Turning a page on a churchman’s career

Published February 1, 2004

The Peers family in a 2001 photo (from left): Dorothy; Richard (with son William atop), his wife Jeanette Revet (with daughter Emma); Michael; Valerie; Nga Trinh and Geoff Peers.


Michael Peers has three questions he commends to potential candidates in episcopal elections, questions they might consider before allowing their names to stand:

  • Can I do it?
  • Do I want to do it?
  • Do I need it?

They are questions he asked himself each time his name was put forward for an election; he prayed about them before his 1977 election as bishop of Qu’Appelle; he prayed long and hard about them when his name was raised as a possible candidate for primate, or head of the Anglican Church of Canada.

Those prayers led him to his answers: Yes, he surely could do the job; yes, he wanted the job. Yet his work as diocesan bishop in Qu’Appelle and metropolitan, or senior bishop, in the church province of Rupert’s Land was more than fulfilling. He had served on the Anglican Consultative Council. To the third question, he could honestly answer no, there was nothing lacking in his career; he did not need the job of primate.

He put the issue in the hands of God and the electors and let the chips fall where they might.

Now, nearly 18 years after he was elected the 11th primate of the Anglican Church of Canada on the fifth ballot on a sweltering June day in Winnipeg, Michael Geoffrey Peers is retiring.

Archbishop Peers plans to be as invisible as a former primate can possibly be. Most likely, he will not surface at church events for some time (out of respect for the interim primate) except for some farewells at the General Synod meeting in June. He happily accepted a one-year, unpaid appointment as first-ever ecumenist-in-residence at the Toronto School of Theology. There, he said, he will serve as a resource for anyone wanting to talk about “aspects of ecumenism, given my memory which is failing, but which I hope will last until 2005.”

Archbishop Peers admits to no pre-election jitters back in 1986. Before the primatial election, while walking (and praying) in downtown Regina, he was suddenly struck with the knowledge that a) he would be elected and b) on the fifth ballot.

“I didn’t believe it, but I was right,” the primate said in an interview on the eve of his retirement.

Although he was not oblivious to the possibility that his name might appear on the election ballot, he remained relaxed, just as he had when under pressure as a student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Universitat Heidelberg in Germany and Trinity College, Toronto.

“When I studied for exams as a university student, I would go into a classroom and write out the whole year’s notes on a blackboard and sit down and look at the whole thing and look at it and review it in my mind for a whole morning maybe, and the night before the exam, I’d go to a movie.”

And so it happened that the night before the primatial election, Archbishop Peers was so self-possessed that he and a friend went to a movie The Money Pit with Tom Hanks rather than participate in any of three synod prayer services (a choral evensong, a prayer-and-praise event and a meditation service.)

“I thought this prayer thing was a test to see which one you went to,” he said.

Similarly, the day of his election was not stressful for two reasons, Archbishop Peers said. Because he was able to answer his questions about his ability, desire and need for the job, he was at ease with any outcome; second, even if he had not been elected, Archbishop Peers said he could work with any of the other four candidates who shared the ballot with him.

(The other candidates were Archbishop John Bothwell of Niagara, Bishop Edwin Lackey of Ottawa, Archbishop Douglas Hambidge of New Westminster, and Bishop Stewart Payne of Western Newfoundland.)

Unlike the election of his successor later this spring Canadian bishops will meet in April to choose the nominees for the May 31 election the 1986 General Synod meeting began with no one knowing who would be on the ballot.

When General Synod prolocutor Diane Maybee and general secretary Harry Hilchey entered the cathedral parish hall at 4 p.m. on the afternoon of June 16 to announce to the bishops the results of the election that day, the Canadian Churchman (predecessor to the Anglican Journal) reported that Michael Peers “sat down and shook (his) head back and forth and said, Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear'” over and over again.

“They suggested it was now time to go back to the cathedral,” recalled Archbishop Peers. “I said no, not quite.” He had already spotted a pay phone in the hall to call his wife, Dorothy, who was at her job as a receptionist in a Regina law firm.

“I phoned the office and said, Well, it’s happened.’ I knew it wasn’t the way Dorothy foresaw our life. I had phoned a friend earlier and said that if she could be around Bishop’s Court (the Peers’ then-residence, the home of the bishop of Qu’Appelle), that would be a good thing.”

