For the first time in the history of Montreal Diocesan Theological College, both dioceses of Montreal and Quebec have elected graduates of the college to be their bishops: the Rt. Rev. Mary Irwin-Gibson (Diploma in Ministry 1981) in Montreal, and the Rt. Rev. Bruce Myers (Diploma in Ministry 2004) in Quebec. The college is proud of its graduates and especially delighted that two of them have been called to leadership roles right here in our home and neighbouring dioceses. In these interviews, Bishops Irwin-Gibson and Myers think back to their time at the college, reflecting on how seminary has informed their vocations. In this exciting time of transition, what may be the college’s renewed role for these two dioceses?
What would be one of the most valuable things you learned at Dio? Could you give us examples of how this has served you in your ministry? Is there anything you’ve found yourself wishing you had learned at seminary?
Rt. Rev. Mary Irwin-Gibson: I entered the college in the Fall of 1975, before women were being ordained. It was a serious gamble to determine whether God was calling me or not. My bishop kept saying he didn’t know whether he’d be able to ordain me, whether he’d have a parish for me. The climate in the college was difficult because there were people of the conviction that women should not be there at all. And there were others who were warm and welcoming and open to it. In the middle of that I was trying to figure out my own journey and who I was. My one-year full-time internship at All Saints, Verdun with William Derby confirmed that I really did want to be ordained and go forward into ministry.
Those early days could be upsetting and chaotic. There were militant women having gatherings to talk about how angry they were about things that were wrong in society, the use of ‘man’ in prayers, etc. It was pinging off all the walls.One of the most valuable things I learned amidst all of it is that there are a variety of gifts and viewpoints in the church and we have to respect and get along with one another. We can’t cater to our own preferences all the time. We can’t create the Church in our own image. This is a really important lesson because we tend to think that the image we have of Church is the one that ought to exist and other people have got it wrong. Instead the true Church is in the conglomeration of our different preferences and tastes and experiences. Coming out of the college I always wanted to conceal my individual preferences because I thought it was much more important that we find unity than that we all come out as one flavour. This has played out again and again in my years in ministry. I have had to work alongside people I wouldn’t have chosen to be with. That’s reality.
We lived in residence and there was no food service on weekends. I liked to cook and I organized a meal every Sunday. Anyone who wanted to take part could contribute a dollar and eat with us. We used the kitchen downstairs in the college and had some really good community meals with various kinds of people. I’ve always liked making meals for people and feeding them. I grew up in a big family so it wasn’t hard to make a large pot for a lot of people.
Rt. Rev. Bruce Myers: I might not have said this while I was a student, but with the benefit of hindsight I’d say having been formed within a concrete community of learning was one of the most valuable aspects of my time at Dio.
Our life together at the college was a daily round of common prayer, classes, study, meals, and just hanging out. It was in that seemingly mundane quotidian routine that we encountered all the joys and challenges that come with life in Christian community, including how to respect and deal with difference.
After ordination I quickly came to realize how important my life in community at Dio had been in helping prepare me for life in the other communities of the church I was becoming a part of as a parish priest, as a clerical colleague, as an ecumenist. Each of those roles has obliged me to deal with difference, and occasionally also conflict. Community life at Dio helped me recognize the need to do so with ample measures of humility, grace, and charity (and also confess how I’d sometimes failed to do so while a student there).
It was the residential nature of my formation at Dio that made this sort of learning possible—the push and pull of life together that can only come when you’re literally rubbing shoulders with your sisters and brothers (including those of different Christian traditions) on a daily basis. Online and other forms of distance education have their place, and I’m actually enrolled in such a program at the moment. But I also recognize that there’s a kind of ministerial formation that can only come from the nitty-gritty experience of a place like Dio.
As a bishop in the province of Quebec and as a graduate of Dio, what would you highlight as Dio’s greatest asset? How should the college build on this asset?
