Being the Church in and for the world

Entering his last year of service as the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, Archbishop Fred Hiltz reflects on his journey, talks about his regrets, and shares his views on some major challenges facing the Church – its place in the Anglican Communion, its role in the process of reconciliation and finding the ways to engage with the problems of the world today.

Eleven years ago, then newly elected Primate sat down with Jack Sizeland for a short conversation which was defined by the interviewer’s age: Jack Sizeland was only ten. They met again at this year’s Huron Synod. This time around, the questions were more probing and called for some serious soul searching.

By Jack Sizeland

When we last spoke in 2007, eleven years ago, you had just become the Primate, and my first question was: How does one become the Primate. Now, as we approach your retirement, I guess I’ll ask how does one resign their position?

You need to do a lot of discernment as to when you should go. Primate in our Church can stay until they are 70, but most people go before that. Because we can only elect the Primate at General Synod – and General Synod normally meet every three years – the question for me was should I resign now or should I stay for another three years.

I began wrestling with that in the last year or so. I came to the conclusion that it was time for me to create a space and opportunity for the Church to elect a new Primate, new leadership, new vision, new energy, a new direction.

I am very much at peace with the decision. When I look back over the last 11 years, and I see what sorts of things have transpired in the life of our Church, I realize that now is a good time for us to have change and I feel that we need that change. I feel that we’ve been able to do a number of good things together in the last 10-11 years, but of course you never leave with a sense of having accomplished everything you’ve hoped would happen.

If you could give an advice to your successor, what would be that one piece of wisdom that you want to pass on?

It’s not unlike a bishop: you must be Primate for everybody. One of the most important roles of the Primate is to hold the Church together, to hold everybody around the table – in fellowship, in good and respectful dialogue, in prayer and in discernment. You cannot be seen as the Primate for this or that group. As Rowan Williams used to say, “Sometimes as a bishop you have to let people doubt in the name of Jesus…”

You are someone who has a good understanding of what is Canada’s place in the broader Anglican Communion.

Anglican Church of Canada has a long history of being regarded as a very active member church of the Communion and a very loyal member church of the Communion. We also have a good history of being transparent. So, if we were having a really difficult conversation about a controversial subject, we’ve never been afraid to say to the rest of the Communion, “We are in it! It’s messy, it’s difficult, it’s painful, it’s upsetting, but we’re in it, and we’re in it for the long talk!”

We are also known in Anglican Communion as a church that has responded very favourably and generously to the invitations to have Canadian Anglicans serving in very significant roles in the life of the Communion. Alyson Barnett-Cowan from Toronto was our director of Unity, Faith and Order for the whole Anglican Communion. She was the acting Secretary General for a while. The current director of the Unity, Faith and Order is another Canadian – John Gibaut from Ottawa. Bishop Linda is the co-chair of the Anglican – Roman-Catholic International Commission…

I could make a list of all the different aspects of the life of the Communion where Canadians play a significant role. That says a lot about our commitment to the Communion and it also says a lot about how the Communion views us. Archbishop Michael Peers used to say: “We are not like some churches, we can’t carry bags of money to the Communion office”. But we sure can carry a lot of good will and a lot of confidence in a variety of areas.

What are the lessons that Canadian church might be able to learn from its international counterparts?

I’ll take one example: Consultation of Anglican Bishops in Dialogue. One of the things that are very eye-opening and very humbling for some Canadian bishops who are involved in the dialogue with African bishops is to recognize the huge difference in social, political and cultural context around sexuality. We live in a country where same-sex marriage, through federal legislations and in lot of cases through provincial legislation is a given. So you are coming into a dialogue with bishops from Africa, where in some countries homosexuality is considered an abomination and a punishable crime. You also get into the Christian-Muslim mix around sexuality issues in that part of the world and you realize that this conversation has an impact on inter-faith relationships and on relations between the church and government.

Another example is around climate change. You have to be in conversation with other folks in other parts of the world to realize what kind of challenges they face with rising sea levels or expanding deserts, or irresponsible mineral resource extractions…

So, that’s why these wider conversations are important. You get a sense that the things we do here actually do have a ripple effect. They affect people in other parts of the world, people who may be as committed to these conversations as much as we are, but they live in a very different political, social and cultural context.

We are talking about our sensitivity to the impact of our decisions on wider Communion relations?

Yes, and I know it’s daunting, it’s certainly humbling, but we have to continue to listen and learn from that. My experience is – and I’m going to be quite blunt – when we are talking about the issues of sexuality in the Primates’ meetings, there are what I call the regular speakers: you know what they are going for and you actually know what they are going to say before they open their mouth. And as soon as you shift gears and move into something like a conversation about human trafficking, or climate change, or women on the frontlines of conflict resolution, the level of participation in the room goes up exponentially…

God is saying: “It’s not about you, it’s about my world…”

If I have one big, single regret, it is that in my time as Primate we have spent so much time on human sexuality that we haven’t given other important matters the kind of attention that is due. And I’m always reminded of that when I go to an international gathering where the picture is big, and the world is huge and complex. Some of the stuff we think is so important, so crucial to the life of the Church, to the unity of the Church – all of a sudden you see them in a different perspective. It’s like a wakeup call and for me it’s simple as God is saying, “It’s actually not about you, it’s about my world, and it’s about the world that’s broken; it needs healing, it needs compassion, it needs the justice of my ways…”

How can individuals and congregations that are often very concerned with their own sustainability and viability engage with these larger problems?

