11th Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada
By Sue Careless
One of the longest-serving leaders in the Anglican Church of Canada (ACoC) has died. Michael Geoffrey Peers, who served as primate from 1986 to 2004, died in Toronto on July 27. He was 88.
Peers’s 18-year-primacy saw many changes in both the church and society.
In 1985, a year before he was elected primate, the Book of Alternative Services was introduced to supplement — but in effect replace — the 1962 Book of Common Prayer. Critics saw the BAS as shifting substantially away from the theology embodied in the BCP, and also as having serious pastoral and devotional shortcomings. The next year the newly founded Prayer Book Society of Canada tried unsuccessfully to litigate the matter in an ecclesiastical court over which Archbishop Peers presided.
Peers led in the stand taken by the Anglican Church in 1986 in support of the Inuit, who depended on seal hunting, against the international animal rights lobby. The lobby won, devastating the livelihoods of thousands of families across the Arctic.
In 1987 Peers joined Lesley Parrott, whose child Alison had been murdered, to speak publicly against the death penalty. The penalty was abolished the following year.
At the National Native Convocation held in Minaki, Ontario, in 1993, Peers, on behalf of the Anglican Church, formally apologized for the failures that occurred in the 36 schools it ran. He declared to the residential school survivors present:
I accept and I confess before God and you, our failures in the residential schools. We failed you. We failed ourselves. We failed God.
I am sorry, more than I can say, that we were part of a system which took you and your children from home and family.
I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity.
I am sorry, more than I can say, that in our schools so many were abused physically, sexually, culturally and emotionally.
On behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, I present our apology.
Peers also worked toward the Indian Residential Schools Settlement that was signed in 2006 with the federal government over Indian residential schools operated on the government’s behalf by Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, and United churches.
The primate was invited to write the preface to the book Anglican Essentials: Reclaiming Faith Within the Anglican Church of Canada (1995), a collection of essays from the two dozen talks given at the Essentials ’94 Conference held in Montreal a year earlier. Peers had attended the gathering of 600 Canadian Anglicans converging from three different streams — Anglo-Catholics, charismatics, and evangelicals — all of whom worked together to draft the Montreal Declaration.
Most of the speakers were critical of what they considered the “theological revisionism” and “cultural accommodation” of the Anglican church. In his preface Peers wrote:
“[I]t is because I hear a love for the church, even in critical words about her, that I can accept and encourage, even if not always agree with, criticisms of her. The most critical of writers are so because they love the church and wish her ‘without wrinkle or spot….’ However frustrated I may become on occasion, I believe in the church and I love the church, our church. I even do what some others find harder, I even like the church.”
Many who attended Essentials ’94 later formed the Anglican Network in Canada, which eventually disaffiliated from the ACoC.
The primate was known as a strong supporter of ecumenism and during the 1990s served on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches. He played a pivotal role helping the ACoC become full communion partners with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada in 2001.
After the World Trade Center attack in New York City in 2001, Prime Minister Jean Chretien organized a memorial service on Parliament Hill, but insisted on excluding religious leaders and prayers. Peers decried the “folly” of excluding religion from Canada’s public life but such was the secular culture of the day.
Toward the end of his tenure the issue of the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy emerged and Peers supported it.
In 2002 the Diocese of New Westminster became the first Anglican diocese in the world to formally authorize the blessing of same-sex unions, which sparked controversy across the Anglican Communion.
In 2004 the last General Synod that Peers presided over affirmed “the integrity and sanctity of committed adult same-sex relationships” Although the Canadian denomination has yet to legally change its canons regarding same-sex marriage, today many dioceses ignore the existing Marriage Canon.
Peers cultivated a much closer relationship between the ACoC and the Episcopal Church of the United States. He was also president of the Metropolitan Council of Cuba, providing a personal link between the Cuban Episcopal Church and the rest of the Anglican Communion.
Born on July 31, 1934, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Michael Peers was raised in the Anglican Church but left it during his teenage years. He completed an undergraduate degree in languages at the University of British Columbia in 1956 and a diploma in translation at the University of Heidelberg in 1957. He had intended to embark on a career as a diplomat, a career path well-suited to a man who could speak English, French, Spanish, German, and Russian fluently.
But his plans changed while he was at the university. “I went back to church for the simple reason that a friend of mine invited me,” he said, “and that’s how most people become involved in church.” He entered Trinity College at the University of Toronto, where he obtained a licentiate in theology.
Peers was ordained as a priest in the Diocese of Ottawa in 1960. He served as university chaplain (Ottawa, 1961-66), parish priest (Winnipeg, 1966-74), Dean of Qu’Appelle (Regina, 1974-77), Bishop of the Diocese of Qu’Appelle (1977-86), and Metropolitan of the Province of Rupert’s Land (1982-1986). He was elected to the office of primate by the 31st General Synod held in Winnipeg in 1986.
At the 1988 Lambeth Conference he convened a historic first meeting of French-speaking bishops and was the first to preside over meetings of the Lambeth Conference in a language other than English.
In retirement, Peers was ecumenist in residence at the Toronto School of Theology. He was also confessor to the monastery of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Boston.
He published two books: Grace Notes: Journeying with the Primate, 1995-2004, a collection of his monthly columns in the Anglican Journal, and The Anglican Episcopate in Canada: Volume IV, 1977-2007.
Peers is survived by his wife Dorothy (Bradley), and their three children and four grandchildren.