A servant ministry: the Primate’s work across Canada

This article originally appeared in the Ministry Report, an Anglican Journal supplement produced by the Resources for Mission department. 

Archbishop Hiltz leads children’s story time at St. John’s Anglican Church, West Toronto.
Archbishop Hiltz leads children’s story time at St. John’s Anglican Church, West Toronto.

It’s children’s story time at St. John’s West Toronto and the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada sits with the kids.

Soft morning light mottles the little crowd and a preschooler, Jake, begins to wax eloquent. Nodding a head of brown curls, he ventures that the wedding at Cana was attended by “mommies and daddies and grandmas.”

Jake goes on. And on. And on. Archbishop Fred Hiltz listens intently, smiling and keeping his eyes on the boy.

For the Primate, these moments are just one, happy part of his job—one of the most misunderstood in the Anglican Church of Canada. Though people often recognize his face, he’s often asked, “So what exactly do you do?”

It’s not a quick answer. A seven-page canon, or section of church law, explains the Primate’s work. He’s called a presiding bishop, senior metropolitan and a primus inter pares (first among equals).

In truth, he’s an episcopal oddity. Unlike other bishops, or many primates elsewhere in the Communion, Archbishop Hiltz is not based at a cathedral. He must be invited by a diocesan bishop before he presides at a parish eucharist.

In 2010, a primatial task force reviewed this unusual role. Some parts were clarified, but in short, the group found that Canadian Anglicans wanted a spiritual leader—a Primate who is both prophetic and caring.

One indigenous community in Manitoba called Archbishop Hiltz “Canada’s great praying boss.”

“The relationship piece for me is very important,” says Archbishop Hiltz. “People always say to me, ‘You’re our connection to the national church,’ so I try to be it.”

He’s both a spokesman and a servant. Elected in 2007, Archbishop Hiltz, former bishop of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, has stepped up to lead a wide range of meetings.

Now he chairs meetings of separately incorporated entities—the Anglican Foundation, the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund—in addition to the usual, required meetings such as Leadership Circle and the House of Bishops.

The latter, a twice-yearly gathering of Canadian Anglican bishops is one of the livelier meetings the Primate chairs. The house has seen hot conflict over theological issues, especially same-sex blessings and scriptural interpretation.

Hiltz has worked to cool the mood. As chair and liturgical leader, he’s given the bishops more time for quiet and theological reflection. He’s said his goal is to ensure that bishops do not leave these meetings more tired than when they came.

Yet some view this new civility as a kind of “silencing,” says Hiltz.  Heading into a new triennium, he wonders how the bishops should balance personal reflection with the need to discuss hard topics and make clear, public statements to the church.

In the meantime, spiritual care is central. Hiltz is pastor to all bishops, regardless of theological differences. At meetings of the house, he frequently seeks “one-on-ones” when he perceives a need for personal, human contact.

He also visits. When Bishop Barry Clarke’s wife was dying at home in Montreal, the Primate went to be with her. He has driven hundreds of kilometres with Archbishop John Privett of Kootenay, bonding during a parish tour road trip.

In fact, more than half the Primate’s time is spent travelling. He is often invited to diocesan synods, provincial synods and church anniversaries (usually the biggies that end in five or zero).

In most cases, the Primate’s office pays travel expenses and the parishes host—though the Primate makes sure that cost is never a barrier to his visits.

Each visit is different. Archbishop Hiltz could stay in a home or hotel. He’ll be sent to square dances or to test-drive a new handbell set. He’ll also eat whatever is put in front of him—from Arctic char to boiled beaver.

In return, the Primate offers his heart and mind. He writes a fresh sermon for every visit, researching every church and linking its story with weekly readings. He believes people can smell a sermon re-heat from miles away.

Staff in Toronto help him prepare. Jo Mutch, administrative associate, puts together an engagement folder and calms down nervous hosts. Her stock phrases include “Don’t worry; he loves family pets.”

Out on his travels, Archbishop Hiltz keeps in close contact with his wife Lynne back home in Scarborough, an eastern suburb of Toronto. The man who values face-to-face connection is slowly learning how to use his BlackBerry.

The principal secretary sometimes joins him as travel companion. Born 50 weeks before Archbishop Hiltz, Archdeacon Paul Feheley is officially the Primate’s chaplain and unofficially friend, advisor, and troubleshooter.

Part of the principal secretary’s job is to juggle the many requests lobbed daily to the Primate. Archbishop Hiltz is often asked to speak on behalf of the church, but must check first to see what’s on record as a national statement.

Then comes the writing. The Primate writes sermons and statements in longhand, sometimes using scissors and tape in the editing process.

At St. John’s, West Toronto, the longhand sermon is about one of his favourite topics: the Marks of Mission. The Primate speaks slowly and sincerely, then deftly navigates the rest of the service with a Lutheran prayer book.

Afterwards, people crowd in to chat with “Fred,” as he insists on being called. It seems everyone has an East Coast connection: a cousin in Halifax, a sister in Saint John—so Fred’s accent loosens up a bit. He fetches his rolling suitcase and lingers in the sanctuary before walking back to the subway.

Rarely does the Primate visit a parish twice. The next week he’s off to Vancouver, where he will visit churches—including St. John’s Shaughnessy—returned to the diocese after an epic legal battle.

Archbishop Hiltz has an exhausting job. He pays the price in grey hair and health—including nasty colds from frequent air travel.

Though primates can stay until the age of 70, Hiltz, now 59, says he likely won’t. He can imagine a return to his beloved local ministry for a couple of years.

Until then, parish visits are the best fuel to drive his important work.

“It’s a gift given to me, and without it I would be absolutely lost,” says Archbishop Hiltz.

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