John Rye: Love of mission, love for Africa

By on October 1, 2002

Canon John Rye, mission coordinator for Africa and the Middle East, shown in Madagascar during his last official trip before retirement.

Watching John Rye at work in Africa was an experience like nothing else.

He was a huge and volatile weather system in human form, soothing and soft one moment, stern, correct, formal the next, then changing to the balmiest pastoral wind only to shift again to sudden storm.

Even at a distance you could always tell from the body language when John Rye was in the process of administering what he called a ?proper? scolding.

I once watched this in a hotel lobby in Nairobi ? John in full verbal flight, the object of his attention seeming to get smaller and smaller as John?s voice rose in pitch. Eventually, the man drifted away and I asked John what it had all been about.

John Rye, whose voice could be mellow and sonorous, could also giggle in a high pitched squeal of sheer delight.

?Poor chap,? he giggled. ?All he said was he?d been killing time. Just his luck that there is no expression in the language I dislike more. One does not kill time. Time is the best friend we have. It?s a ghastly expression.?

Canon John Hanington Brooke Rye and his allotted time parted company in August when he succumbed to cancer at the age of 71. He leaves two brothers ? Robin of Montreal and Darrell of Victoria. He also leaves Truus Geertse of Holland, a missionary nurse he met in Ghana more than 30 years ago, who became his life-long friend. His death marks the end of an era for the Canadian Anglican Church, and the passing of a style of ministry we shall not see again.

He was a man with presence, a pipe-smoking giant both physically and intellectually; he was a magnet for countless young students he nurtured, for people wanting or needing money to fund their projects, for church officials who sought his counsel and considerable wisdom, and for a sizeable number of opportunists who hoped, always, to loosen his pockets in a moment of generosity. He was a magnet, perhaps most of all, for people who simply wanted his time, his presence, his geniality and pastoral brilliance.

They flocked to him wherever he landed in Africa and his days when he traveled were an endless series of meetings and conversations and chit-chat and he never ever, even when the day was 20 hours old, turned anyone away.

My trip with him to Africa was his last before his retirement as mission coordinator for Africa and the Middle East for the Anglican Church of Canada. So he may have been courted even more than usual.

He would tell people he was in the ?exit lounge.? He would caution good behavior, because, he said time and time again, soon there would be ?a new Pharaoh, who knows not Joseph??

John Hanington Rye once told me that among the great loves of his life were mission, and Africa. And yet, he was also fond of reminiscing that as a much younger man conversing with God, he once told the creator there were two things he would not do: live abroad, and work for the Anglican national office.

He did both, with a rare splendour.


Born in 1931, on the west coast, John Rye graduated in arts from the University of British Columbia and then studied theology at Trinity College in Toronto. He was ordained deacon in 1957 and a priest the following year. While an undergraduate and for a year after graduating, he worked as a waiter on the CPR, an experience he later credited with teaching him a great deal in patience and civility.

His earliest ministry was in the diocese of Niagara at St. Cuthbert?s Church in Oakville, Ont. While there, he had a special ministry with young offenders, some of whom he invited to share his home. It was a practice he continued throughout his life, and until his retirement in 1996 he welcomed African students to live with him in his Toronto home.

He was drawn to overseas ministry after attending an Anglican Congress gathering in Toronto in 1963 where he met Samuel Rosevear, the Bishop of Accra, Ghana.

He subsequently served 16 years with the Anglican church in Ghana, one year in Accra. Much of this time was in the northern frontier region where he became archdeacon of Bolgatanga.

In Ghana, he was responsible for primary evangelism, mobile health care clinics and vocational training for young men and women.

With mixed feelings about leaving Africa, he returned to Canada in 1983 and assumed the position of mission coordinator for Africa and the Middle East with what was then the World Mission department.

Ellie Johnson, director of the department now known as Partnerships, remembers him as a first-class administrator and a ?presence? at Church House.

?John developed strong and lasting friendships with the regional coordinators for Latin America/Caribbean David Hamid and for Asia/Pacific Terry Brown. The trio came to be known as the Three Musketeers, and much friendly rivalry ensued between them.? (Terry Brown is now bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, while David Hamid was recently named suffragan bishop of the diocese of Europe.)

In his time as mission coordinator, Canon Rye made frequent visits back to Africa, mixing business with a constant nurture of the hundreds of relationships he had built up over the years. He himself lived frugally, and many of the people he met during his career benefited from his assistance out of his own resources.

In 1995, in an article for MinistryMatters, Canon Rye described his work with the national office as ?mostly mail and meetings.?

And yet, when the time came for him to retire in 1996, he did so regretfully, if with his usual grace. ?I shall miss this immensely? he once said of the Church House community. ?Life will go on, but never again in the same way. But then, old men have had their day, and I have never left any place easily. I am tremendously fortunate in being able to say that.?

He moved almost immediately from retirement at Church House to a special assignment with the Lambeth 1998 conference in which he helped make and fund travel arrangements for Third-World bishops.

And, while his health permitted, he continued to serve Church House staff as chaplain, through budgetary cut-backs and the agony of the residential schools crisis.

He was diagnosed with cancer about six years ago.

?I have made mistakes,? John Rye once told me, ?but they have been magnificent mistakes which I was fortunate to have the opportunities to make. I have had many days in this job that were simply awful, but never a single one of them that did not also bring me great joy.?

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