Archbishop David Somerville. (Shirley Stockdill photo)

“I always hated having my birthday on November 11,” says David Somerville. “It was Remembrance Day, and there I’d be, standing with the other Cub Scouts in the rain in short pants, my knobby knees knocking.” This November 11, Archbishop David Somerville is unlikely to be wearing a Cub Scout uniform, but the day will mark his ninetieth birthday. In 1915, when David Somerville was born at Lady Minto Hospital in Ashcroft, dwarf stars were discovered, World War One was at its most vicious, Somerset Maugham published “Of Human Bondage,” and Hubert Parry set “Jerusalem” to words by William Blake.

David Somerville was elected Bishop of New Westminster in 1969, and consecrated in a typically surprising setting at the PNE Agrodome. He had already made an impressive impact on the Anglican Church of Canada as executive director of program, but he went further, implementing openness of the Eucharist to all baptized Christians, encouraging liturgical experimentation, advocating new approaches to Christian initiation, and, most dramatically, spearheading the ordination of women to the priesthood.

“If it is something God wants us to do,” he said, “we must do it.” And he did it through his sophisticated political skills. Later, he said, “Don’t begin a battle if you’re not sure you can win it.”

He might have become a doctor, his first ambition, if he hadn’t accompanied his mother to a Lenten mission at St. Paul’s led by the legendary Father Wilberforce Cooper. “In all kinds of ways, he was my spiritual father. He taught me how to pray, he heard my first confession, he guided me along while I was going to theological college.” After a decade in the Yale deanery, the young priest joined his mentor at St. James.

Somerville has always surprised and sometimes confused watchers. Expected to remain at St. James forever, he left for other positions. Relentlessly intelligent, curious, open to new challenges and new ideas, he has moved on. Dean Peter Elliott speaks of his “dazzling intelligence. You sit across the table from him, and he seems thirty years old. But,” the Dean continues, “that intelligence is combined with a warm humanity. It’s a rare and winning combination.”

Somerville is a complex man of broad intellectual and spiritual interests. He will talk with you, if you wish, about James Joyce or about the friend he knows as Jack Spong. He will also instruct you in the proper way to mix a Kir or a Negroni. But he will always surprise you.

Archbishop David Somerville in 1936 at Anglican Theological College (predecessor to the Vancouver School of Theology).

One of the old canards about David is the assertion that “he wasn’t tough enough,” put forward by a group of fuzzy-headed clerics several years ago. What they failed to understand was that David Somerville was and is as tough as they come. Possibly he was too subtle for many, the classic iron hand in the velvet glove. But he ran this diocese (and later, as Metropolitan, the Ecclesiastical Province of British Columbia and Yukon) with power and authority, confidently appointing strong janizaries (Eric Powell, Charlie Wilkins) and dealing coolly and firmly with controversial issues.

David Somerville has been. arguably, one of the most influential bishops in the history of the Anglican Church of Canada. In Peter Elliott’s words: “Truly a giant.”

Happy birthday, Your Grace.

A celebration of David Somerville‘s ministry will be held at Christ Church Cathedral on November 12, 2 to 4 pm. Please RSVP to 604 682-3848 by November 9.

A video, “Somerville: Leader in a Time of Change” by the Rev. Matthew Johnson for the diocese is still available. To borrow or purchase a copy, please e-mail Bettina Gruver at or call 604 684-6306 ext 226