Moments later, when the group entered the cathedral where synod members were waiting to welcome the primate they had just elected, Archbishop Peers said he was struck by the reception.

“When we stepped inside the cathedral, everybody stood up and there was enormous applause, and Harold (Nutter, then-acting primate and Archbishop of Fredericton) and I walked to the front of the cathedral. And I thought to myself, This is one of these moments in which the Canadian church does it right,’ because what I had, at that moment, was the support of a majority of the bishops (that’s the nomination procedure), of a majority of the clerical members of the General Synod and of a majority of the lay members.

“So when I got to the front and turned around and faced them, I knew that at that point at least that’s what I had.”

One of his first statements upon his election, widely repeated over the years, was “Well, I am no Ted Scott. You will undoubtedly hear it many times during my primacy, but remember, you heard it from me first.”

By that statement, he explained, he meant that, while he had answered his own questions about his desire and abilities for the job of primate, he could not do it like Archbishop Edward Scott, the outgoing primate and an international legend in social-justice circles.

“Ted Scott was an enormous hero of mine,” said Archbishop Peers. “I had watched him in the World Council of Churches, the Anglican Consultative Council…. He still is a hero of mine.”

Although the church seems exceptionally turbulent now with its current controversy over the role of non-celibate homosexuals in the church, the blessing of same-gender relationships, and the strain of raising funds to support the financial settlement with the federal government over native residential schools Michael Peers did not enjoy a quiet initiation into leading a church. In the mid-1980s, women priests were still not a reality in much of the Anglican Communion (although the Anglican Church of Canada had begun ordaining women in 1977). The church which began in England but was growing fastest in Africa was struggling to loosen its colonial ties, and the Book of Alternative Services (BAS) approved for use in the Canadian church in 1984 had many detractors in the mid- to late 1980s. None of the controversies would be resolved easily or quickly.

In 1986 the year of Michael Peers’s election the Church of England (unlike the Anglican/Episcopal churches in Canada and the United States) had yet to accept the ministry of women priests. However, then-Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie, once seen as an opponent of women’s ordination, underwent a conversion on the issue during his tenure.

“He thought the way to help the Church of England towards a positive vote on the subject would be to allow them to have the experience that he had had to experience what it’s like to have a priestly ministry with a woman,” said Archbishop Peers. A resolution that would have allowed women ordained overseas to preside in C of E churches was declined.

After that motion was defeated, a majority of Canadian bishops agreed in the fall of 1986 that they would not function as priests in the Church of England as long as women priests were not allowed to function there. The issue was not put to a vote and so was voluntary. Archbishop Peers, though, maintained the boycott until 1994. With deep roots in England, where his family built a church in the 1760s (in a village called Chiselhampton, outside Oxford) this was a personal sacrifice; he has dozens of cousins in England and helped organize large family reunions there in 1988 and 1998. He declined family invitations to celebrate the eucharist at the 1988 reunion on principle.

While steadfast in his boycott, Michael Peers was one of two primates in the Anglican Communion who took a leading role in raising awareness of the gifts of women priests at the 1988 meeting of Lambeth (the gathering every 10 years of all bishops in the communion). Together with Ed Browning, then-presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, Archbishop Peers told the gathering: “The more fully the presbyterate reflects the whole range of humanity, the more fully we see the implications of humanity as created in the image of God.”

It was at that gathering that Archbishop Peers made a mark in church history by presiding at a Lambeth session in a language other than English. The idea, which seems matter of course now at the international Lambeth meeting, made waves in 1988. Archbishop Peers, who speaks English, French, Spanish, German and Russian, conspired with Bishop James Ottley of Panama on the Lambeth planning committee to ensure that the meeting would better accommodate non-anglophone bishops. Together with Bishop Browning, Archbishop Peers helped raise the funds for translators and headphones.

The primate recalls that day with wry smile. Although it was clear that there would be some translation during the plenary, there was still a “mad scramble for headphones” when Archbishop Peers opened the meeting in French. It did not take long, he said laughing, for the anglophone bishops to pick up at least two words of French: pour (for) and contre (against).

