the penultimate WORD
Series 2007 -
The Irvine Tartan • My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
There was more in the air than frost. Anticipation and hope moderated the chill afternoon as a winter sun cast lengthening shadows of a procession entering the Cathedral. Breath in frosty clouds of mitred bishops in sweeping copes marked the approach of Alexander Henry O’Neil – to be consecrated a Bishop in the Church of God. The date was January 25, 1957. The occasion: the Conversion of St. Paul.
I witnessed none of this – few of us did. That was fifty years ago this month. The Archbishop of Québec, Philip Carrington presided at the Consecration and Installation. The new Lord Bishop of Fredericton emerged, taking the first of countless steps into his diocese. We would not be the same for the steps he took.
The scene is remarkably different from Jesus’ interruption of Saul’s journey to Damascus. But the difference is more in the details than in the substance.
Both men, I’m sure, knew their minds and each were capable in their respective areas of expertise. Hebrew scholars both, their defence of the faith was clear and measurable: Saul by his apologia against the growing Christian sect in defence of the Torah; Henry by his academic presidency of Huron College and later by his direction of the Canadian Bible Society. Their established pattern of faithful behaviour was admired and applauded, and was soon to be interrupted by Jesus himself and forever reshaped – like clay on a potter’s wheel.
As Philip laid hands on Henry other Episcopal hands joined his. In their touch – known in the Church from the beginning – clay was moulded and a new Bishop stood: Alexander Henry, Lord Bishop of Fredericton. Our word “lord” comes from the Old English hlaford, or “loaf-ward,” he who guarded the bread supply – and was expected to share it. This could not have been lost on the junior bishop. His stewardship of the bread supply – indeed the Bread of Life – would become a hallmark of his episcopacy.
The darkness of the January afternoon that greeted Henry demanded a light that would enlighten every soul now in his care. His episcopacy was not a disappointment.
I met him five years later, when I screwed up the courage to tell him I felt called to Holy Orders. Harold Nutter, my Dean and mentor made the introductions. I have to tell you my audience with the Bishop was from the beginning encouraging and pastoral. Over the years we discovered a mutual respect where our conversations were direct and amicable. I have heard of exceptions, but they aren’t mine. His stewardship of enabling my studies included his inviting the widow of Charles F. Todd of St. Stephen to establish a scholarship to honour her husband and benefit me. I was the beneficiary of her generosity and his vision and initiative throughout my time at King's.
Such vision and initiative was extended throughout the diocese. In 1957 many parishes were without a full-time priest. Insufficient resources demanded this. The stewardship of the “loaf-ward” demanded that everyone would be able to access the Lord’s Table and share in a feast intended for us all. The financial exigencies of the late 50’s aside, Henry’s acumen challenged empty parishes to reach further than they had previously, as he challenged established parishes to share their largesse with those struggling with a burden. They rose to the challenge and he encouraged us all in this. Anticipation and hope began to take on shape. As vocations were sought, Medley Hall was begun and Layreaders who assisted by traveling to empty parishes were encouraged to undertake a course of study. The lamps burned bright and late at the Church of England Institute on Princess Street in Saint John as senior priests gave instruction to men who would enter Holy Orders and empty parishes and full-time ministry.
Henry’s stewardship as our “loaf-ward” seemed to know no bounds.
Our generation has enjoyed the benefit of those who have gone before us and in this regard, we have all benefited from the vision and ministry of Henry who showed that we could reach further than we had been used to reach. No parish was empty when he laid his hands on me and I stood a Deacon in the Church of God – among the last of his Episcopal acts before he retired. Each generation benefits from the sacrifice and effort of the one that goes before. May ours not be a selfish witness to the provision that encouraged us.
Copyright © 2007 James T. Irvine
Portrait: A.H. O'Neil by Harvey Studios, Fredericton