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Former Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, Archbishop Michael Peers, dies, aged 88

Posted on: August 8, 2023 12:16 PM

[Anglican Journalby Mattew Puddister]

The 11th primate of the Anglican Church of Canada and one of its longest-serving leaders, Archbishop Michael Peers, died 27 July in Toronto just four days short of his 89th birthday. 

Peers served as primate from 1986 to 2004. Major events during his primacy included his official apology for the church’s role in the residential school system, as well as the achievement of a full communion partnership between the Anglican Church of Canada and Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC). 

“I am grateful for leadership modelled by Bishop Michael,” Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, said. “He led our church with courage, humility and grace tempered with humour and a deep compassion. His legacy lives in the work we continue today in reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, the dignity of every human being and our relationships as family with all Christians. May we honour that legacy through our work to live into these gospel commitments.” 

National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop Chris Harper said that from an Indigenous perspective, Peers “started the whole process of reconciliation” with his 1993 apology Harper said the late former primate would be remembered as “prayerful, courageous and at the same time a man with great vision to see . . . the path we have to walk together for healing for all the church.” 

Friends and colleagues remembered Peers as a brilliant yet humble church leader, known for his thoughtfulness, humility and wit. One close friend was former governor general Adrienne Clarkson, who met Peers when both were Trinity College students at the University of Toronto. Peers would later officiate at her marriage and gave the prayers and invocation at her installation as governor general. 

Clarkson, a lifelong Anglican, described Peers as “an extraordinary figure of great faith and integrity.” 

“He had a wonderful sense of humour,” she added. “He was just one of the most brilliant intellects that I have ever met. He could discuss anything in German philosophy . . . as well as he could explain to children in Sunday school what God was. He just had this breadth of knowledge and yet . . . he was the most humble man with all that intelligence and that brilliance. 

“To be a person who is recognised in your time, to be able to do something for your time, is a great gift to all of us from God and Michael was that,” Clarkson said. “He was a gift to us from God.” 

Michael Ingham, retired bishop of the diocese of New Westminster, served as Peers’s principal secretary from 1986 to 1990. “He was a wonderful boss, in part because of his wisdom and his pastoral kindness,” Ingham said, “but also because he really made you feel like a colleague and not an employee.” 

Peers was born in Vancouver and raised in the Anglican Church but left it as a teen. He graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1956 with an undergraduate degree in languages, then earned a degree in translation from the University of Heidelberg the following year. 

A polyglot who spoke fluent English, French, German, Spanish and Russian, Peers initially planned to pursue a career as a diplomat. But when a friend invited him back to church, he shifted career goals. Obtaining a licentiate in theology from Trinity College, Peers was ordained as a priest in the diocese of Ottawa in 1960. 

He went on to serve as a university chaplain in Ottawa from 1961 to 1966 and parish priest in Winnipeg from 1966 to 1974. He then began serving as dean of Qu’Appelle. In 1977 he was elected bishop of Qu’Appelle and in 1982 metropolitan of Rupert’s Land, before his election as primate four years later. 

One of the most impactful events of Peers’ primacy was what Clarkson described as his “beautifully crafted” apology for residential schools, which Peers delivered on 6 August 1993 to the National Native Convocation – later known as Sacred Circle – in Minaki, Ontario. 

Nicholls said the video of Peers’s apology – written in response to survivors’ accounts – never failed to move her to tears. 

“The power of his statement, ‘We tried to remake you in our image’, continues to reverberate in all of our ongoing work in reconciliation as a reminder of our failure to live into the theological conviction that all are made in the image of God!” Nicholls said. 

“That apology – in its honesty and humility – is the icon of the ongoing reconciliation work we continue to do,” she said in her statement to the church. “It is a part of our history that every Anglican should see and hear.” 

Former primate Fred Hiltz said Peers’ apology “set our church on the course of healing [and] reconciliation for which we could never and will never turn back.” Harper noted how Peers “wanted it be a heartfelt apology, not read off a paper.” Clarkson saw the apology “as absolutely Christ-like . . . It was accepted as an apology because it was sincere and total.” 

The 2001 signing of the Waterloo Agreement, which established full communion between the Anglican Church of Canada and ELCIC, was another milestone of Peers’ primacy. Ingham said that the friendship between Peers and ELCIC National Bishop Telmor Sartison helped pave the way for the agreement, supported by the work of their respective staffs. 

“They managed to work through the theological obstacles that had kept our churches apart for 400 years,” Ingham said. “That’s no small achievement.” 

Peers’ contributions to ecumenism also included a stint on the central committee of the World Council of Churches where, Ingham said, his fluency in Russian and “natural ability to make friends across cultural divides” helped address the discomfort of some Orthodox church leaders with contemporary movements such as ecumenism and the liberalisation of theology in Western Europe. 

Hiltz said that as president of the Metropolitan Council of Cuba – the body that guided the Episcopal Church of Cuba after 1967 – Peers helped see that church through difficult times. He recalled how Peers always made a point when travelling to Cuba of visiting parishes, often baptising and confirming people – a pattern Hiltz sought to emulate in his own primacy. “His influence in the church in Cuba was immense,” Hiltz said. “People remember him with great affection.” 

Peers is survived by wife Dorothy, three adult children and four grandchildren.