Autobio 2000

A Personal View of the Twentieth Century

by Robert Brow   Kingston, Ontario, Canada, 2000

Chapter 9

An Anglican Priest

Early in January 1971, after three and half years of Ph.D. studies, Professor Canfield told me to have my thesis on "Wittgenstein's Language Games" printed, and sent in for final evaluation. Three weeks later I received a letter from Professors Evans and Hunter saying the thesis would have to be reworked in another style. I knew immediately that I had no inclination, or the finances, to spend another year doing academic philosophy. What I really longed to do was to use what I had learned from modern linguistic philosophy for the world-wide mission of the Church. And the first step was to reestablish myself as an Anglican minister. By then the counterculture of the sixties had begun to change the denominational rigidity that had bothered me. The ground had been prepared for this the year before. When we first came to Canada in 1964 we decided to compromise and become Presbyterians. Mollie had been raised in the happy warmth of Cheam Baptist Church. She was ill at ease in the somber liturgy and music of Anglican worship. She gagged at the antiquated jargon of Canons and Archdeacons, Lent and Ember days, Quinquagesima, Sexagesima, Septuagesima, collects and rubrics. None of our four children had been baptized as babies. I had also come to the conclusion that the Anglican denomination I had been ordained in was so stuck in its traditions that it could hardly survive the counterculture of the sixties. I hated its refusal to accept others to communion till they were properly confirmed.

So we used to drive down the Don Valley Parkway and across to Knox Presbyterian on Spadina Avenue. We loved the long rich sermons of Bill Fitch. Then some good friends in Don Mills asked us to come and join them in St. Mark's Presbyterian. When we moved to Collingsbrook Road, which was then at the northern limit of Metro Toronto, we linked up with Donald MacLeod at Bridlewood Presbyterian. They used to meet at Don Mills Collegiate where our children, Rachel and Peter, had begun high school. For the second time I applied to be accepted as a Presbyterian minister, but got cold feet as I filled in the forms.

One evening in the spring of 1970 Mollie and I decided to attend the evening service at Little Trinity on King Street in the run down part of Cabbage Town. At that time Hippies were not appreciated among respectable Christians. As we arrived we could see the building was packed with young people wearing bellbottom Jeans and flower child dresses. A beautiful girl named Gunta Sturis greeted me at the door and gave me a flower and a kiss. That settled it. If this was what Anglicans were about, I wanted back in.

For the first time in her life Mollie delighted in the Anglican services led by Harry Robinson. We were thrilled and encouraged by many new friends in our new family. We were moved by the long haired students kneeling next to Bay Street business men around the circular communion rail. And then Bill Foley at the organ would begin the notes of a charismatic song, and the church sounded like heaven.

Early in March 1971 I wrote to Bishop Garnsworthy asking if I could meet him. I said I wanted to get my feet wet by teaching part time and caring for a small Anglican congregation at week-ends. He lit a cigarette and said "Bob, make up you mind. Do you want to be an academic or an Anglican priest?" I said I wanted to be in parish ministry. "Are you willing to begin in a three point country parish?" I said yes. "I will place you in a parish by the end of the summer." I was totally impressed by the man I continued to respect for the next eight years. Up till that time I had assumed that anyone who was a chain smoker could not possibly be a real Christian.

Soon after I got back from Calcutta, I was told the wardens of the Parish of Cavan wanted to meet me. We came up from Port Hope past Christ Church, Balieboro. As we drove down the hill from the east into Millbrook, we could see the spire of St. Thomas shining above the village. Mollie and the children thought it looked as pretty as a picture. We had always lived in big cities, so I wondered how we would survive a country parish. Then we drove ten minutes north to St. John's, Ida, the third point overlooking the village of Cavan. We were told that a hundred years before any Roman Catholic coming to live in the area would get "smoked out" (barn set on fire). And the same would happen if a Protestant ventured into the neighbouring Roman Catholic township.

Two of the wardens, Alex Jackson and Art Trick, moved us into the Millbrook rectory. Olga Fallis was our first visitor. Mary Jackson and Mildred Johnson brought us a dinner. And later that afternoon, Clare Winslow, another of the six wardens came to see us. He gave me tremendous support for the next four years. Whenever someone was going into hospital from anywhere in the parish he would call us, and often I would arrive at one of the two Peterborough hospitals as the ambulance was coming in. One's enjoyment of a parish depends mostly on the love and thoughtfulness of the people who welcome you. That was certainly the case in the three parishes we served in the next eighteen years.