“After that, we had other languages where the vast majority of people would not know (the language) at all, like Japanese,” he said. “Now, it’s just part of the picture.”

The event did not go unnoticed by some who resented even a temporary replacement of the majority language. One Church of England bishop put a note in the box of intercessions asking that “God give the primate of Canada the gift of tongues.” Archbishop Peers, in a later presentation on the ordination of women, referred to the writer of the intercession with the dry comment, “God has granted your prayer but just for today.”

Back home, the primate made history again in 1989 when he presided at the church’s first Supreme Court of General Synod. The case challenged the validity of episcopal consecrations and ordinations performed using the Book of Alternative Services, a prayer book approved in 1984. The challenge was brought by an individual and backed by the Prayer Book Society of the ecclesiastical (church) province of Rupert’s Land.

The court which ultimately cost the church about $120,000 ruled that services using the BAS were indeed “liturgically and theologically valid.” Archbishop Peers remembers being “extremely nervous” about the situation, but it was his choice to preside over the court with help from lawyers. Still, he said, he was convinced that court proceedings were “not the way to go” in disputes of a theological nature.

“I was conscious of the historic nature of (the case), though I didn’t feel that the issue presented in that forum was really at the heart of the life of the church, Archbishop Peers said. “I think that Anglicans work out theology through liturgy.

“I felt that Anglicans in Canada in the ’80s (when the BAS was relatively new), were working this out parish by parish and were arriving maybe not as fast as some would have liked at some kind of modus vivendi (way of living, or compromise), either at a parish level or at a diocesan level, and going to law as they used to say was not the way that Anglicans wanted to resolve this.”

Still, the most “ferocious controversy” or perhaps the most global that Archbishop Peers can recall is not the question of blessing same-gender relationships. It was the church’s stand in the 1980s on the seal hunt in Canada’s North.

“In my first year, it produced more mail because in those days it was before e-mail than any other single thing since,” Archbishop Peers said of the issue. “The (General) Synod of 1986 passed a resolution supporting our northern people, who depended on the seal hunt. Well, we had letters from all over the world, the most impressive collection of stamps we’ve ever had in this office, from the (actress-turned-animal-rights activist) Brigitte Bardot fan club. It produced more worldwide mail than any other single controversy since. Extraordinary.”

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the church was facing its own colonial history head-on. After hearing the pain of aboriginal Anglicans and their stories of abuse at church-run residential schools, the church’s National Executive Council (the then-governing body between meetings of General Synod) instructed the primate to apologize, when he deemed it appropriate, to native people for the church’s role in the residential school system. That apology, delivered in 1993 in Minaki, Ont., at a convocation of native Anglicans, would be cited by many pundits as an admission of guilt that started the church’s slide toward near-financial ruin from former students’ lawsuits. Archbishop Peers, church lawyers and other church officials dispute that view.

“That is a piece of mythology which will never die,” said the primate, adding his belief that “if you know the thing is right, then you proceed with it.” The apology was not even mentioned in the one significant court ruling that went against the church.

Archbishop Peers, who sat with other non-native church observers through two days of testimony from former residential-school students and their descendents, listening to often-painful, tear-filled stories, delivered the apology from memory after deciding that the time was right. “I had the mandate and I had the moment,” he said.

“I am sorry, more than I can say,” he said in part on Aug. 6, 1993, “that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity.”

In more recent years, when the Anglican Church of Canada and three other denominations were embroiled in negotiations, Archbishop Peers defied detractors again and distanced himself from the negotiations. Archdeacon Jim Boyles, the church’s general secretary, became the point man for the talks (which resulted in a settlement signed in March 2003), although some in the church questioned why the head of the church, their primate, was not the face of the negotiations.

Surely, some suggested, the primate would have held some sway with the federal government.

For Archbishop Peers, though, the decision was simple. He thought the primacy should be “broader than the issues” of the day. Also, he acknowledged, his temperament might have been a detriment to the delicate negotiations. “I have never been a particularly patient man to start with,” Archbishop Peers said. Indeed, a bishop once told him, “you’re no poker player, Bishop,” and another said the way to tell “what’s really going on at the head table” of a meeting where Michael Peers is presiding is to look under the table; if his leg is bouncing, he is angry.