There are two things, I would say. One is around the baptismal covenant, the vows of baptism, and how seriously do we take those. We live in a Church where there are still too many places where the preparation for the baptism is pretty shallow. It’s about, “We’ll meet you at four o’clock on Saturday afternoon, we’ll have a little chat, and go through the order of service.” There is a huge amount of work that we need to do around that. Because if you look at the baptismal covenant, you are already into an opportunity to talk about things like work with the poor, building a just society, caring for the Earth… they are right there in the vows!

The other thing is around leadership and how are we training men and women to be strong, spiritual leaders – ordained or lay – who can help the Church to see itself in and for the world, and to point the Church in that direction. We need people who can point to the resources, weather through the National Church, or through diocesan synod, or through the Anglican Communion. We live in the world where you can download all kinds of stuff, you don’t have to invent everything. And that gets into conversation between churches and theological colleges, like here in Huron, where we have three colleges: Canterbury, Renison and Huron. The relationship between churches and these schools is really, really important, because if the leaders in a congregation do not know how to access the resources, then how is congregation going to be able to do that? There are opportunities there, sometimes untapped.

The legacy of Church’s treatment of the Native peoples has been one of the passions in your time as the Primate. How can our past be used to build a better future?

Given long and awful legacy, we have to be prepared for the long ball. Reconciliation is not something that I can simply declare, I cannot impose it, and I cannot rush it. It has to emerge, and sometimes it takes a long, long time.

I, as the Primate, can never get weary of saying “I’m sorry”. But reconciliation is not just a matter of saying I’m sorry for what we did; it means living in such a way that people can see that there’s some integrity in our apology. We have to be giving some evidence that we are trying to make amends, that we are committed to discovery of language and culture and indigenous spirituality, all the things that we took away from people. But having acknowledged that we’ve robbed them of their very identity, we need to find a way not to give it back to them (because it’s not ours to give it back to them) but for them to be able to discover it afresh and for us to be supportive of their deep desire to recover the values they’ve lost.

That was one of my issues with the TRC and the idea of having gestures of reconciliation. I’ve always thought it was an insult to Indigenous people and I’ve always believed that we need to have an opportunity for a conversation to figure out what are we going to do here, to see if we are ready to start talking about reconciliation. And if we are, then what is that going to look like… So, it’s a journey that will require courage and humility on our part. It will require commitment and leadership of our next Primate and the next Primate…

Finally, what does a Primate do for fun? What do you plan to do with your retirement?

I’m shifting gears – that’s how I’m talking about what happens next summer. I garden, we are great animal lovers, my wife and I, and we’ve just acquired a new Black Labrador puppy. We are so crazy about these creatures that we flew to Nova Scotia the weekend of the ice-storm in Ontario, we flew there, rented a car, drove to Lunenburg county, picked up this puppy and drove all the way back to Toronto. And of course, we have a grand-daughter whom we love dearly.

I am resigning as the Primate but I’m going to continue to do some work in parish ministry. I may do some reflecting and writing, but right now I’m looking to some more time to give back to my wife, just the gift to be able to be home, to be present to our grand-daughter, to enjoy that pup, and to do some parish work – that’s as simple as the plan is.

Jack Sizeland is the assistant director at the Huron Church Camp and a parishioner at St. James’ Westminster, London.

The Primate as a faith witness:

That’s how it happened to me:

I majored in biology. I always had in the back of my mind that I would be a school teacher. But I also had an incline about the possibility of serving the Church – though not in full time or ordained capacity.

I got my science degree in 1975 and I was already registered for a Bachelor of Education program. I still to this day do not know why, but I was in Halifax and I walked from the ferry terminal down to the Northwest Arm, to the Atlantic School of Theology. And I can remember going into the old administration building. It was late July or early August, there was not a soul in the building to say hello, and I just picked up a brochure, I took it home, I read it. They had a program where you can do the first year – check it out kind of thing. And I remember thinking, maybe I’ll do that instead of the Bachelor of Education…

So I went to see Bishop Arnold. He sat in his chair and he said, “You should go back down and register right away, I want you to start in September.” I was thinking to do it maybe next year, and he said, “No, you have to go now.”

And that’s how it happened to me. Rather quickly, but I have no regrets.


If I were 20 again:

If I were starting all over again, I would say, I need a spiritual director, someone who could sit down with me every once in a while and ask me some hard questions about my own prayer life, my own spiritual disciplines, my own commitment to retreat and quiet time…

In all honesty, when I look back, I was not very good at that when I was your age, not at all…

Be more attentive to your own spiritual wellbeing so that you can be more able to be attentive to the spiritual wellbeing of other people. You cannot always be giving, you have to go to the well yourself and say, I’m thirsty, and allow yourself to be refreshed.