That first evening in the Rectory we had settled for bed when the doorbell rang. I came down expecting to hear someone was dying, but I saw some children running away with great delight. That seemed ominous, but we were never bothered again. The next day a woman came to inform me that a neighbour was living in sin, and was expecting a baby. What was I going to do about it? Happily I answered, as I have done in all other congregations I have served, that the expectant woman probably had other worse faults, I also had many faults that needed correcting, and she herself was probably not perfect. I never had a moral complaint again.

Six weeks later just before breakfast the phone rang to say that St. Thomas Church had smoke coming out of the spire. It was only a hundred yards away, and already I could see flames. By the time the Millbrook fire brigade arrived the spire was like a Roman candle, and the flames were moving along the roof. We heard the bell of the fire truck from Balieboro as it roared up with a pump that could bring water up from the river. Mollie and the children, Muriel Smith from across the road, and others from the village were crying as there seemed no way to save the beautiful old church. Then we saw one of the St. Thomas wardens, Joe Lunn, wearing a fireman's helmet and going up the steep roof on a ladder with a hose in his hand. Perched high up near the fire he pulled out his axe, cut a hole in the roof, and kept spraying inside the roof till the church was saved.

Instead of replacing the spire from the insurance money, I managed to persuade the members we needed a connection between the main church building and the Sunday School hall. It also gave us washrooms and a kitchen. That brought the congregation into the twentieth century. Unfortunately a staircase had to be cut down to the new level, and one pew at the back of the church had to be removed. The gracious lady who used to sit in that pew in the half empty building refused ever to come to church again. But she sent baking for church functions, and knitted for the sales till she died.

But then we also gained some. Ted and Nancy Hodgkinson began attending St. John's, Ida, and added a huge amount by way of love, hospitality, and deep spiritual concern. Ruth Stanton came to St. Thomas, and when I visited her in Cedar Valley I asked if she was married. She turned on the radio, and I could hear a beautiful deep voice introducing the FM classical music programme. "That's my husband." When he came to church I was astonished to see he was a very tall black radio announcer who had come from Jamaica.

Bonnie Zralko had decided that her family was in a mess, and she wanted God's help. So she drove round the village, and found St. Thomas Church with its tower and no spire. The huge cracked bell which had crashed in the fire was on the grass outside. "That's the church I am going to get cleaned up in." She came and introduced herself, and was baptized with her children. About ten years later she drove over to see us when I was in charge of St. James' Kingston. Her brother in law was disturbed and had called for help, but she told the children she was busy. That night he committed suicide, and she had to identify the body which had been pulled from the lake. For the past six weeks she had nightmares, been riddled with guilt, and covered with psychosomatic skin conditions, which no amount of medication would clear up. I asked her if she believed God could forgive murderers. "Oh yes, I know God can forgive even the worst murderers." I said to her, "Bonnie, you certainly did not commit murder. But if God forgives murderers, why not tell him you feel you caused the death of your brother in law, and feel terribly guilty about it." Right then she prayed that prayer, I laid hands on her, and assured her she was forgiven. Quarter of an hour later she drove back home, and on the way the skin conditions cleared and she slept peacefully that night.

Mollie soon began a small Bible study group, which grew and divided in two, and then divided again. Eventually there were forty women gathering week by week and sharing deeply in four different groups.

We loved visiting our new friends all over the area west of Peterborough. I couldn't get out of the car at one farm till they came and tied up the very cross dog. In one home a frail old lady served us a small glass of wine, which we accepted after twenty-five years as teetotalers (see the article on "Moderation"). I only had one scary experience. I drove up a long driveway to an isolated home and rang the bell. The woman opened the door and stuck a loaded gun in my stomach. "Who are you?" When I explained I was from the Church, she asked me in, and showed me her beautiful home with flocks of birds at every bird feeder. Not a great churchgoer, I buried her husband, and she became a faithful supporter of St. John's, Ida and attended all the eating events.

Arthur Kilgour had been a diplomat in Egypt and other places. When he retired from being Registrar of Trinity College, he had an architect design a house that seemed part of the trees around. He used to band Canada Geese that came back to his pond every year. For a year or two we had a discussion group named ID (identity, interdisciplinary, interdenominational, Imago Dei, etc.). Peter and Rachel were part of a small class of eight at the Millbrook High School, and seven of them got into the universities of their choice. Arthur said that our son, Peter, must go to Trinity College in the University of Toronto, and made sure he got in.

The social life of Millbrook revolved around the hockey arena. Every Saturday our sons, Peter and Tim, played for their Millbrook teams as we screamed our encouragement. It seemed that the other fans were never satisfied till there was blood on the ice. The fiercest enemies were the teams from the village of Keene.

