Ottawa bishop sees much potential for growth

By on October 1, 2000

THE EIGHTH bishop of Ottawa sounds almost apologetic as he concedes that life in his diocese, where he has spent much of the nearly 30 years since his ordination, is pretty good.

“It sounds trite but I find it very cohesive,” Bishop Peter Coffin said. “I don’t find rural-urban splits.

“It’s a great diocese to work in. It’s got a good feel. It’s embarrassing to say things are good. It’s not politically correct. You’re supposed to be devastatingly honest about your shortcomings. And we do have shortcomings.”

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Shortcomings, maybe. But many strengths too.

The diocese is growing as Ottawa welcomes an influx of high-technology workers in its embodiment of Silicon Valley North. New churches are being planted in neighbourhoods where the population has outgrown the church building. And the diocese continues to be respected for its involvement in local social issues.

Bishop Coffin is married to Deborah and has a daughter, Erin, 25. The former dean of Ottawa and rector of Christ Church Cathedral was elected bishop in May 1999 over 10 other candidates. He succeeded Bishop John Baycroft who was appointed head of the Anglican Centre in Rome.

Bishop Coffin is from a military family and his father was posted to Ottawa, he said. Ottawa was carved out of the Diocese of Ontario 104 years ago, although church buildings have existed there since the early 1800s. The diocese covers an area along the Ottawa River from Mattawa in the west to Hawkesbury in the east. It extends north into Quebec as far as Maniwaki and its southern boundary stretches from Cornwall in the east through to Algonquin Park on the west.

Ottawa was little more than swamp in the early 1800s, with Hull, Que., the main city. Important industries were lumber and farming, with much of the lumber, then, going to the British fleet.

Indeed, the Rideau Canal was built for strategic reasons. “It was a garrison town and a lumber town,” the bishop said. “It stayed that way until it became the capital.”

As the national capital, Ottawa became a civil servant town. But a far more diversified economy has developed in the past 20 years, Bishop Coffin said. As the high-tech industry has moved in, so have scores of new people, spilling out into formerly rural areas and putting pressure on churches built to serve 30 or so families.

“Where our rural areas are experiencing some of the normal difficulties of rural areas, we are experiencing considerable growth in the city,” he said. “We need to be intentional about church planting ?

“We are one of those dioceses that have significant potential for growth. But we have not engaged in the best sort of planning to deal with it.”

The rural areas on the Ontario side of the diocese are doing quite well, with one reopening a closed church. That, however, is not the case in western Quebec, which, while it contains almost as large a geographical area as the Ontario side, contributes no more than 10 to 15 per cent of the diocese’s Anglican population. Many of the small parishes there that still rely on farming and lumber are suffering and the population is stagnating. “It feels a little beleaguered,” Bishop Coffin said. “We’re looking for new models of ministry in a widely dispersed area. We haven’t gotten there yet.”

Because Ottawa includes the federal government and borders Quebec, bilingualism is a fact of life and the bishop is bilingual himself. Several Ontario towns bordering the river are more French than English, Bishop Coffin said. “I would like more bilingual priests,” he said.

Ottawa also houses the world’s embassies. “We are in the nation’s capital,” he noted. “We probably haven’t used that position to the extent that we ought.”

The diocese has worked on foreign issues, however. The bishop and others held a protest on Parliament Hill that focused on Sudan and a diocesan group continues to work on it.

A Friends of Sabeel branch, which supports Palestinian Christians, was opened in Ottawa in December 1998. Bishop Baycroft delivered a strongly worded Christmas Eve homily that year focusing on the plight of the Palestinians, angering some Jews.

Bishop Coffin realizes the issue is sensitive and controversial. “A significant number of folks from our diocese made pilgrimages to the Holy Land and came back very concerned about the plight of Palestinian Christians,” he said. “They feel quite impassioned about that.”

Though Friends of Sabeel is headed by a priest, it’s not an official program of the diocese.

The diocese has been involved in other political causes over the years, including protesting apartheid.

Three days after his consecration as bishop, Bishop Coffin participated in a rally of about 1,000 people, set up to oppose a planned demonstration (that never occurred) by notorious anti-gay pastor Fred Phelps of Kansas. The gay and lesbian task group in his diocese is “a very gentle sort of group,” he said. “They’re brutally honest but much more gentle than the folks that would stand in opposition to them.”

The diocese has been heavily involved in practical social issues, setting up shelters for homeless people and providing day programs. Other churches approach the Anglicans for partnerships.

Bishop Coffin has little patience for people complaining about issues he believes are not particularly important in the life of the church, including complaints about the new hymn book or debates on the prayer book.

His impatience is undoubtedly related to the perspective he gained while working overseas. “I was in and out of the Philippines for 20 years, working on human rights violations. I was shot at.” He also worked in Malaysia. “I have a short wick for people getting passionate about things that in the great scheme of things, don’t mean a hell of a lot.”

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