 19th century it was, for many observers, an intimidating mass of geography holding little promise. The British historian, Sir Archibald Alison, wrote, “Probably seven eighths of this immense surface, British North America, are doomed to eternal sterility from the excessive severity of the climate, which yields only a scanty herbage to the reindeer, the elk and the musk-ox.”

What would he think today? A nation has developed and is still growing in appreciation of the rich diversity of geography and peoples that make us who and what we are. Now in the 21st century we can look back at many things that happened along the way.

What is fascinating about John Sperry’s Igloo Dwellers Were My Church is the account of the transition from “the old” to “the new” based on his experience, from 1950 to 1970, as the missionary at Coppermine (formerly Fort Hearne, now Kugluktuk) in the central Arctic, and, in his words, “with a group of Inuit who were among the very last people in North America to be introduced to and influenced by our Euro-American/Canadian culture and technology.”

Sperry is one of a number of young men in England who responded to a “call” to serve God in the Canadian north. He came from a Methodist and Anglican background in Leicester to which was added Sunday school sessions at an Evangelical Free Church, Melbourne Hall.

[pullquote]A strong sense of the need to serve eventually resulted and the Canadian Arctic became his focus. So it was in 1950, after seeing service in the Royal Navy, and beginning studies at Emmanuel College, Birkinhead, continued at King’s College, Halifax, he was ordained in Winnipeg and began his ministry in Coppermine.

He immediately recognized that he “had a rare opportunity to relate to a people whose elders had grown to adulthood without visible contact with the ‘benefits’ of southern technology.” He also faced a challenge:

“Would we be welcome assets to these northern communities, or merely two more agents of foreign cultures?”

The book is a fascinating account of life in transition. Ice houses and tents, hunting and fishing for survival, nomadic life, 3000-mile trips by dogsled to provide pastoral care, understanding language and the culture and taboos it expressed, and all this drawn into a new life and times as the modern world became more accessible. The role of the gospel in such a period is made plain.

Included is an array of excellent photographs bringing the story to life.

Sperry is now retired and living in Yellowknife, having served as archdeacon and third Bishop of the Arctic. This book provides a very special window into the development of both our church and our nation. I hope there is a next book to share his experiences as a bishop in our Canadian North.

Anglican Book Centre Publishing has recently launched a new imprint called Path Books offering “practical spirituality to enrich every day living.” If the first three books are an indication of what might follow, a new day is dawning in Canadian Anglican publishing. For far too long we have been dependent on English or U.S. sources for our religious nourishment. There is such a thing as a Canadian experience!

Two of the books are about praying. Anne Tanner, for 16 years bookstore manager at the Anglican Book Centre, knows all about busy lives. In Practical Prayer she offers guidance to the neophyte who wants to pray but isn’t sure how to go about it.

Judith Lawrence in Prayer Companion offers a compendium in which she shares her personal journey through meditations on everything from preparing for Christmas to how yeast works, distractions and doubts to incense and miracles.

The Habit of Hope by William Hockin, Bishop of Fredericton, reveals the importance of hope in human experience when all around us is perplexity. He writes in a pastoral manner, drawing on his own experiences and those of others, and brings to them a scriptural focus on hope to which one can readily relate. Canon Gordon Baker writes about books for the Anglican Journal.


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