By Stuart Mann
“Are you ready to row?”
Bishop Andrew Asbil, the diocese’s coadjutor bishop, asked that question during his consecration service today at St. James Cathedral in Toronto.
The congregation answered with an emphatic “Yes!”
It was one of many delightful and surprising moments in the two-hour service, which began and ended with songs written by rock groups The Who and U2.
Bishop Asbil, wearing his mitre and vestments for the first time, asked the question from the chancel steps just before the exchange of the Peace. He was referring to the song “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” the famous spiritual that describes St. Michael the Archangel rowing across the River Jordan from the Exodus to the Promised Land.
“To be dressed today in a mitre, a chasuble, a ring, a pectoral cross and a staff – some of it brand new, some of it well worn, some of it worn by saints who have gone before us – is to be literally wrapped in a story that can’t help but pull the oar for life,” he said. “In a world full of cynicism, doubt, fear, greed and violence, to pull on the oar is to pull for life itself.”
He thanked Archbishop Fred Hiltz, who gave the homily, and Archbishop Colin Johnson, the current Bishop of Toronto who will be retiring at the end of the year. He thanked his wife Mary and their children. Then he addressed the congregation – and the diocese – directly.
“Now I have only one question for you – for the Church, for our priests and deacons, for our lay leaders and pew dwellers: Are you ready to row?”
The congregation responded with cheers, clapping and a resounding “Yes!”
He continued: “Are you ready to put your back against the wind and pull on the oar?”
It was a wonderful moment and a powerful image to share as Bishop Asbil prepares to become the next Bishop of Toronto on Jan. 1, 2019.
Another memorable moment was at the end of the service, when Bishop Asbil and Archbishop Johnson walked down the aisle together, side by side, to sustained applause while U2’s song “Beautiful Day,” performed by musicians from the Church of the Redeemer, Bloor St., filled the historic cathedral.
To many, including Archbishop Johnson, it felt like the start of a new chapter in the life of the diocese. “I’m so happy that Andrew is going to be leading the diocese in some new directions – that’s exactly what we need to do,” he said. “I’ve led it for a season of time and now it’s time for someone else to take those reins and move it further into the 21st century.”
The service started with an acknowledgment by Bishop-elect Chris Harper, the next Bishop of Saskatoon, that it was being held on traditional First Nations land. He then smudged the chancel, purifying and sanctifying the altar with scented smoke.
The first reading – the story of Jacob’s ladder from Genesis – was told in the form of a story by Jean Bubba. Without using notes, Ms. Bubba captivated the congregation with her voice and her descriptions from the text. The second reading – Revelation 12: 7-12 – was read by one of Bishop Asbil’s children, Bridget Coyle-Asbil. The gospel reading – John 1: 47-51 – was read solely in Mandarin by the Rev. Morning Wang, a leader of the diocese’s Mandarin ministry. The reading in Mandarin was a powerful indicator of the changes taking place in the diocese.
In a 30-minute sermon, Archbishop Hiltz, the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, spoke about the roles of a bishop. One of the roles, he said, is to protect the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. “By a public vow, a bishop promises to be merciful and defend those who have no helper. As children cry out for bread, even in this city, as men and women are trafficked through this city for the billion-dollar sex trade and other forms of exploitation, as Indigenous women and girls continue to go missing and be murdered, as Indigenous people seek an honouring of their rights in society, as an opioid crisis sweeps through the downtown core of many of our cities, as the earth is plundered by reckless practices – bishops are called to speak. We are called to speak truth to power, to name discrimination when we see it, and to advocate for what is good and right and just.”
After the sermon, Bishop Asbil was consecrated. As he knelt at the chancel steps, about 25 bishops laid their hands on his head as Archbishop Johnson prayed for the Holy Spirit to come down upon him. The bishops, both active and retired, came from across Canada.
Bishop Asbil was then vested, receiving a white chasuble and stole, a pectoral cross, an episcopal ring, a mitre, a crozier and a Bible. The pectoral cross belonged to his father, Bishop Walter Asbil, a former Bishop of Niagara. The crozier once belonged to the late Archbishop Terence Finlay and was given to Bishop Asbil by his widow, Canon Alice Jean Finlay.
In an interview after the service, Bishop Asbil said he was “elated, overwhelmed, delighted, happy and excited about what’s next. I really want to have an understanding of where the diocese is, to learn as much as I can from Colin before he retires, and to really get to know the other bishops. I’ve had a chance over the last two months to go to diocesan meetings and get my feet wet. In listening, I’m hearing a lot of excitement about the possibilities for the future, and I’m also hearing the anxiety, too.”
He said the image of Michael rowing the boat is a simple and powerful image for the Church today. “It has been sung by generations before us who have instilled a great sense of hope and anticipation. We’re the boat. We’re going to do our best to keep rowing because the world needs the Church – desperately.”
He added: “For us, it’s having that sense of hope that who we are as a Christian people is moving forward in a new and holy direction that goes into the world and finds the broken and enslaved and gives a sense of what can be.”
Bishop Asbil, the former rector of St. James Cathedral and dean of Toronto, will be working with Archbishop Johnson over the next three months to learn about the duties and responsibilities of a diocesan bishop. His office is now at the Diocesan Centre. His service of installation as the 12th Bishop of Toronto will take place in January at the cathedral.