Making connections with the primate

Published February 1, 2004

In a church that places great importance on its records, its archives, Archbishop Michael Peers can trace every town and country he has travelled, every rectory he has slept in, each night spent on an airplane, and how many nights he has spent away from his home and family in his nearly 18 years as the 11th primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.

Only he can interpret the code of the journals, kept – forgive a pun – religiously in tidy columns in his small, careful script. The notes are kept in a leather-bound calendar that goes with him everywhere he goes.

Here, a partial entry for 1991:

28, 1991; O5a J6a;

(which translates as follows: On Jan. 28 (O5A), he was in the region of Oceania (O), in the town of Nouméa ( New Caledonia) (5), in the local college residence (a); on Feb. 28 (J6a), he was in the region of Asia (J), in the city of Rangoon ( Myanmar) (6), at the Strand Hotel (a))

The journals – obscure they may be – are testimony to a churchman who, by many of his friends’ and colleagues’ accounts, deeply cares as much about the church and its history as its people and their stories and relationships.

For Rev. Randall Chase, who served three years as an partner from the Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA) to the Anglican Church of Canada and who has become a close friend of Archbishop Peers, the primate is at his happiest when he is making connections.

“It impresses me that in everything he does, he connects with people and talks about their relationships,” said Mr. Chase. “It’s really remarkable. He knows the history and uses it to illuminate the present and move the church forward toward the future. I’ve seen it at Lambeth; Michael knows the people and their stories.”

(The Lambeth Conference is the meeting every 10 years of all the bishops in the Anglican Communion.)

That willingness to make connections spills over into leisure time as well. Mr. Chase hosts the primate regularly when the latter travels to New England, to his regular spiritual retreats in Cambridge, Mass. One of their favourite pastimes together is to spread open a few roadmaps and go for a drive.

“He loves maps and to see where he’s going,” said Mr. Chase. “He loves to see the Anglican church wherever it is, so we’ve seen churches I’d never seen before in Rhode Island, Massachusetts – all that area – to see places he’s read about. In a sense, his curiosity is ageless.”

Across the Atlantic, the head of the (Anglican) Church of Ireland echoes that admiration for Archbishop Peers’ consciousness of people and places.

“He is well versed in Irish affairs and I have so valued his prayerful concern and interest in our periods of violence and division,” said Archbishop Robin Eames, Primate of All Ireland and the only primate in the Anglican Communion who has served a province longer than Archbishop Peers. “The Church of Ireland has many links with Canada and its church and Michael’s phenomenal memory for names and places, people and events, has impressed us all here. I dare to think he himself has a special regard for the Emerald Isle!”

For Rev. Douglas Fenton, a Canadian priest who is staff officer for young adult and higher education ministries with ECUSA, those connections come in the form of simple postcards. When he left Canada for the U.S. church in March 2002, Archbishop Peers “asked me to write him a postcard from every diocese I went to as a way to stay connected with the Canadian church. As a result, I do feel connected.”

Mr. Fenton said Archbishop Peers genuinely wants to know people. He tells of a meeting of the Council of General Synod (the church’s legislative body between the triennial meetings of General Synod) where, for the first time publicly, he said he is part aboriginal, or Métis. The primate approached him at a break to ask about his background. “He wanted to take the time to hear that story.”

Archbishop Eames, who was appointed last October – amid discord over issues of sexuality – to head an international commission on “understandings of communion” that unite Anglicans worldwide, said he appreciated the support from Archbishop Peers during another difficult time in the Anglican Communion’s history.

“Years ago, when the issue of women’s ordination threatened to split the Anglican Communion, the late Archbishop Robert Runcie asked me to chair the international commission charged with the responsibility of providing pastoral guidelines for the provinces,” the Irish primate wrote in a letter to the Anglican Journal. “I remember sitting beside Michael at the Lambeth Conference when Runcie announced his intention to establish such a commission. Michael whispered to me, ‘God help the guy who will chair that one.’

“Months later he sent me a message, ‘I’m praying for you …'”

Canon Gordon Light, who served as principal secretary to the primate from 1992 to 2001, said he considers Archbishop Peers a friend and a mentor.