One of my duties was to be Anglican chaplain of the Millbrook Penitentiary. It was a provincial institution for inmates who had less than two years to serve. I had never visited a jail before, and it was an eerie feeling having five sets of doors clang shut behind me. Mollie played the organ and got used to being ogled, but we were always astonished at the reverence of those who attended the evening communion service. I asked one man what he intended to do when he got out. "Oh, I have nearly finished my two years for stock fraud, and when I get out I have enough stashed away for life."

One Sunday I had to fill in for the penitentiary chaplain at the two interdenominational morning services. At the first I got a wonderful response using a question and answer method. In the next service no one said a word. I asked the guard why they were so different. "Couldn't you tell them apart? The first lot were sex offenders, mostly well educated. The second group had blown their brains on drugs. We can spot which group they belong to as they arrive, and we have to keep the various kinds apart or the sex offenders would be dead." We had many of those prison guards connected with the parish. The pressure on them was so great that very few survived till their retirement.

Our neighbour two doors away was Miss Blanche Moore. We had imagined she was as poor as a church mouse. In the winter she didn't even want to pay a boy to shovel the snow from her door. When she was killed in a car crash on the hill up into Peterborough, she not only left $120,000 for the parish of Cavan, but carefully stipulated that each of the three churches would get $40,000 each. That saved us from interminable wrangling as to how the money should be divided. St. John's, Ida, boldly went ahead with the social and educational facility that enabled them to grow with the population to the west of Peterborough. After four very happy years in Millbrook, early in April 1975, I got a phone call from Harry Robinson asking me to come and join him as associate at Little Trinity Church. Within an hour of agreeing to do this I was also invited to apply for a parish in the city of Quebec. If the latter had come first, I think I would have considered it very seriously as a way to use the French which I can still speak fluently from being raised in Brussels, and Mollie can understand and get by in from learning it at Sutton High School. The congregation of the parish of Trinity East was usually called Little Trinity, as opposed to Holy Trinity next to Eaton's in the heart of the city. Our three years there were at once the most stimulating and the toughest years of my life. I was told my job was to free Harry Robinson to take teams from the congregation on his very fruitful missions. When he was away I had to run the parish. People would drive in for the services from as far as Oakville and Ajax. But there was also a group of three or four hundred, mainly single persons, who lived in the downtown area. Trying to visit all over that vast city was horrendous. If someone was sick or in big trouble I would not hear, and if they were admitted for treatment they could be in any one of a dozen different hospitals.

Under Harry Robinson's leadership the congregation had become very accepting of people of all sorts of lifestyles. One father from Barrie brought his son who was gay, and asked me if we could give him a church home. I explained that he was welcome to take communion with us, and he would find others with the same sexual orientation. But when two women came and demanded to be married, I said marriage was between people of the opposite sex. Could they make a public statement in the service next Sunday? I said no, but I prayed with them, gave them both a hug, and invited them to communion. They were astonished and came.

One year I had set up the parish conference, and asked people to take part in various ways. Harry came back, and immediately had a slew of serious pastoral problems to deal with. Forgetting he had asked me to run the conference, he appointed people to this and that. There was a very high level of frustration, but somehow the power of the Holy Spirit broke through the constant confusion in astonishing blessing.

Ruth Samarin thought I needed to relax from the pressure of work. She signed me up for a course at the Toronto School of Art. In the fall of 1976 I began studying Wednesday mornings with Larry Middlestadt. I liked his paintings, and enjoyed his very creative teaching. But he expected a new oil painting each week, and I had no time to paint. Late Tuesday night I couldn't sleep working at the composition and colours of what I was going to present in class the next day. By Christmas I knew it was impossible to grow as an artist and take care of a busy parish church at the same time.   We still have a painting I did with the illusion of water and mountains running through some silver birches.

Next to the main building was the Enoch Turner School House, which was used for all sorts of cultural events. On one occasion I got talked into having a group from England come in to put on a passion play. It all sounded very plausible, and the event would include a procession through the church. But soon we discovered they were into witchcraft. It was impossible to cancel our agreement, and the members of the community on King Street had non-stop prayer meetings against this evil influence. On the day the ritual apparently included a woman coming in with a rooster in one arm, and a sacrificial dagger in her right hand. After an incantation she was meant to drive the dagger into the bird's heart, but she missed and went right through the artery in her arm. Blood spurted out, she was rushed to hospital, the event ended, and all was well.

Among the many good things that happened, two stand out. And both of them would be viewed as radical dangerous behaviour on my part . There was a nurse I used to visit in the North York General Hospital psychiatric ward.  Week after week it looked as if she would never get better. One day I was so frustrated I took her in my arms and gave her a long warm hug, and prayed desperately for her healing. Somehow that convinced her that we loved her, and that God loved and accepted her. The cure was instant, and she was back at work two days later. What I did could easily have resulted in being dismissed from parish work for unprofessional conduct. These days ministers are in constant danger of being suspended for unprofessional conduct, and being sued for sexual assault.

