Just five months ago, the Rev. Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan, General Synod’s director of Faith, Worship, and Ministry was considering a major life and ministry change. “I was taking a sabbatical, thinking, ‘maybe it’s time to leave and take a quiet parish. Or maybe take an early retirement, and put my feet up,’” she said in a recent interview.
But while travelling in New Zealand, the renowned ecumenist learned that she had been appointed director for Unity, Faith, and Order for the Anglican Communion. She will begin the London-based job on November 9.
“I’m thinking about it as an adventure,” she said with a smile. “It does feel like this is rooted in vocation.”
This “adventure” will take her to London for one of the Anglican Communion’s top jobs. Canon Barnett-Cowan will oversee ecumenical relations between the Communion and other global bodies. She will staff specific dialogues and help translate their recommendations back into Communion policy. As well, Canon Barnett-Cowan will oversee the process for the Anglican Covenant, which, if accepted, will describe relations between provinces of the Communion.
Canon Barnett-Cowan is up for the challenge. After all, she’s been building community amidst difference for a long time.
An ecumenist early on
Canon Barnett-Cowan first caught the ecumenism bug as a student in the sixties. “There was all kinds of ecumenical ferment going on after Vatican II and when I was at University of Toronto, the [interdenominational] Toronto School of Theology (TST) was being built,” she said. “There was a lot of interest in going to each other’s places [of worship] because the doors were open and we’d discovered so many interesting things about each other.”
The daughter of an Old Testament professor, Canon Barnett-Cowan went to seminary to study theology—not to become a priest. Women’s ordination was hotly debated at the time, and she found herself defending it on theological grounds. Eventually she discerned her own calling and was ordained a deacon in 1975.
It was one of her own professors—Canon Eugene Fairweather, an Anglican observer at the Vatican Council—who decided to appoint the young Barnett-Cowan to an Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue in 1977. Although she said the experience initially was “terrifying,” it also whet her appetite for this kind of theological engagement.
For several years, however, ecumenical work was put on the backburner. Canon Barnett-Cowan got married, had children, and having been ordained a priest in 1978, ministered in several northern communities. She served the Naskapi people in Quebec, then shared the leadership of a Cree theological college (the Henry Budd College for Ministry) in the Pas, Man.
In 1987, Canon Barnett-Cowan got a call from General Synod’s ecumenical officer, the Rev. Canon Brian Prideaux, asking if she would assist in an Anglican-Lutheran consultation. Although her bishop did not seemed enthusiastic about the offer, she felt it was “a really exciting opportunity.” This work led to another opportunity—to take over Prideaux’s position in 1990—which she happily accepted.
A career of conversations
Once at General Synod in Toronto, Canon Barnett-Cowan established herself as a knowledgeable and articulate leader. In 1995, she became director of Faith, Worship, and Ministry, where she oversaw work on Canadian liturgy, ethics, and interfaith relations.
She also immersed herself in ecumenical conversations, helping churches discuss their differences and find common ground. Canon Barnett-Cowan staffed several Canadian dialogues (with the Roman Catholic Church, United Church, and others) and was summoned to several international ones, including membership on the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith, and Order (IASCUFO), and as a consultant to the Anglican-Lutheran International Commission. Involvement in these international bodies has exposed her to Christian life in the Seychelles, Japan, South Africa, and beyond.
Canon Barnett-Cowan names the Canadian Anglican-Lutheran dialogue as one of the ecumenical highlights of her life and career. The joint conversation first budded in the 1990s and then blossomed in 2001 with a declaration of Full Communion between the Anglican Church in Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC). This new relationship means that baptisms are mutually recognized and clergy permitted to officiate in churches of the other denomination.
“When you actually find a common point and celebrate it together, it’s just wonderful,” said Canon Barnett-Cowan. “I hope there will be more of that.” It is fitting that her last Canadian assignment will be at a joint meeting with Anglican and Lutheran bishops from Nov. 2 to 5.
Between these mountaintop moments, she finds satisfaction in building community.
“When you’re in a dialogue, there’s something wonderful that happens,” she said. “You get people who are very different from one another but who begin to catch a sense of what a common goal might be. Of course there’s a lot of sitting in meetings, but there’s a lot of prayer, and eating, and going out on outings and just common life that builds friendships.”
“That’s what I hope will happen in the Anglican Communion as well,” she added. “When people meet and pray with each other that they find that there’s something greater than their differences.”
Differences in the Communion are daunting at present, and Canon Barnett-Cowan may face challenges as an ordained woman from the Anglican Church of Canada, a province which has faced Communion criticism for its recent actions around same-sex blessings.
“I’m hoping there’s going to be some gifts of the spirit to get me through the tough times,” she says with another grin.
Canon Barnett-Cowan is married to the Rev. Bruce Barnett-Cowan, a priest in the Diocese of Toronto. Together they have three grown children—Michael, Catherine, and Francesca—and one granddaughter, Quinn.
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