Nicholls shares joys and trials of primacy

Nicholls, left, took questions on her primacy from Alexander, right, and other members of CoGS on the evening of May 31. Photo: Matthew Puddister
Published June 3, 2024


“The closer it gets, the better I’m feeling about it,” Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, told the Council of General Synod (CoGS) on the prospect of her retirement this September.

In a wide-ranging question-and-answer session on the evening of May 31, Nicholls shared what she saw as some of the highlights of her time as primate, her accomplishments and also the work she wished she had been able to see to its conclusion. She also shared her feelings on two incidents she said had caused her immense personal pain while in office.

In response to a question from the floor asking what aspect of her had most profoundly changed during her time in the primacy, Nicholls told CoGS, “It’s a difficult question to answer because the thing that’s most profoundly changed is having been so deeply hurt by the church. #ACCtoo was horrific, absolutely horrific … General Synod [2023] was hard. And I think what it flipped in me was maybe that I had been too naïve … So what’s changed for me is a wound that’s very painful.” Her voice stayed steady, though thick with emotion.

She referred to two incidents. The first was the social media backlash after news came out that national office leadership had shared a preliminary draft of an article intended for Epiphanies, the Anglican Journal’s former online magazine, with four Anglican institutions in the spring of 2021. The draft contained both allegations of sexual misconduct related to those institutions and personal information potentially identifying complainants who had agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. #ACCtoo was the hashtag and name of an online group that demanded a set of responses by church leaders for the harm it said the sharing of the article had caused.

Nicholls said she was “completely gobsmacked by social media” during the backlash to church leadership’s handling of the incident. “I regret that we’ve not been able to come to any kind of reconciliation or resolution on that,” she added. “There are many truths in that whole story and some of them can never be told publicly, ever.”

The second painful incident she referred to was the failure of a resolution, at the 2023 General Synod, to amend the canon governing a primate’s retirement. Currently, primates are required to retire upon reaching age 70. The amendment would have allowed a primate to continue in the role until the next General Synod if their birthday fell within a year of the upcoming gathering. In two separate votes, enough members of the Order of Bishops voted “no” on the resolution to prevent it from reaching the required threshold of a two-thirds majority in each order (bishops, clergy and laity). At the time, then-chancellor of General Synod, Canon (Lay) David Jones stipulated that the motion was not aimed at the current primate, but was designed to create a procedure for any time a primate would age out of office with less than a year left in their term. But the immediate result of the votes was to require Nicholls to retire earlier than she would have wished.

“Something was profoundly broken in my relationship with the whole church at General Synod last year. Not my faith. Not my relationship with God. But maybe a naïve trust [in] the church that I’d given my life to and thought I understood. And I clearly didn’t,” she said.

Still, Nicholls added, she was still looking forward to supporting the leaders who came after her, as well as to spending time in the church without the burden of responsibility that comes with being a leader. Of the wound she said she received in the office, she said, “I hope it will become a grace at some point.”

Nicholls was also asked about the highlights from her time in office and some of her key achievements. One, she said, was the gratitude she had received from Anglicans for the sense of connection and hope they said they got from her online work during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the hymn sings—live streaming sessions in which she played piano and sang worship songs for audiences at home, she said, “which I just thought were my chance to do what I love to do, which is to sing and play.”

Likewise, she said she was pleased with the work she had done with the Strategic Planning Working Group, which responded to the pandemic by pivoting from coming up to a fixed strategy to a process of listening to Anglicans across the country about their hopes for the future of the church. That work formed a basis for the five transformational commitments which now inform much of the national church’s work, outreach and worship. And she said she was deeply affected by the power of the office of the primate to represent the whole church wherever she went visiting. “When the primate turns up somewhere, people feel like they’ve been visited by the rest of the church,” she said. “I’ve always found that both a joy, and a delight and surprise—when I show up and people are so grateful that the rest of the church cares.”