“I value him as someone of the faith, for his ability to teach,” said Mr. Light, now administrative assistant to the metropolitan (senior bishop) of British Columbia and Yukon. Often, those teaching moments were subtle. When some parishes considered doing away with the common cup for fear of contracting AIDS, the church’s doctrine and worship committee released a medical opinion on the minute risk the practice posed. Archbishop Peers took it one step further. “If he received communion at the beginning, he would take the cup at the end,” said Mr. Light. “Intentionally, so that in a non-verbal way he was saying there’s nothing to fear.”

As principal secretary, Mr. Light dealt with correspondence, organized house of bishops meetings and collaborated with Archbishop Peers on writing reports and public addresses that the primate delivered. He is careful to point out that the primate himself always wrote his Anglican Journal column, Grace Notes, and came up with his own sermons. In fact, Mr. Light said, parishioners and reporters would occasionally ask for a copy of one of the primate’s sermons, and the primate would shrug and pass along a small sticky note with a couple of points on it.

Mr. Light particularly remembers the primate drafting, then taking great pains to memorize his 1993 apology to native people for the church’s role in the residential school system.

“I didn’t understand it then, but he did. He said if you’re going to say something to the aboriginal community, you say it, you don’t read it,” recalled Mr. Light. “He listened for two solid days to their stories and what he ultimately said grew out of that context.”

Indeed, Archbishop Peers’s role in mending the church’s fragile relationship with aboriginal Anglicans is recognized throughout the Anglican Communion, said Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

“For me, his lasting legacy would be especially his leadership of the Anglican Church of Canada with regard to expressing contrition to native Canadians,” said Archbishop Tutu, the retired Archbishop of Cape Town and primate of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa. “It was a fantastic exhibition of deep Christian humility and it was very inspiring to behold.”

Michael Peers is highly respected as an elder statesman in the Anglican Communion, noted Archbishop Tutu, particularly for his role as chair (from 1993-97) of the inter-Anglican finance committee of the Anglican Consultative Council, and for chairing a 1988 Lambeth session in a language other than English.

“The Archbishop of Canterbury did not give (the chair) to any Tom, Dick, Harry, Mary or Jane, and (Michael) was able to do it with aplomb,” said the archbishop. “I can still picture Michael on the dais at the university, holding forth in a way that embraced the francophone people in a way that had not happened before.”

Archbishop Tutu laughed out loud upon hearing that Archbishop Peers credits him for teaching him the simple dance that he and Lutheran national bishop Telmor Sartison used to celebrate the 2001 signing of an agreement of full communion between the Anglican and Lutheran churches in Canada. Hands clasped high over their heads, the two Canadian bishops danced triumphantly around the entire ice surface of a Waterloo hockey arena, where the joint service was held, to the tune Siyahamba / We are marching in the light of God.

A legend in the Anglican Communion and on the world stage for his role in defeating apartheid in his own country, Archbishop Tutu said he learned a great deal from Michael Peers.

“I learned to be gentle, even to be gentle when you are right,” said Archbishop Tutu. “It’s so very easy to become self righteous when you are right.”

Diane Maybee also had the opportunity to see Michael Peers on the international stage. As prolocutor of General Synod from 1986 to 1989, it was Ms. Maybee who announced to the gathered bishops in 1986 that Archbishop Peers had been elected primate.

“He just sat down, quite stunned,” she said. Later, she was to serve with him as lay representative of the Anglican Consultative Council. At one meeting, it might be said that the primate sowed the seeds of the Canadian church’s reputation for transparency.

“The issue of sexual abuse came up and one African bishop asked in disbelief, ‘Do you mean abuse in the church?'” recalled Ms. Maybee. Archbishop Peers rose and told the gathering about a horrific case of a choirmaster in Kingston, Ont., convicted of abusing choirboys. “Just before he sat down, he said ‘Yes, there is abuse in the church.’ He sat down to stunned silence.”

Ms. Maybee said she was struck by the primate’s commitment to the church’s process; that commitment, in fact, led to his 1997 resignation as chair of the inter-Anglican finance committee. After the national church cut its overseas spending, largely because of a large drop in income, then-Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey publicly criticized Anglican provinces which were thought not to be paying their way. The Anglican Church of Canada was the fourth largest contributor to the Anglican Consultative Council and contributed the salary and services of Rev. Paul Gibson, a part-time liturgy co-ordinator for the council.

“Michael accepted that we have a process by which we develop the budget for the church, for example with overseas funding,” said Ms. Maybee. “In England, bishops have more ability to make adjustments to that funding.”

