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From Our Bishops

Archbishop’s Charge to Synod

Archbishop Colin Johnson delivered his Charge on the first day of the 157th regular session of Synod, held in Richmond Hill Nov. 24-25.

By Archbishop Colin Johnson

What a privilege it is to serve you as the Bishop of this wonderful diocese and to represent you in the wider councils of the Church in Canada and across our Communion. We have been truly blessed in the breadth of the gifts God has given us, in the resources of peoples who have come from every part of the globe, in the physical resources we have inherited, and in the rich diversity of our spiritual life all rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

John Strachan died 150 years ago this month.

John Strachan was the first Bishop of Toronto. I am the eleventh. I was overwhelmed by the thought of following John Strachan as I walked to the front of the cathedral at that moment of my election some 14 years ago.

He had the energy of the ever-ready bunny on steroids. Strachan, a larger-than-life character, brilliant, forceful, energetic, flawed, set the stage for the Diocese of Toronto as we know it, not least in this: he trained up an indigenized clergy, insisted on a locally financially self-sufficient church, enfranchised the laity in its governance, and respected a diversity of theological expression (within Anglican limits, of course). He set the DNA of the diocese as a church that engaged fully in the life of the community. While he despised Baptists and Methodists, the Anglican faith he practised did not stop at the church doors on a Sunday morning.

Strachan instinctively exercised adaptive leadership to shape a new colony on firm, age-old Christian principles but he had to face challenges no one had ready-prepared answers for. He took risks, he tried new things, he had to adapt old ways to meet new situations. This Synod is a result. He convened a gathering of clergy and laity before it was legal or constitutional to do so – yes, there were discussions in the parliament to begin the changes that would allow it, but there was a pastoral reality that could not wait. It was what Archbishop Rowan Williams more recently called, in another context, a principled loosening of the structures, to allow the mission of the Church in a local context to flourish. The Synod came first, the authorization came later. And so, we have our 157th gathering of our diocesan Synod today. 

He convened the first synod for the newly created Diocese of Huron to elect its first bishop, when bishops were still crown appointments. Queen Victoria graciously consented to appoint the elected candidate, ushering in a new age in Canada. Bishop Strachan was the last and only Bishop of Toronto to be appointed, not elected.

He was missional, encouraging the founding of churches throughout the growing region, but he also provided alternatives to the prevailing norms. He founded a traditional parish church, St. John, York Mills, in 1816 but then started a 7 o’clock Sunday evening service – a fresh expression, if you will – at the grammar school for those who could not go to the morning services at St. James Church (now our cathedral) because of their work or because they were socially uncomfortable (even unwelcomed).

He was an ardent proponent of education and formation – establishing grammar schools, public schools, three universities, theological training, medicine. In founding the York District Grammar School in October 1812, he provided a full range of academic courses to build the capacity of young men to take their roles in state and Church, offering reduced fees for the poor so that they too could rise into leadership.

In spite of his reputation as a partisan, he actually worked to set a standard for inclusiveness:

Dr. Jonathan Lofft, a former member of Synod, spoke of Strachan at a recent event at the Cathedral:

In words both sacramental and racializing, Bishop John Strachan expressed the core of his pedagogy: “Indeed the human mind, whether enclosed in a white, red, or black tabernacle, exhibits the same qualities and powers, when subjected to similar discipline; and the Scripture account, that we are all the descendants of one common parent, is corroborated by the natural history of our species.” These words, originally published anonymously in 1819, conveyed sentiments profoundly unpopular, even disturbing, to many of Bishop Strachan’s contemporary readers, more than a decade before the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. More than forty years before Darwin dared to go into print. In them, we find a kind of charter, moderately jarring to our ears, too, but sincere, the mission statement of one who would court controversy his entire career in the cause of the Church he loved and served.

(James Strachan [John Strachan], A Visit to the Province of Upper Canada in 1819. Aberdeen: D. Chalmers, 1820.)

Among his notable assistants was Alexander Neil Bethune, a high churchman, one of his first divinity students who later headed up the theological training institute in Cobourg and eventually succeeded him as Archdeacon of York and then as the second Bishop of Toronto. But as important was Henry James Grassett, whom he appointed as his curate in 1835. What is remarkable for a man of – shall we say – strenuous opinion, is that Strachan and Grassett were at opposite ends of the theological spectrum: Strachan high church, Grassett an Evangelical. Yet Strachan appointed him as his domestic and examining chaplain, and thus with responsibility for the selection of candidates for ordination, and appointed him to succeed him as rector of the cathedral.