One regret, she said, about her early retirement was that she would not be present to see through the process of listening and drafting a primatial apology to the victims of Ralph Rowe. Rowe was an Anglican priest and scout leader in northern Manitoba and Ontario who sexually abused hundreds of young boys during his travels across the province in the 70s and 80s. The apology is part of the settlement of a class-action suit reached in fall 2023. “I’m sorry because I would have liked to see that through to its completion,” she said.

Nicholls was also the first woman to be primate of the Anglican Church of Canada and the first woman primate in the world to celebrate the Eucharist before assembled global bishops at the Lambeth Conference. The former has felt simple and natural, Nicholls said, not least because she has been working alongside the women who currently lead some of the other mainline Protestant denominations in Canada, especially the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada’s national bishop, Bishop Susan Johnson. But the latter was a profound experience, she said. “I remember standing there behind the altar in Canterbury Cathedral, with Canterbury Choir singing behind me and looking out on the length of the cathedral and just being awed at being there in that moment,” she said.

Asked what priorities she would stress if she were writing a letter to her successor as primate, Nicholls named the transformational commitments, and the work of the primate’s commission on finding a sustainable new structure for the national church. And with respect to the needed changes, she added, “We’ve certainly heard lots of comments about things people don’t like. And I have to say we’re really good at complaining. We’re not so good at proactively offering a way forward … So I think the next primate needs to be someone who is skilled at making change and working with change, able to give voice to both fears and hopes and dreams and hold the anxieties. And hold it all without exploding.”

“Certainly the next primate will have my prayers every single day,” she said. “It’s a lonely, lonely, lonely job.”

In an opening address to CoGS earlier that day, Nicholls reflected upon more recent work in her role, including a visit to Rome as part of an event held by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), the two denominations’ ecumenical dialogue. During this gathering she and other primates from the Anglican Communion had an extended audience with Pope Francis, who, she said, answered questions off-the-cuff from the assembled primates in an unusual show of openness. She described her work on a statement from ARCIC on moral discernment and teaching in the global Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, which Nicholls said she would continue to work on for another year after retiring, and her recent work for international Anglican bodies.

Everywhere she went in her travels across the Anglican Church of Canada’s dioceses, Nicholls told CoGS, she saw local communities working on the church’s central transformational commitment: inviting and deepening life in Christ. “Every diocese is working on it slightly differently,” she said, some through existing programs like Alpha, others by developing their own methods of spiritual formation. “But everybody’s working on deepening formation for our own people and inviting others to come in,” she said.

On the evening of June 1, CoGS held a banquet and hymn sing in the primate’s honour, at which Opus 8, a Toronto-based eight-part vocal group, performed. CoGS members, General Synod staff and guests, including several members of Nicholls’ family, sang a selection of Nicholls’ favourite hymns and heard performances—from Opus 8 plus Dean Peter Wall, now-retired dean of Niagara and veteran of both CoGS and The Three Cantors singing ensemble, who sang a modified version of Cole Porter’s The Top, with lyrics joking about the primacy.

Church leaders including the Rev. Cynthia Haines-Turner, representative to CoGS for the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund: Bishop of the diocese of Caledonia David Lehmann; Canon (lay) Ian Alexander, prolocutor of CogS; and General Secretary of General Synod Archdeacon Alan Perry gave speeches in Nicholls’ honour and presented her with a customized canoe paddle bearing the crest of the Anglican Church of Canada.

“You have taken us through, practically to hell and back, and you have brought us out,” said Perry, expressing his gratitude for Nicholls’ leadership, listening and grace. “No one can take that away from you.”

“It’s been an incredible journey,” said Nicholls in her closing remarks. “It’s going to take me some time to unpack what it has meant.”


A reference to mandatory retirement ages of bishops that appeared in an earlier version of this article has been deleted.

Correction: The Order of Bishops voted “no” on the resolution to extend the retirement date of primates.


  • Sean Frankling

    Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He’s been chasing stories since his first co-op for Toronto’s Gleaner Community Press at age 19. He studied journalism at Carleton University and has written for the Toronto Star, WatchMojo and other outlets.

Related Posts

Skip to content