Rt. Rev. Mary Irwin-Gibson: I would like to see the college be adaptable to new trends in church training, such as church planting, helping people think beyond just looking after who walks inside, looking towards what can we do to engage the community around us. How can we reach people who are not inside the church and yet probably have a hunger for God? I don’t remember that being discussed in my training. In my time we focused on how to be a pastoral and prophetic leader who would speak to those inside the church. We were looking at justice issues on a superficial level, such as whether we should have flags in church or remembrance day services. Right now we’ve got clergy who go and hang out at the Tim Horton’s to meet the community. There have got to be ways to meet people in the community. I’ve found it useful to take a course in the community and belong to a community association that isn’t part of the Church. Getting engaged in the community is a challenge. The college’s smallness has to be an opportunity and not just a threat. How can we take that and tune it as a strength? It’s already underway. We have dedicated and responsive teachers and leaders. You can’t just learn the skills; you have to grow as a profound disciple of Christ. If you haven’t got that, when you get out there with all your skills you’ll be bone dry. Being a disciple is more important than having all the tricks. The spiritual life of the college looks and feels richer than when I was there.
Rt. Rev. Bruce Myers: There are so many: Dio’s ecumenical setting, the intimacy its size permits, the In-Ministry Year, its location in the heart of a cosmopolitan city. However, if I had to pick one I might say it’s the college’s relationship with McGill University, and for a couple of reasons.
Having our theological college affiliated with a university is in the best tradition of cultivating a faith seeking understanding. I believe the arrangement between McGill’s School of Religious Studies and the Montreal School of Theology strikes a healthy balance between the academy and the seminary. It allows those being formed for ordained ministry a chance to rigorously (and sometimes uncomfortably) engage with scripture and tradition from different angles, guided by instructors who are themselves both scholars and Christians, and integrate it with an overall approach to ministry. Such a formation fits with my conviction that our church needs priests who can be both compassionate pastors and thoughtful theologians who can help equip the people they serve to be themselves compassionate and thoughtful disciples of Jesus in the world, reflecting theologically on every aspect of their lives.
Another benefit to the relationship with McGill is that students preparing for ministry in “the world” are studying every day alongside those who aren’t members of the church, but who are still curious about Christian scriptures, history, or thought. From their very first day in class seminarians are obliged to be in a kind of dialogue with colleagues who aren’t Christian. In its own way every such course at McGill is a course in modern-day evangelism, and an opportunity to give an account of the hope that is in us.
This, combined with McGill’s increasing emphasis on interfaith studies, provides those preparing for ministry at Dio with an important preparation for the secular and pluralistic Quebec context into which many of them are going to be sent to serve.
Do you feel Dio has a role to play in helping to reposition and/or revitalize ministry specifically to children, youth, and young adults in our diocese? What could that look like?
Rt. Rev. Mary Irwin-Gibson: We’ve tended to think that people are specialists and yet when we get into parish life we can’t afford to be specialists. We need extremely creative, adaptable, responsive, high-energy people coming out of the college who will have some clue about most areas of ministry, even if there’s a natural place they want to be doing ministry. This reminds me of a young fellow I know in my last diocese who graduated from a prestigious university in the US who came to me and said he wanted to be a chaplain. I told him to go into a parish and learn the craft first and then figure out if he wanted to specialize. He has since discovered that he loves parish ministry and he ended up with a youth group, which he loves. Where we think we want to go and where we end up being placed by God and our leaders is not necessarily the same thing. Narrowing our focus too much and not remaining adaptable is really a problem. What I learned at Dio is to keep learning. In our graduating year we had to talk about what our learning goals would be for the next five years. I can’t tell you what my learning goals were but I remember the idea that what I got at the college wouldn’t be enough and I should be constantly learning to keep my priestcraft healthy and useful.
Rt. Rev. Bruce Myers: There’s a fundamentally counter-cultural quality to Christianity that I think many young people who’ve recently become members of the church find compelling. I think, for example, that there’s something very telling in the number of young adults drawn to some kind of association with religious communities—some old, some new. What is it about having a community, a rule of life, a tradition, accountability, and even some silence that they find attractive?
The young people I know tend to have a very highly attuned BS meter. In other words they can very quickly spot the deficit between a person’s or institution’s rhetoric and their actual deeds. I think anybody—but young people especially—will be attracted to a church that tries its best to actually live out what it says it believes. It doesn’t sound like rocket science, but if we’re honest our church has a pretty mixed track record of its words matching its deeds. No program, curriculum, or strategy is a substitute for simple authenticity.