One of Bishop Strachan’s enduring legacies is how he dealt with property to underwrite the ministry and mission of the Church. He convinced rectors to amalgamate their allocation of the clergy reserves (the land the government gave for support to the churches). Although he was able to get fewer allocations from the government then he hoped, his leverage of the lands the Church had been given still provides income today for ministry from the York Rectors and Etobicoke and Peterborough Glebes.

Last year, we adopted a new strategic plan that will set the direction for our work over the next five years. Do you hear the links back to our DNA?

  • Leadership and formation.
  • Stewardship of property and resources for ministry.
  • Trust and culture.

Growing in Christ, as it is titled, identifies these five focus areas for our attention as a diocese, rooted in our Vision:

An Anglican community committed to proclaiming and embodying Jesus Christ through compassionate service, intelligent faith and Godly worship.

Our Mission is the work that we as Anglicans in this diocese are being called to do:

We build healthy, missional Anglican communities that engage faithfully with the world and share the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Note the mission and the vision: these do not change much over time, but the specifics of how we need to put them into practice in our particular context do.

They are a continuation of the ministry that we have undertaken in this diocese since John Strachan’s days. They can easily apply to parish life as well, and inform both the “what” we do and “how” we engage to join in God’s work of transforming lives. We will take some time tonight to think through how it might apply to your parish (and it does apply to your parish!).

Leadership and Formation

We have a pressing need for a renewed catechetical process, the forming of disciples who are formed and being formed in their faith and able to share our story winsomely. Bible study, yes; but more than that, we need to develop our capacity in apologetics: not to apologize and “say sorry,” but in the older sense of the word: to give a cogent reason for the hope that lies within you.

This Lent, I am recommending that we all take part in a simple exercise: Meeting Jesus in the Gospel of John, a joint project of SSJE and Virginia Theological Seminary. Please join me in this. There are booklets available here for $2. There is a daily video to your email, and small groups resources are available to parish groups online.

There is no dearth of good and diverse resources available. You don’t have to create something from scratch. I want every parish to find a program and use it, and not only during Lent. Here are some examples:

  • Diocesan-funded with Wycliffe’s Institute of Evangelism, Christian Foundations – Grounding for a Life in Faith, written by Judy and Pat Paulsen and Susan Bell.
  • Alpha; Living the Questions; the Pilgrim Series.

There is funding available through Our Faith-Our Hope grants for more intensive leadership development.

We are in the midst of rethinking our recruitment strategy so that our leadership reflects more broadly the society we serve.

We have an opportunity to rethink how the Congregational Development department integrates the work of mission, congregational health and formation, and how it fits into stewardship, communications and property. I am very grateful for the 30+ years of ministry that Canon Dave Robinson has given to our diocese and the wider Church, and I thank the dedicated staff and highly experienced volunteers who provide an inspired model of leadership for other dioceses.


For number of Synods, we have considered how we govern ourselves. We have not figured out how to use technology effectively to bring people together to share ideas and make decisions. The technology is growing easier and is more accessible.

We have an enormous Synod: 2-3 times the size of our neighbours’ synods, 20 times the size of our provincial synod, more than twice as large as our national synod and more than twice the size of the House of Commons. There are many good reasons for this, perhaps. It is especially good at bringing people together for celebration, consultation and learning, but it is a particularly cumbersome, expensive and inefficient way to make some kinds of decisions. And our 42-member diocesan council is 40% larger than the Executive Council (the Cabinet) of the Province of Ontario.

The parish governance structure does not generally meet the needs of our parishes or our people, either.

The rethink is not a rearrangement of deck chairs, but putting our structures at the service of our core mission – to be flexible and urgent in our response to the mission of Christ in our communities.

Innovation based on evidence

Some years ago at a Synod, I asked people to take some missional risks, to take the family car out for a spin. I was asked if people had permission to have the keys to the car. Yes! Yes! Yes! We need to take risks; calculated risks to be sure, but complacency is not sustainable.

It is exciting to see what has been happening when people do take the keys. I hope you have looked in the Convening Circular to see what has been going on in the diocesan family. It is impressive.

Reach and Stretch grants, church plants and reboots, leadership support, new forms of ministry started, traditional forms of ministry re-invigorated, substantial contributions to the work of the Church beyond our borders. More than $1.2 million has been given for Healing and Reconciliation and Aboriginal Ministries; half a million dollars in matching grants to parishes for refugee resettlement.

We will highlight four or five today and tomorrow, but they are just the tip of an iceberg of ideas that are changing the way we understand and practice ministry today – and we are also continuing excellent and exciting work as we have always done it. Both/and, not either/or.

Not everything has worked as planned. We are collecting the learnings, examining the data, figuring out what went well and repeating it, figuring out what did not and making adjustments and trying again – that’s what innovation based on evidence is about. Creating and maintaining a “continuous learning organization.”

