Journalism a ministry for western priest

By on May 1, 2001

Archdeacon Portman: a writerly priest with ink still in his pen.

When Archdeacon William Gordon Portman, generally known as Bill, attends General Synod 2001 as a writer for this newspaper, he will bring more church journalism experience to his assignment than the entire staff of the Anglican Journal combined.

“By my count, I’ve been at eleven (out of twelve) General Synods since 1969. I missed one because I couldn’t find a way to get there; there was nobody to spring for it,” he said in an interview.

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General Synod 2001, he thinks, will see “a continuation of the polarization between liberal and conservative, maybe even an intensification of that.” As for the residential schools issue, he noted that “General Synod has not lately turned on its masters” but some backlash could occur on this issue.

Mr. Portman, 70, retired as books editor of the Anglican Journal in May after 11 years in that position. He is, however, by no means inactive and continues to combine an imaginative career as a priest and journalist.

Neither the clergy nor journalism was in Mr. Portman’s family history. He was born in Prince Albert, Sask. Mr. Portman’s father was a “non-practicing C of E (Church of England)” who was a civil servant. His mother was a homemaker who was brought up as a Methodist, but then took her children to her husband’s church.

Journalism first entered his Prairie home, Mr. Portman said, via Life magazine, the American weekly that covered news and features and broke new ground with dynamic photojournalism.

Upon graduating from high school, young Mr. Portman knew he liked writing and went to work at a local paper, the Portage la Prairie Daily Graphic, where “I cut my teeth writing obits.”

In the next few years, the late 1940s and early 50s, Mr. Portman worked at the now-defunct Winnipeg Citizen and the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, then returned to the Graphic. At the same time, however, as he was working the overnight sports desk, or covering a town council meeting, he felt pulled in another direction – towards ordination.

“The issue had been there for quite a while. To say it was a ‘call’ sounds so precious. I experienced an inner pressure that was saying, ‘Hey, Bill, this is where I want you.’ I spent a long time saying no and just finally capitulated,” he recalled. When he realized he wanted to serve God, the question became: where?

“I looked around at Rome (Roman Catholicism). I looked around at evangelicals. I ended up as an Anglican. It was right. There is room for intellectual honesty, for the seeker, for the questioner. Anglicanism has a very broad bosom,” he said.

The English church, of course, was in his background. “In the 30s, you heard an awful lot of English accents. I grew up in a church where a Canadian accent was the exception,” he remembered.

He attended St. Chad’s College in Regina and was ordained in 1956 on the same day his mother was confirmed in the Anglican Church. Mr. Portman’s first parish, in Vanguard, Sask., was a four-point rural parish where, he said, he learned a great deal. “I felt very confident for the first couple of months, then I realized I didn’t have the whole world by the tail. You assume you have all the answers and you don’t. I finally realized the church had been there a long time before I got there and would be there a long time after,” he said.

After indicating to the bishop of Qu’Appelle that he wouldn’t mind spending some time in England, in 1960 Mr. Portman joined the parish of Cannock, located in the Midlands diocese of Lichfield.

The young man from the wide-open spaces met a British coal-mining town. “It was culture shock like you wouldn’t believe. I got to know working-class English people and the upper crust as well. I never really knew what Blake was talking about – the dark Satanic mills – until I saw the (coal) pit mounds,” he recalled. His British sojourn of about a year brought an unexpected bonus – Mr. Portman met his wife-to-be, Barbara, who was teaching Sunday school.

Returning to Canada, the Portmans served parishes in Mortlach and Lumsden, Sask. In 1966, Mr. Portman returned to journalism, serving as associate editor in Western Canada for the Canadian Churchman, forerunner to the Anglican Journal.

Over the years, he has also produced and narrated a number of national and local radio reports on the subject of religion.

He edited the Qu’Appelle Crusader, which later merged with the other Saskatchewan diocesan newspapers to become the Saskatchewan Anglican. Mr. Portman served as editor of the merged paper from 1973 to 1982.

He had continued parish work upon his return to Canada, but in 1983 was appointed executive secretary of the diocese of Qu’Appelle, a job that involved administration and work with volunteer committees.

Mr. Portman retired from full-time ministry in 1995, but continued writing for the Anglican Journal and in several interim parish appointments. Currently, he continues to serve on the board of St. Michael’s Retreat House, a Regina facility operated by three denominations, which he helped found. He is also winding up his involvement on a provincial government consultation group advising on a new law governing cemeteries and funeral services.

Although writing may not have been in Mr. Portman’s background, it is flourishing now. His brother, Jamie Portman, is a well-known journalist. His son, Gordon Portman, is a playwright living in Toronto. His daughter, Shelley, lives in Hamilton, Ont. and has two children.

Mr. Portman is also working on a project that’s labeled “book” in his file folder. “I believe there is still ink in my pen, so to speak,” he said. The book, he thinks, will be “memoirs combined with the odd curmudgeonly diatribe.”

His journalism career he sees “as a ministry, recording the acts of the twentieth-century apostles. It’s been fulfilling both as a priest and as a journalist.”

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  • Solange DeSantis

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

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