By Kirk Petersen
The Rt. Rev. Fraser Lawton has resigned as a bishop diocesan in the Anglican Church of Canada to become rector of St. Dunstan’s Church in Mineola, a rural parish in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, where he will also serve as an assisting bishop.
The Anglican Journal reports that September 8 will be Lawton’s last day as Bishop of Athabasca, where he has served for a decade. The Diocese of Athabasca includes 17 churches in northern Alberta, an area nearly as large as Montana.
At first glance it seems like a puzzling move — stepping away from a leadership role in Canada and into a hybrid position of lower stature, albeit in a much larger diocese with 70 churches. Lawton’s explanation to the Anglican Journal was not very specific: “After much prayer, counsel, agonising, and various forms of spiritual confirmations, [my wife Veronica and I] came to the conclusion that God is indeed calling us to leave Athabasca for Dallas.”
A more detailed narrative emerged in an interview with TLC. “I have some family in East Texas, including my parents and some cousins who’ve been living there for some time,” Lawton said.
Through visits to the area he grew to know Dallas Bishop George R. Sumner, and asked him for some suggestions for a sabbatical. “He had an idea about what might work, knowing that the priest at St. Dunstan’s was going to be retiring and they’d be looking for an interim.” So Lawton and St. Dunstan’s have already taken each other for a test drive.
Lawton, 51, has lived most of his life in rural Alberta. He’s moving to a diocese based in America’s ninth-largest city, but will focus his episcopal work on rural churches east of Dallas. The diocese has a gathering of rural parishes every year, and Lawton gave a presentation to the group several years ago.
Athabasca is a rural diocese, “so our normal life has a lot in common with a lot of the parishes where we’ll be,” he said. The see city of Athabasca is Peace River, population about 7,000. Mineola has about 4,500 people, and about 50 people worship at St. Dunstan’s on an average Sunday.
Lawton’s title for his diocesan work will be assisting bishop, which is not the same as an assistant bishop. Under Canon III.12.5.b.3.ix (seriously), a bishop coming from a different Anglican province has to serve in the Episcopal Church for at least two years to qualify as an assistant bishop.
“An assisting bishop is, you happen to have a bishop around so you put them to work,” he joked, while an assistant has a more official portfolio, and a vote in the House of Bishops.
“We’re going to very much miss the people here, the people of Athabasca and the parishes,” Lawton said. “It’s not just where I work, it’s kind of really who I am.”
Sumner was traveling but provided an emailed statement:
We are so grateful to God for Fraser and Veronica’s call to St. Dunstan’s, Mineola and to our diocese. The bishop brings gifts in evangelism, renewal, and helping smaller churches. We believe a new chapter is beginning for our churches in east Texas.
Meanwhile we are delighted that Michael Smith continues as assistant Bishop, helping us with his usual skill, wisdom, and humor.
Smith, the retired Bishop of North Dakota, has been serving the Diocese of Dallas during the Easter season for the past two years, but is now “fully part of our diocese,” Sumner said in announcing Smith’s appointment in May.
Sumner is a member of The Living Church Foundation, which publishes TLC. Lawton, Smith and Sumner all are members of Communion Partners, a group that advocates for the traditional teachings of the church.