“My early experiences with the government in the negotiations were extremely difficult,” said Archbishop Peers. “My temperament is such that that kind of thing, especially with so much at stake on so many sides, made me so very cross.

“The government held all the cards. They had all the time in the world and vast reserves of money, and we not only didn’t have that much money, the most crucial thing for us was we didn’t have that much time, both for some of our dioceses and also for the General Synod. So we were negotiating under the gun, and I found that extremely frustrating.”

Having realized that the General Secretary, both in his temperament and office, was better suited to argue the church’s case, Archbishop Peers acknowledged that it was “more important to achieve the goal than for me to be part of it.”

The signing of the agreement, held last March in the church house boardroom, was somewhat soured by an eleventh-hour boycott by the Anglican Council of Indigenous People (ACIP). The council, which met the weekend before the signing, objected to the settlement’s proposed alternative-dispute-resolution process and to a grid system that would apportion greater compensation to those who had suffered the most. A group of ACIP members met with the primate hours before the ceremony and asked him not to sign the agreement. He told them he would have to resign if he refused to sign.

Months later, after church leaders and aboriginal Anglicans have begun to mend their relationship, Archbishop Peers will only acknowledge that the event was “difficult.”

“Aboriginal people, in their dealings with the government going back a long way (with some exceptions) well, most dealings have not worked out very well with them” said the primate. “So when we’re dealing with the government on issues that involve them, that is a picture some are going to find difficult. When we’re involved in negotiations that have a life-and-death character, it’s easy not to notice what’s going on alongside.”

Ironically, Archbishop Peers might have avoided the situation altogether had he retired when planned.

In the late ’90s, the primate delayed his retirement because of the lack of an agreement with the government. Having decided in 1994, at the end of a sabbatical, that he would retire in 2000 (with a successor to be elected at General Synod 2001), he changed his plans with the advent of the litigation, then the settlement, then other church matters. Bishops and other church officials advised the primate that it would be better to wait to retire. Ultimately, he did wait until 2004 to step down; he celebrates his 70th birthday in July, at which point he would reach mandatory retirement age.

“There’s a bit of irony in (delaying retirement),” said Archbishop Peers, laughing, “because by 2004 we’ve managed to find ourselves in a set of circumstances where we can hardly say to the 12th primate now that everything’s all fixed up, welcome to the position.’ However, you couldn’t [predict] that back in 2000.”

There were moments of pure joy in the primacy, too. Archbishop Peers said over the years that he has been constantly grateful for his ability to travel in his job. Using his meticulous records to jog his memory, he can rhyme off the days and places he has stayed over the years: for example, he has stayed overnight in 89 different communities in Ontario. Over 18 years, he spent a total 350 days nearly a whole year in the Episcopal Church in the United States and 110 days in the church in Cuba.

The primate also mentioned two career high points: aboriginal day at General Synod 2001 where native Anglicans participated as full partners in a day of healing, and that synod’s vote in favour of full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. The native participation culminated in Bishop Gordon Beardy responding to the 1993 apology by telling the primate, “I forgive you.” Full communion with the Lutherans was part of a worldwide movement of closer ties between the two churches, and that made it special, but the primate says he was honoured to represent the church at the signing of the agreement.

“It had huge meaning to me to make that gesture on behalf of the church,” he said. In his sermon that day, he defined the word “remember” as putting members back together (re-member). He said that forging closer ties between the two churches was like a re-membering or a reforming of what had been dismembered. “It is the restoration of our wholeness,” he said. At the end of a joint worship service marking the signing, Archbishop Peers and Lutheran National Bishop Telmor Sartison sang the closing hymn, Siyahamba / We are marching in the light of God as they danced around the ice surface of a hockey arena the only space large enough to hold the thousands who attended.

Michael Peers sees his primacy in two distinct parts: before and after General Synod 1995. That synod was the gathering in which the church voted on a strategic plan that, among other things, ended the church’s vast program department. The church, through extensive consultations, had decided that the national office should do what only it could do mission and overseas work and leave to the dioceses work that could be done locally. The decision meant major restructuring at the national level, including a realignment of the management at church house, the informal name of the church’s national office.