Evidence-based innovation is about making decisions based on good data that marry the hunches we have with facts, so that our interpretations and decisions are based in reality, not just wishful thinking.

It’s about making good judgment, and so it is related to governance.

It’s about taking risks, so it requires trust.

It’s about prioritizing our resources, so it’s related to stewardship.

It’s what John Strachan did.


Stewardship is importantly related to leadership and formation – we need to be formed as stewards of God’s creation, a vow of our baptism.

Stewardship is not only about money, but people. We need to identify and call our potential leaders from all the cultures and traditions we have been blessed with in our diocese. We simply cannot afford to overlook or undervalue the gifts of people who look or think or decide differently than we do. We certainly cannot allow ourselves to do that with other Anglicans! I am committed to intentionally seeking this diversity for the health and faithfulness of our diocese.

We have given attention to our patterns of financial giving. The stewardship education and mentoring programs that we have developed have been very successful and need to be extended. We are developing a program for legacy giving that you will hear about over the coming year.

A major opportunity for us is the gift (and the burden) of our property – 1.5 billion dollars’ worth of it. As a basic principle, we cannot be possessed by our property – on the contrary, our property is bound by the mission. We are exploring new ways to manage these resources wisely and consistently, and seeking new ways to leverage these for the long-term benefit of the mission of our Church, just as John Strachan did with the clergy reserves some 175 years ago. We are seriously understaffed to do this work in-house, and we will have to think outside the box and change our governance models.

Culture and Trust

I have left this to the end, because in the long run it is the most important.

We live in a polarizing world: distrust of the “other,” however the other is defined; a society that has tolerated bullies and abuse, that has normalized highly charged discourse that publicly divides and mocks and diminishes opponents. It is often cloaked in a false tolerance in the name of free speech or expression of personal opinion. It is a worldview that has infiltrated the way we in the Church speak and act. It is wrong! It is not healthy debate. It is contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is contrary to the vows we make in baptism to respect the dignity of other. It destroys communion.

In the alternative, we are called in scripture to “Build all up with love.”

In a time when the boundaries of civil discourse are neither clear not agreed, I think we should establish some mutually developed guidelines and accountability that will express our values for Christian conversation, and model parameters for our interactions with one another in the Church, with the wider community, in person, in our meetings, and in our use of social media. Let us build a stronger culture of trust, for it is an essential component of Christian discipleship. It will impact our leadership, our governance, our capacity for innovation. It is a matter of the good stewardship of our human resources.

A challenge that continues to affect our life together, and yes, our mutual trust, is marriage. General Synod met a year ago last July in this very spot and approved the first step to amend the marriage canon to formally permit same-sex marriages in the Church. Over the next year, including this afternoon, there will be further consultations as we prepare for a second and final reading at General Synod in 2019.

With the advice of the Chancellor of General Synod, supported by a number of canon lawyers, I have acted under the provisions of the Constitution of General Synod and the authority of what is known as jus liturgicum, liturgical and pastoral jurisdiction of a diocesan bishop within his diocese, to provide alternative rites for this to meet the pastoral needs of some in our diocese. As an interim pastoral measure, in a restricted number of parishes where it has been requested after consultation.  I have authorized some same-sex marriages to be solemnized in certain limited circumstances. Neither parishes nor individual clergy will be required to celebrate marriages contrary to their convictions. 

As I have said, not all welcome this development: some because it goes too far; some because it is not enough. The traditional position on marriage is an authentic, sustainable conviction that is historic and significant. It remains a coherent theological, biblical and pastoral position within our Anglican tradition, but not the only one. All of us need to extend to each the most generous Christian charity that our Redeemer calls us to exercise as we, together, seek to discern and live out God’s will.

We live in a very diverse Church. The diversity that our diocesan community demonstrates means we are called to witness to the faith in a variety of ways, and though such witness is rooted in differing interpretations and understanding of Holy Scripture and the tradition, the ways are recognizably Anglican. You will note that there are strong affirmations in the pastoral guidelines assuring a continued and honoured place in all aspects of diocesan life for those who do not agree with this response. We are enriched by the breadth of this diversity and would be lessened by the loss of any voice. I am committed to continue the long practice of this diocese to reflect this authentic diversity in the selection and appointment of clergy, in honoring parish traditions, and in the membership of committees and councils of the diocese.