That belief in process extends to his presidency at home, too, Ms. Maybee noted. As a one-time officer of General Synod, she sat with Michael Peers for meetings of General Synod and the National Executive Council. Particularly at General Synod, the primate would never declare a motion unanimous – “because there will always be someone in some dark corner who disagrees” – and he never took sides in any debate while sitting in the president’s chair (although he did step down from the chair at the 1995 General Synod to voice his views on the role of gay and lesbian people in the church).

Few would understand the rigours and responsibility of a church’s senior bishop as much as another primate, said one retired American presiding bishop.

Upon their respective elections only months apart in 1985 and 1986, Michael Peers and Edmond Browning, the former presiding bishop (primate) of the Episcopal Church in the United States, became close friends and mutual confidants. Bishop Browning, who went through a difficult time when his friend and ECUSA treasurer was accused and convicted of embezzling $2.2 million US from the church coffers, said he leaned on Archbishop Peers as a pastor and counsellor.

“He was a friend, a pastor and a colleague in a way that many people dream of,” said Bishop Browning. “Nobody knows what this job is like except someone else who’s served in it.”

The contrast between Ed Browning and Michael Peers – the former, small and dapper, and the latter, described by one friend as “reassuringly rumpled” – prompted one church observer to comment once that “Ed Browning goes to a house of bishops meeting in suit and clerical collar and everyone calls him Ed. Michael Peers goes in sweatshirt and slippers and everyone calls him Your Grace.”

The Canadian and U.S. churches remained close under their two primates, each sending two representatives to the other’s governing-council meetings. Referring to the embezzlement, he added, “That was a very, very difficult time for me. The kind of stuff I had to put up with was incredible, but he was there for me.”

The Canadian primate has remained close with Bishop Browning and his wife, Patti. With Archbishop Peers’s years of travel and nights spent in the homes of others, Bishop Browning describes his friend as ‘comfortable.’ Archbishop Peers visited the couple in their new home in Oregon while on a visit to a nearby ECUSA diocese. As his hosts had just moved from New York, he rolled up his sleeves and began helping with the unpacking.

“He got very much involved and said what things needed just to be put away and what needed to be opened,” laughed Bishop Browning. “We kidded him a lot about taking charge of our move.”

Bishop Browning said Archbishop Peers’s involvement as president of the Metropolitan Council of Cuba (a council that oversees the episcopal work of the Episcopal church in Cuba, once a part of ECUSA) has done nothing less than keep that church alive. “When the American church had to withdraw because of government relations, he just stepped in,” said Bishop Browning.

Ran Chase echoes Bishop Browning’s assessment of the Cuban situation. Mr. Chase, a member of ECUSA’s pension board and provincial co-ordinator for one of ECUSA’s nine provinces, said that Archbishop Peers has challenged ECUSA bishops to think about the role they might play in changing U.S. policy on pension funds belonging to the Cuban church. “Michael has kept pushing us,” said Mr. Chase. “He has challenged the legality of us waiting for the courts to allow us to release those funds.”

Challenging the status quo earned Archbishop Peers much respect from many in the church, particularly in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when he and other Canadian bishops refused to preside at eucharists in England as long as women priests were not allowed to function there. In 1994, he celebrated eucharist for the first time in England in seven years. The boycott came at some personal sacrifice for Archbishop Peers, whose family built a church near Oxford in the 1700s and was invited to celebrate at family reunions there,

“That gave a sense that the province (of Canada) was solidly behind women clergy,” said Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan, director of General Synod’s faith, worship and ministry department. “That people would take that personal step was very moving. He didn’t just send a letter (of protest) but he actually took action about something that is very close to the life of a priest.”

As a director at the church’s national office, Ms. Barnett-Cowan is impressed with the care he has shown for staff and their work. But like his predecessor, Ted Scott, who was often absent from his office travelling the country and the world, Michael Peers is not a common sight at 600 Jarvis.

“The leadership he shows for us is more about what he does when he’s out there,” said Ms. Barnett-Cowan. “He promotes and stands for the national office in a way that I suppose wouldn’t be true for many primates.

“He has such a deep commitment to the notion of synod, the collective. He helps connect people to the staff of (General) Synod and points them to the work we’re doing, so it’s kind of a road tour promotion of what goes on here.”