Another very dedicated Christian woman had been very active in the congregation. Suddenly she stopped teaching Sunday School, and disappeared from the church. Two or three months later she asked to see me, and said she was filled with unbearable guilt because she was having an affair with a married man. I told her to come to communion on Sunday. "How can I do that? I am still enjoying him, and I have no intention of giving it up." I told her to accept God's forgiveness, take communion from me, and I would tell her what to do next. I was moved to tears as she came to the communion rail and held up her hands for the bread. After the service I told her to ask the Holy Spirit to give her God's kind of love for the man.  Three weeks later she came to church looking very bright. I asked her how she was doing. "An amazing thing happened. As you suggested, I asked the Holy Spirit to fill me with genuine love for the man.  I found myself caring for him and his wife and children very deeply.  After a bit he said we couldn't go on with our relationship.  It was like being in bed with God!  We were able there and then to talk about things sensibly, and close off the relationship." The next year she got married to the right person, and they had two lovely children.

A sad tricky situation occured when Mollie and I were asked to visit Charlie and Nancy McPherson from Winnipeg at a small hotel. Two days later Nancy called to say that members of the Children of God had spent all night brainwashing them, and she needed to escape with her two small children. I checked with Harry Robinson on what to do, and asked for prayer. Mollie and I arrived at 8.45, found Charlie and the Children of God asleep after another night of brainwashing, and we whisked Nancy and her two small children away. Nancy's father and brother set off immediately from Winnipeg, and took her home, but Charlie disappeared in the sect and was never seen again.

Vern Heinricks was one of the wardens. Twice he paid for Mollie and I to stay and eat at the best hotel in Niagara on the Lake, relax and see a play.  I am sure that this and other thoughtful kindnesses helped us survive. Another warden was George Cummings. He was the chief engineer responsible for the construction of some of the skyscraper office buildings in downtown Toronto. At every step of the way he fought fiercely with Harvey Herron, the head of the Crane Drivers' Union. At any time his workers could refuse to work, and millions would be lost as the project came to a halt or the hourly wages were forced up. During this time they attended different services, and never knew that the other was a regular member of Little Trinity. One day they knelt next to each other at communion, and the arch enemies realized they were both Christians. I was at Harvey Herron's retirement party. George Cummings and his lawyer both spoke at the dinner with great awe and respect. "Harvey fought very very hard, but always fairly."

Throughout our time at Little Trinity Benoy and Joy Biswas were good friends. We had met them when they came from Pakistan soon after we came to Canada. Their son, Matthew, was my godson, and we used to take him to the swim and gym program run by the church at the 999 Queen Street West Psychiatric Hospital pool.  I also used to be the sea monster that chased Rachel and Jenny Deck, and other children, screaming out of the water. Rosalind Deck was Treasurer, and then became the first woman to be elected a Warden of the congregation. Andrew and Frances Merrick joined us the second year, and they still come and stay with us two or three times a year.

I always enjoyed the bag lunches every other Thursday with Bishop Garnsworthy. He invited any of his clergy, especially the more radical ones, to attend. He would throw out a topic for the day, and listen to us argue the question from every angle for an hour. This helped him make up his mind what to do, and a few days later he would announce with great authority,   "I have decided to do so and so."  From my point of view the changes were very exciting and all in the right direction. People of any denominations were welcomed to Anglican communion. Children were allowed to share at the family table before confirmation. Women became Anglican priests. There was a memorable occasion when the diocesan theologian, who had fiercely and learnedly opposed the ordination of women, stood up to make an announcement. "I have been discussing the question with a woman theologian, and this past week I have had to change my mind.  I now believe it is God's will that women should be Anglican priests."

Early in May 1978 I discussed with Harry Robinson the fact that I felt it was time for me to make a move. Based on what I had learned with him at Little Trinity, I had written the first draft of Go Make Learners: A New Model for Discipleship in the Church (it was not published till 1981). When he read it, he said "I have been trying to do most of that for the past few years, but with a bad conscience." I think he meant that the kind of church life I pictured in the book did not fit the old Book of Common Prayer that he was committed to. I told him I would like to try out the new model in my own parish. A few days later I informed Bishop Garnsworthy that I intended to end my work at LT by the end of August. He tried to slot me into another parish in his diocese, and he seemed genuinely sorry to see me move to Kingston in the Diocese of Ontario.

Chapter 10 ...