Despite the pain of the structural changes, Archbishop Peers thinks they were worth it, particularly as distrust of the national office decreased. “In the last half of my primacy, there was a lot less anti-church house sentiment. That was partly because the system was clearer than before and because we stuck with it.” Also notable, he said, is that financial support to General Synod from the dioceses (with a couple of exceptions) has been strong since the restructuring.

It was that respect for the church and its processes that is at the heart of one of Michael Peers’ disappointments about his primacy: missing the meeting of General Synod in St. John’s in 1989 due to illness.

“The meeting was perfectly well chaired,” said the primate, who was in a Corner Brook, Nfld., hospital with kidney stones throughout the meeting, “but in this job and in this office, where we work on three-year cycles which lead up to, then lead away from a General Synod, it was frustrating not to be there to see what happens with what has been done.

“But also, to head into the future without having witnessed the kind of decision-making that shaped it, I found that hard.”

The experience, though, taught him something about his temperament. He was eager to leave the hospital for whatever fragment of General Synod he could still attend, but the nurses told him he would not be released until his temperature had been normal for 48 hours. He stewed about the situation for days while his 104 F fever continued unabated. Finally, he said, he surrendered the situation to God and wrote a note telling the synod that he was unable to attend. His fever broke that day, and 48 hours later he went home.

While Michael Peers will retire with an astonishing 877,363 air miles, collected over the years on his hundreds of flights around the world, his wife Dorothy will not be immediately available to join him for lengthy trips. An administrative assistant in the Canadian Broadcasting Corp’s arts and entertainment division, she will not retire until 2006.

Mrs. Peers did accompany her husband on a few notable trips. She went with him to Lambeth, China, and the Holy Land, and in 1988 they joined a handful of Episcopal couples including Patti and Ed Browning (former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States), Leah and Desmond Tutu (former archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa), and Olga and Orland Lindsay (former archbishop of the West Indies) in a delegation to Nicaragua and Panama, where they met then-Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega and Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.

The Peers will likely use some of their air miles to visit their children and grandchildren. Eldest daughter Valerie (39) is in Winnipeg; middle son Richard (37), his wife, Jeanette Revet, and their children, Emma (7) and William (4), live in Regina; youngest son Geoffrey (33) and his wife, Nga Trinh, live in New York.

Archbishop Peers said that, unlike some children who have only the vaguest concept of their parents’ careers, his offspring definitely knew what their father’s role in the church was. Growing up, they had church newspapers (including the Canadian Churchman) in the house, which chronicled their father’s job as priest, then bishop, then metropolitan, and finally primate. Wherever they worshipped, they would hear the congregation pray for “Michael, our bishop,” or “Michael, our archbishop” or “Michael, our primate.”

The transition from “bishop’s kids” to “primate’s kids” was not easy, however.

“Our older children were 21 and 20 (when I was elected primate) and they have always maintained they never left home we did because their home was in Regina, and when we left, there was no home in Regina,” recalled Archbishop Peers. “Our older son (Richard) moved back to Regina a few months later and asked whether the new bishop and his wife (Eric and Patricia Bays) who had no children living with them [would] mind if he moved back in.” The eldest Peers son ultimately lived at Bishop’s Court for nine years with his parents and six with the Bays family.

It is perhaps a necessary clicha to say that home is sanctuary for Michael Peers, as much as it can be, considering he has spent 48 per cent of his nights away from home during his primacy. But he said he never takes work home with him either physically or mentally as he did as a priest or bishop. Workdays found him walking with his canvas tote bags from Church House to catch public transit.

“I have a nice, seven-minute walk between getting off the streetcar to turning the key in the door. I used that walk, over the years, to shed the things (mentally),” said Archbishop Peers, who lives on the edge of Toronto’s High Park. “So the walk between the streetcar and the house has always been a great gift.”

As he takes his last streetcar trip as primate of the Anglican Church of Canada and turns the key in the door, his wife and the house recently renovated to accommodate the growing extended family on their visits home will be seeing more of Michael Peers than ever before.

And finally, a career of surprises, disappointments, highs, lows and moments of grace will be in the recent past, and the retired primate will become an observer of a church that he proudly served as chief pastor for 18 years.


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