“I read a lot of science fiction. I thought it was science fiction at first,” said Canon Herbert O’Driscoll when Canon (lay) Ian Alexander asked how it felt to know the Vancouver School of Theology (VST) had raised over $200,000 toward an annual masterclass in preaching bearing O’Driscoll’s name. At the livestreamed launch event for the O’Driscoll Forum on May 31, a cast of O’Driscoll’s colleagues both present and past appeared remotely from across Canada and the U.S. to describe the 93-year-old preacher’s approach to creativity, education and communicating the gospel, which the forum aims to share with new generations of clergy.
“Although there are many who preach and teach the gospel with excellence and passion, there are some who stand out for their ability to bring the gospel alive with a fresh voice, vibrant metaphors and winsome, captivating resonances,” said Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, seated at a piano after playing a musical introduction to the stream. “One of those people is Canon Herbert O’Driscoll.”
In addition to preaching, O’Driscoll is known for his hymn writing, liturgical work and as the former dean of the diocese of New Westminster’s Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver.
As of the launch, VST had received $219,000 from 88 donors, about 2 thirds of the $300,000 necessary to set the forum up as a permanent annual event at the school. Each summer, VST plans to invite a leading preacher, liturgist or teacher to run a master class for student clergy, focusing on ways to bring the story of the gospel to life for a modern audience.
Speaking on the livestreamed event, John McWilliams, a member of the forum’s steering committee, said the idea came when his home parish of St. Martin’s in Calgary invited O’Driscoll to speak to its book club.
“After the presentation ended, we began to chat about Herb’s honours and legacy. How were he and [his wife] Paula being recognized?” The first idea was a scholarship in the O’Driscolls’ name, he said.
But a scholarship would have made an impact only on the student who received it every year, said David McMillan, another O’Driscoll Forum organizer. So he consulted with colleagues there, “And out of that came the idea of establishing a place in Canada where people who were really keen to become effective preachers of the gospel could come and learn, practise and experience working with others.”
The format of the forum will be based on one O’Driscoll helped develop at the College of Preachers in Washington, D.C. There, students received instruction from teachers and then spent two afternoons delivering their own homilies to groups of peers who would then offer them feedback, encouragement and criticism.
“I realized that the college was far more than a place for teaching and learning,” said O’Driscoll, reading aloud from a memoir he had written of his two years as warden at the college. “It was nothing less than a place of healing in an age when clerical ministry was becoming increasingly stressful and demanding … all serving to remind a vulnerable priest that he or she was not alone in their struggle to retain a sense of vocation.”
At the college, he continued, “A priest could expect to receive insights about the homiletic task that would often reignite passion to replace what had too often become a disheartened and jaded attitude to the duty of preaching.” That was the work he hoped would live on in the forum, O’Driscoll said. He remained a member of the College of Preachers’ adjunct staff for another 25 years after leaving the campus.
Several of those who spoke about O’Driscoll on the stream said their biggest hope for the forum was that it would reflect the creativity and imagination he showed in composing and delivering his sermons.
“Everyone speaks of Herbert O’Driscoll’s brilliance as a preacher, teacher and hymn writer. But for me, the role that speaks to me the best is Herbert O’Driscoll, storyteller,” said Canon Cheryl Palmer, rector of Christ Church Deer Park in Toronto. “It is never difficult to imagine the people and places that he describes. With his charming Irish personality, well-crafted words, striking images and deep faith, he draws you into every story.”
The O’Driscoll Forum’s organizers are still seeking donations to reach the $300,000 goal needed to set the program up as an annual event in perpetuity. VST expects to hold the first forum in the summer of 2024 and have announced that the first master preacher featured will be Bishop Todd Townsend of the diocese of Huron.