By Stuart Mann
When Canon Clare Burns was growing up, her mother and father made it clear to her and her brothers that it was their responsibility to give back to the community. In doing so, they were taught, they would get much more back, in terms of happiness and fulfillment, than they could ever give.
Canon Burns took the message to heart. Throughout her life, she has given her time and talents for the betterment of others. This has included a five-year term as the Children’s Lawyer for Ontario, representing thousands of children in legal cases. She has also sat on the board of directors of several non-profit agencies.
Now she’s about to give back in the biggest way yet – by serving as the chancellor of the Diocese of Toronto. Although a volunteer position, it is one of the most demanding in the Canadian church, requiring countless hours of work on often difficult and sensitive subjects. But she’s not fazed by it.
“It’s a big commitment, but I would say that we, as a group, get back so much more than we give,” she says, referring to the three-person team that is made up of the chancellor and two vice chancellors, Robyn Ryan Bell and Canon Paul Baston. “It’s a way to use my legal skills in the advancement and protection of a faith community that means everything to me.”
Canon Burns was installed as chancellor at St. James Cathedral on Jan. 1, becoming the first female chancellor in the history of the Diocese. Before that, she served as a vice chancellor for the past 12 years, working alongside Canon Bob Falby, who retired from the role on Dec. 31 and is now the chancellor emeritus.
“Bob’s been wonderful because he has a terrific sense of humour but also great judgement,” she says. “He taught me a lot of the history of the Diocese, the different personalities of parishes, and how to be compassionate when dealing with things that are sometimes quite hard for clergy and laity to deal with. And his sense of humour has been enormously important.”
As chancellor, Canon Burns will assist Archbishop Colin Johnson on matters of canon law at Diocesan Council and Executive Board. She will chair the Diocese’s Trusts Committee, which reviews requests from churches for major building projects or repairs to buildings. The committee also administers the Baker and Carlton funds, two legacies that provide money for the improvement of Sunday school spaces and repairs to rectories. She will also help to review the salaries and working conditions of senior diocesan staff, review the policies and procedures of the Diocese and facilitate pre-Synod meetings.
She points out that it’s not all hard work, and some moments are deeply moving. One such moment happened several years ago when she took part in the re-consecration of Trinity, Streetsville, after it had been destroyed by a fire. “The feeling of joy in the congregation, and participating in that moment of rebuilding, is the reason why I’ve remained vice chancellor for 12 years,” she says. “It was an amazing moment. You could feel God working in the room. There’s a lot of joy in what we do.”
Canon Burns and her family attend The Bridge service at St. Paul, Bloor Street and St. John, Elora, where they have a country home. Outside the church, she practices law at WeirFoulds LLP in Toronto. She is a graduate of Osgoode Law School and the London School of Economics.
Archbishop Johnson says he is looking forward to working with Canon Burns. “Clare brings a high level of clarity and interpretation of the canons and a real engagement in the ongoing pastoral life of the church. She understands the church and is part of the church. And she has a good sense of humour.”