While he may not be visible to his colleagues at Church House, said Ms. Barnett-Cowan, “he carries us all in his heart and in his famous leather Daytimer (personal organizer). Everybody’s name is in there and he prays regularly for us.”

Ms. Barnett-Cowan allowed there is also an edgy, grumpy side to the primate, though she said, “I’m very grateful never to have been on the receiving end of it.” In 1995 – in the wake of church restructuring, layoffs and transitions at the national church level – she recalled, he had a particularly difficult time.

“Because he’s an introvert, he compresses it,” she said.

That quietness was evident even in his early years. Governor General Adrienne Clarkson traces her friendship with Archbishop Peers back to 1956, when they both attended Toronto ‘s Trinity College. “He was quietly and intensely intelligent, and that quality he has of listening is just phenomenal. He always had that.” For a year, Ms. Clarkson, then a 17-year-old arts undergraduate, even casually dated the primate, then a first-year divinity student. Their friendship was such that, decades later, Archbishop Peers was the second last person to see her mother, Ethel Poy, alive; he presided at Ms. Poy’s 1988 funeral and at the 2002 funeral of Ms. Clarkson’s father, William.

Michael Peers, said Ms. Clarkson, was admired at Trinity and was even seen to be a bit exotic, having previously studied in Germany. When her mother met him in his final year, she told her daughter, “He’s going to be Archbishop of Canterbury.”

For her own part, Ms. Clarkson said, “I thought he might go far. He had this intelligence that shone through.”

Many years later, after Archbishop Peers was elected primate and he and Dorothy moved to Toronto, Dorothy – previously a secretary in a law firm – found herself looking for work. “I said, come work for me,” said Ms. Clarkson, then a producer, host and writer with CBC television. That working relationship lasted from 1987 until 1999, when Ms. Clarkson was made Governor General. She says she and husband John Ralston Saul have much in common with the Peers, whom they visit frequently. “They are tremendously easy to be with because they’ve seen so much; nothing takes them aback.”

While most people who have encountered the public Michael Peers – perhaps at a parish anniversary service or church meeting – have seen a man who is curious with an easy manner, a few others have seen his playful side.

Gordon Light recalls his surprise performance in a play performed at Sorrento Centre, a retreat centre in British Columbia. The play called for two angels. “My daughter was one of the angels,” said Mr. Light. “She had a circle of daisies in her hair and she was on top of a stepladder.” Archbishop Peers, cast as the second angel, was similarly attired.

Archbishop Robin Eames, the Irish primate, relates a mischievous prank he and Archbishop Peers played on Rowan Williams, now the Archbishop of Canterbury but then the head of the Anglican Church in Wales, at a primates’ meeting. Archbishops Eames and Peers conspired on St. David’s Day – the celebration of the patron saint of Wales – to convince Archbishop Williams that the Welsh church owed the Anglican Communion millions of dollars; they then presented him with a large leek, a Welsh emblem.

Years earlier, while still a parish priest in Winnipeg, Michael Peers oversaw the 1970 shared-facility agreement between two churches that foreshadowed the 2001 agreement on full communion between the Anglican and Lutheran churches in Canada. Initially, said Neil Bardal, a lay leader in the Lutheran parish, the proposed union was not an altogether happy one for the smaller Lutheran church; some St. Stephen’s parishioners felt they would be swallowed up by the Anglican church of St. Bede’s. They did not yet see the ‘big picture’ that they later realized was envisioned by Michael Peers and the Lutheran church’s Rev. Winn Mott.

Like most marriages of convenience, there was some discomfort at the ceremony that brought the two congregations together under one roof. “You can imagine the tension. We were leaving behind our beloved building,” said Mr. Bardal. “We all had big banners and we were at our building and were going to march over to St. Bede’s church.

“I was to lead the march and I was sitting there fidgeting. (Michael) came up to me and said, ‘You know, there are two ways you can get out of this. One is to drop dead and the other has just happened. Your wife is having a baby as we speak and you better get over there or she’s never going to forgive you.'”

In his new appointment, as the first-ever ecumenist-in-residence at the Toronto School of Theology, Archbishop Michael Peers expects to put his years of experience to work for anyone who wishes to talk about ecumenical matters.

The appointment will allow him to continue a long career of making connections, becoming a real, live, human resource for churches and church people wishing to learn more about ecumenism, or the re-union of all believers in Christ.


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