I issued a pastoral statement a few weeks ago, fully endorsed by all the suffragan bishops, about how I intend to include in the life of this diocese clergy and laity who hold differing convictions about sexuality issues that we are struggling with today. It is not boasting to say that other parts of the Anglican Communion look to us as a model for dealing with patient generosity and gracious hospitality; it is a fact – they do. This is not to sweep under the carpet real and important differences. It is, rather, to recognize that such differences do not permit us to abandon our more basic need (our neediness) to hold one another in love as Christ himself commanded us. I have met and continue to meet with representatives, both conservatives and liberals, to work out practical measures to ensure that all may flourish to the greatest possible extent within our Church.

This willingness to accommodate difference has marked our approach in controversial issues for most of the history of our diocese; we have not always done it well, but we have never been a diocese of theological, spiritual, liturgical or political uniformity. I have worked deliberately to make this a reality during my four decades of ministry. In spite of his very strong opinions on many controversial subjects, this was Bishop Strachan’s legacy. I fervently hope that it will be my legacy to this diocese as well.

There have been many significant changes in this past year. We have had a number of important staff changes at the Synod Office. I am very grateful to Susan Abell for her willingness to serve as interim Chief Administrative Officer while we reassessed the scope of the role. I am delighted to welcome Angela Hantoumakos, whom I will introduce later, to the newly renamed position as Executive Director, providing leadership in implementing Growing in Christ, our strategic plan, and coordinating the services that we offer to the parishes and people of this diocese.

Three area bishops have moved or retired since our last regular Synod. All of them began their ordained ministry in Toronto and served our Church with great faithfulness, gracious wisdom and effective leadership. I am immensely grateful to bishops Linda Nicholls, Philip Poole and Patrick Yu for their service.

Just over a year ago, Synod met to elect three priests of this diocese to be bishops in the Church of God. They have now been ordained and consecrated, and soon will have been a year in their episcopal ministries in their assigned areas. Joining Bishop Fenty and me, they bring new energy, their own specific gifts and their deep commitment to the Anglican expression of the Christian faith that is a blessing to our Church for years to come.

Bishops, even though they are formed in a particular spiritual and theological tradition, do not serve a special-interest party; they are bishops of, and for, the whole Church. The area bishops have particular oversight under my direction for a region of the diocese, but they are also suffragan bishops and so have concern and responsibility for the whole as well as the parts. They have concern for all the people of God – and who isn’t? – who live within the boundaries of the diocese, including those who are not part of any Anglican congregation. They link the parts to the whole and the whole to the parts.

My decision to retire at the end of next year is not sudden or capricious. We have a growing granddaughter and are excited to have another grandchild arriving in February. Ellen and I have decided to take up ballroom dance lessons, although for some reason the Chancellor thinks Ellen may not have enough insurance! I am not abandoning the ship, for the diocese is healthy and vibrant, but I sense that it needs renewed direction after 15 years, really 25 years, of my leadership. I ask you to concur in the election of a Coadjutor who will automatically succeed me on my retirement. Being a bishop is not at all like being a parish priest; related, yes, but quite distinct – a completely different rhythm of work, a different level of complexity, a different set of relationships, a different order of ministry.

I was elected as a bishop suffragan of Toronto, consecrated on June 21, 2003, and given responsibility for the Trent-Durham area. Archbishop Finlay retired as the 10th Bishop of Toronto on May 31, 2004. A couple of weeks later, I was elected Bishop of Toronto. I had a much longer preparation for the role than the dates suggest. Since March 1992, I served as the Executive Assistant to the Bishop, and so for over a decade I worked in the closest proximity to the College of Bishops and Archbishop Finlay. It was a steep learning curve to move from the parish into the Bishop’s Office as Archdeacon, somewhat less so becoming an area bishop with that experience. Nonetheless, I faced a surprisingly big learning curve when I assumed responsibilities as Diocesan.

Archbishop Finlay served as a coadjutor to Lewis Garnsworthy for over a year, although he was already a suffragan. Our second bishop, Neil Bethune, was coadjutor to John Strachan. Bishop Snell was coadjutor to Fred Wilkinson. This is a frequent practice in the Canadian Church, including recently in Huron and Quebec. Niagara, Rupert’s Land and even Yukon are planning to elect coadjutors this next year.

I believe that it is in the best interests of the diocese and my successor to have a reasonable period of orientation to the role. I urge you to concur in my request for the election of a coadjutor bishop to be held next June.

In the meantime, my assistants have given me a new Twitter hashtag: #ImStillHere.

I have a shadow, a patronus, if you’re into Harry Potter, filming a day in the life of the Archbishop. Since no two days are the same, nor any two hours, I am being followed everywhere.

I have another Synod to chair next November, but I want to say now how proud I am of this diocese, the quality of staff, the dedication of clergy, the faithfulness of lay people, the capacity of our volunteer leaders. I thank God – at least most days – for the opportunity and the privilege of serving as your bishop. Thank you, and may God bless you.