The Primate abroad: child, statesman, pastor

By on June 1, 1999

Brazilian Primate Glauco Soares de Lima, left, and Archbishop Michael Peers, Primate of Canada, stroll through a village of Guariani natives.

Porto Alegre, Brazil

The public record — the bare bones of biography — says this of Michael Geoffrey Peers: He is 64 years old, married to Dorothy, who works for CBC television.

They have three grown children. He has been Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada for 13 years, a bishop for 22, a priest since 1960. He is a linguist, fluent in Russian, Polish, German and French and conversant in several other languages.

As Primate, he is chief executive officer of the Anglican Church, its chief pastor and primary representative at home and abroad. But there is more …

IT HAS TO BE among the strangest jobs imaginable. You have to be statesman and child, student and visionary, historian and analyst, bon vivant and priest, always ready for surprises, always adaptable, always assessing who you are that instant.

A sense of humour helps, as does a sense of wonder and perhaps most important of all, measureless energy.

Read the job description for the primate of the Anglican Church of Canada and you see very little that adequately describes the chameleon-like qualities that are essential to fulfil the role.

Yet, in an eight-day whirlwind tour of the Anglican Church of Brazil, Archbishop Michael Peers managed to be all those things, switching from one role to the next, from one hour to the next, with a grace and dexterity which is dazzling.

He is patient to a fault when a visit to one more out-of-the-way mission adds three hours to an already horrendously long day. He can jump up like a boy when a title on a bookshelf in a bishop’s office catches his eye. He can relate to priests and prelates as well as he does to pre-school children, all with a perfect sense of timing and an extremely keen appreciation of what role each audience has come expecting.

He tailors his presence to the audience and to the role they expect and these multitudes of things that a primate is expected to be fall from his shoulders like a mantle. He seems never taken aback.

He is, at times, detailed enough in his responses to questions that he appears almost pedantic – but an ever present sense of humour always saves him in the eyes of his listeners.

“And that,” he once told an audience of priests and diocesan officials after a long, long, long description of diversity in the Canadian church, right down to its historical roots, “is a long, confusing answer to a simple question.” The audience roared in delight – or perhaps agreement.

The Canadian church knows him as Michael – the chair of so many meetings, the church’s chief ribbon-cutter and medal-bestower, the voice that speaks when the church would be heard, be it on residential schools or NATO bombings of Yugoslavia.

But abroad, he acquires a different dimension. The man is the same, but his stature grows. You can see it in the eyes of those he visits, in their warmth, in the way they seem to want to get closer and closer to hear what he has to say, even when it is mere inconsequential chatter.

In a small mission church in Pedegral, an hour’s drive out of Brasilia, Archbishop Peers blesses a group of youngsters with oil and then, as they gather around him, he tells them about spring in Canada. The day we left Toronto for Brazil, the temperature was 4 C, a fact that never fails to draw oohs and ahhs from audiences of all ages. And it does so here as well, as we stand in the church in sweltering mid-30s heat.

He presents the children he has blessed with Anglican Church of Canada pins, explaining the symbolism of the green leaves – “a church that is alive, and growing.” And even after the brief talk, after the translations, the children remain gathered around as though ready for, and expecting more.

In Paranoa, we visit a small ramshackle building – a room, really – where more than a dozen young boys have gathered to impress us with their skills at capoeira, a mix of dance and martial arts moves to native music, not unlike break dancing, but closer, more skilled, more dangerous. For 45 minutes, Michael Peers watches the boys and listens to the music, his faced transformed by intense interest.

It is the easiest thing in the world, during this kind of tour, when you are shown so many things and so many places, to merely feign interest. But to Michael Peers, everything seems intensely real.

“My problem,” he explains with a smile after leaving a meeting that has gone on much too long for our tight schedule, “is that I become too easily interested and then I get to talking and then I don’t want to leave … .”

His ready interest in things and people is always evident, either in the way he leans forward to listen as people talk, in the time he will spend looking at pictures and posters in a room, in the way he seems ever ready to fall silent and listen when someone interrupts him in conversation. If he has an impatient bone in his body, he conceals it well.

He also, most times, knows the value of silence.

An hour’s drive from Porto Alegre one day, we visited a roadside village of Guariani native people, the group whose decimation was so vividly and movingly portrayed in the movie The Mission. The Primate strolled with villagers for an hour or so listening mostly silently as translators put into English the villagers’ tales of landlessness, alcoholism, broken government promises, loss of dignity in white society, abhorred reliance on a paternalistic higher social order. He might have been strolling with a group of Cree in Northern Quebec.

In Porto Alegre, in a brief visit with a pre-school group of children, he is presented with a T-shirt on their behalf, which he promptly slips on over his own shirt and then raises his hands in demonstrative delight. There is nothing to say. The children relate to his pleasure more than to any words he could speak.

It was Michael Peers’ first visit to Brazil, in fact to South America, as Primate, and everywhere he went, his theme was that of so many high school and university essays – compare and contrast.

He drew from experience to compliment and advise this struggling church on its greatest challenges, evangelism, diversity, scarce resources in a vast country. In Brasilia he listened to diocesan leaders for hours on grandiose plans to attract new members, before making his point with breathtaking subtlety.

“I am an Anglican by birth, though I left the church as a teenager,” he told the diocesan leaders. “I came back to the church in college because someone invited me. I am deeply committed to evangelism by invitation. I have come to see for myself how you do this in this province.”

He makes most of his points that way, with feathers rather than hammers, but inescapable feathers.

At a meeting of clergy and staff of the southern Diocese, Michael Peers summed up his first visit to the church of Brazil in words that say a great deal about his whole primacy.

“This has been a visit of eight days,” he said. “That is a good length of time. The longer you stay, the more you learn, but the less you know for sure. After just a week, you leave an expert.

“The principle of this visit,” he went on, “is the same as when I was a diocesan bishop visiting parishes in my diocese. I empty the time, and others fill it.”

Others fill it very efficiently.

He is Primate, for the most part, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. His schedule, routine to him, would be considered horrendous by most people. In an airport lounge, in reply to a question, he leafs through his day book and announces: “Thirteen days off so far this year. Hasn’t been that bad … .”

We returned from Brazil on an overnight flight, landing in Toronto at 6 a.m. Archbishop Peers had an all-day meeting that day, an appointment with the prime minister the next, then an engagement in Fredericton. Others, as usual, filling his time …

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