By Rev. Canon Keith Nethery
The Venerable Archie Skirving died on December 24 about 8:30 in the evening.
Archie served the Diocese of Huron as a priest for more than 40 years and was most proud that he lived to celebrate 60 years as a priest in God's church.
It seems to me that it is appropriate that God and Archie chose Christmas Eve, just about the time the Christmas Eve service, if we could have had one, would have ended, for his departure from this life to experience all that is to come.
There are many who are more qualified than I to write a story about Archie. Until the last three years when I became his Rector, our paths didn't cross with frequency. He had retired from active ministry before I returned from the wilds of Alberta to take up priestly ministry in this diocese.
Under normal circumstances, St. James Westminster would have been full for Archie's funeral. Thanks to the pandemic, there were less than ten of us who gathered for a fitting tribute. It was in the stories told in this intimate service that I think we can find “the story” of Archie.
First and foremost, he planned the service. Once he had received the diagnosis that his time on this earth was coming to an end, Archie called me to the apartment to give me the outline of his service. Being Archie, he planned for just about every circumstance – with options dependant on who and how many could be in attendance. He chose the readings, and as those who knew Archie will surmise, they were chosen for a reason, they tied together if you looked deeply enough and they were a combination of the normal funeral readings and more original choices. He had options for the music to fit the possible pandemic restrictions. Along the margins of the handwritten page, a list of do's and don'ts for me to follow and I did! He looked me straight in the eye when he said, “Be sure to do it the right way!” That was Archie's way. He wanted the liturgy of his service done properly. And I did my best.
Some stories that were told on a Wednesday in late December. Bishop Todd Townshend graciously accepted an invitation to preach. He told a story that spoke on so many levels. It spoke of Archie, of his friendships, his way of doing things. But it was also a snapshot of ministry in a different time. Todd was newly ordained and visiting a parish member at St. Joseph's hospital on a Friday afternoon. As he passed the cafeteria, he saw Archie and several colleagues having coffee. Archie spotted him and of course invited him to join. It was a regular gathering as clergy came together to check the listing of Anglicans in hospital. Todd remembers being honoured when Archie and the others invited him to join them any time.
I shared about our first meeting, an important event for me, probably less so for Archie. In 1996, in early May, I was ordained priest in God's Church by the Rt. Rev. Barry Curtis in the Diocese of Calgary. I celebrated the Eucharist for the first time in my parish in Medicine Hat that weekend and then boarded a plane for Ontario to preside at the Eucharist the next Saturday, in St. James Westminster, London, at my sisters wedding. I had heard the legend of Archie. I was still wet behind the ears, just ordained and would have the added nerves of all my family in attendance. Archie gave the rookie a few “moments.” For example, he pointed out that the hangings and vestments were new and expensive and that I had best not spill anything. And then he smiled! But what I remember more than anything was that I felt loved and supported by him every step of that day. His pastoral heart was most evident.
I had the chance to say thank you for this just two years ago. Archie asked if he could be Celebrant for the Eucharist on a Sunday in January of 2019, with his son Rob, the Bishop of East Carolina, as preacher. It would be just after Archie marked the 60th anniversary of his ordination as a priest. My answer was quick and sincere: yes! On that January Sunday, I sat off to the side in the Sanctuary and watched Archie. I did exactly what he asked me to do and gave him full control of everything else.
It was my way of saying thank you for his welcome more than 20 years earlier. I know that Archie was fulfilled by that day.
As death drew closer, I visited Archie more frequently. Each visit was a story telling extravaganza. Of course Archie won, he had more and better stories than I could generate. But more importantly, I again saw that look of fulfillment on his face. It was another step on the journey, to remember the people, places and events of his ministry. He simply needed someone to listen and I had the privilege of being that someone.
Archie Skirving loved deeply. He gave so very much for this Diocese, for the people of Huron. I offer this reflection so that those who knew him well can remember, and those in ministry who didn't have the chance to know Archie, will know of his pastoral heart.
Rev. Canon Keith Nethery is the rector at St. James' Westminster, London.