It’s been nearly 20 years since the public school system in Quebec was deconfessionalized. Since then the churches have not been able to rely on the state to provide religious instruction to our children. It’s not clear to me that our church has determined a way to adequately fill that void in the way some other minority religious communities in Quebec have. They may have something to teach us.
As former Anglican Church of Canada Coordinator for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, you’ve done a lot of work around ecumenism and you’ve credited Dio to kindling this passion in you. How do you see this playing a role in your mandate as Bishop of Quebec?
Rt. Rev. Bruce Myers: Above and beyond the fact that working ecumenically is a gospel imperative, doing so in the context of contemporary Quebec just makes sense. This province has become one of the most secular places on the planet. Offering a divided Christian witness only further erodes Christianity’s credibility in the eyes of people already sceptical, cynical, or downright hostile toward the church.
The diminished resources of many of our churches is making working together across denominational lines more and more obvious, especially in rural areas. For example, in some small Quebec communities where there used to be separate Anglican, United, and Presbyterian churches—each with their own pastor—only one church remains, and often that remaining denomination can’t provide regular pastoral and sacramental ministry. In such situations, what unites us as followers of Jesus becomes much more important than what divides us as Christian traditions. So Dio’s ecumenical ethos helped prepare me well for the kinds of creative conversations I’m having about how the church in the part of Quebec I serve can be recognizably Anglican and ecumenically open, hopefully revealing something of God’s kingdom in the process!
I also believe that there are before the churches in Quebec meaningful opportunities for us to speak with one voice about (and, yes, act on together) matters of critical importance to people’s lives—matters about which our common faith has something to say: end-of-life issues, welcoming refugees, care for creation, protecting religious freedom, to name just a few. These issues cut across the old divides of Catholic-Protestant (and the newer ones of mainline-evangelical). I especially worry that fear and suspicion of “the other”—whoever that “other” may be in any given situation—is becoming a recurring theme in this province’s public discourse. The churches here need to be vigilant about this trend, and be ready to stand together to safeguard the dignity of every human being with whom we live in Quebec.
What are a few of the best ways Dio alumni can contribute to the current life of the college and ensure its continued presence in Montreal and our province in the future?
Rt. Rev. Mary Irwin-Gibson: Take an interest. Pray for the students and invite them to your parishes or your ministry workplaces, whether that student is assigned to your parish or not. Recently I was at All Saints, Dunham. Their priest now is Sinpoh Han, who was my student for two summers in a row, doing ministry and get his feet wet. He was figuring out whether this is what he really wanted to do and he loved it. Returning there this year was fun because he was telling people he lived in the house I lived in and he felt I had given him a chance. He also understood that out there in rural life are some real people with some real interests. There are some real advantages to living there; getting students out of the city could be a good thing and the alumni can help with that. Also, the alumni can visit the college on Wednesdays (when there is a community Eucharist followed by a lunch). Finally, the college is in the process of finding its next principal and it does have hope for the future–it needs its alumni to back the college now more than ever by praying for the community and for the selection of the next principal. If alumni can give, then they are invited to do so.
Rt. Rev. Bruce Myers: As Principal John Simons used to say (only half-jokingly): “Send money!” I suspect most of us who are Dio alumni could stand to be more frequent and generous in contributing financially to our alma mater.
No less important though is our role as alumni in serving as ambassadors for Dio wherever we go. Our beloved little theological college tends to punch above its weight, with four of its alumni currently serving as members of the House of Bishops, in other positions of church leadership, as teaching faculty, and in a variety of pastoral ministries in Quebec and beyond. Despite the fact Montreal Diocesan Theological College has been around for well over a century, it’s still relatively little known, even within the Anglican Church of Canada.
A new chapter in the college’s life will soon begin with the appointment of a new principal. That will bring with it an opportunity to get to know and work with Dio’s new leadership for the renewal of its life and mission in raising a new generation of Anglican Christian leaders for service in and for the world.