Early in the morning of Thursday, December 29, 2022, the media release listing the 99 appointees to the Order of Canada appeared online. One of those appointees is a retired deacon of the Diocese of New Westminster, the Reverend Dr. Pitman Potter. The summary of his Citation printed in that list is as follows:
"Pitman Benjamin Potter, C.M., Vancouver, British Columbia. For his precedent-setting scholarship in the field of Chinese legal studies, and for his dedication and service to his community."
Raised up to the diaconate by his parish of St. Helen’s, West Point Grey, Pitman was ordained by the 8th Bishop of the Diocese of New Westminster, the Right Reverend Michael Ingham on June 17, 2007. While at St. Helen’s, Pitman led the design and launch of the Westside Anglicans Neighbourhood Ministry (WANM), offering care, companionship and practical assistance to the marginalized and vulnerable living on Vancouver’s Westside streets. In 2016, he moved to St. Philip’s and then to St. John’s, Shaughnessy (SJS) with the then-Venerable (now Bishop) John Stephens. While at SJS, Pitman was licensed by the 9th Bishop, the Most Reverend Melissa Skelton as Deacon to the Archdeaconry of Vancouver which enabled him to serve in the parishes of St. John’s, Shaughnessy, St. Philip’s, Dunbar, and St. Anselm’s, UBC. Pitman continued his leadership of the WANM until his retirement in 2020, working alongside his spouse of now 40 years, Vicki Potter, ODNW.
Since 1990, Pitman has been on the faculty of the Peter A. Allard School of Law at UBC, retiring in 2020 and now Professor Emeritus. According to his staff page on the Allard website:
“Potter is an internationally acclaimed expert noted for his innovative and impactful research on human rights, foreign trade and dispute settlement in Taiwan and China. He has led large-scale research projects in countries throughout Asia, including India, China and Japan, and his work has informed the development of law and policy here in Canada and internationally.
He has been awarded multiple large research grants, including two multi-million-dollar SSHRC Major Collaborative Research Initiative grants for his Asia Pacific Dispute Resolution Program. Prior to retiring from UBC in 2020, Potter served in numerous leadership roles at the Allard School of Law, including as Director of Chinese Legal Studies, Director of Asian Legal Studies, Director of the Graduate Program and Associate Dean. He also served as Director of UBC’s Institute of Asian Research from 1999–2008, where he held the HSBC Chair in Asian Research from 1999–2016.
A prolific writer and researcher, Potter has published more than fifteen books and over 100 articles and book chapters, and has continued to publish since his retirement. His latest book, Exporting Virtue? China’s International Human Rights Activism in the Age of Xi Jinping (2021), examines the challenges that China’s human rights doctrine poses to international norms and institutions and makes recommendations for effective policy responses.”
“Potter’s appointment to the Order of Canada comes in addition to the numerous awards he has received throughout his career, including the UBC Distinguished University Scholar Award, UBC’s Killam Research Award and the UBC Law Faculty Alumni Association Award for Research. In 2015, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.”
Pitman is also a musician/singer/composer who records and releases original music. He is a fan of The Grateful Dead and wrote a book depicting the “Dead’s” career in light of the Gospels. Pitman has recently joined with a group of friends to found The Neighbourhood Gospel Band, which will perform a benefit concert forWANM at St. John’s, Shaughnessy on June 18.
I am very grateful that Pitman agreed to take the time to do this interview, sharing some thoughts about his life, career, and ministry through the communications vehicles of the Diocese of New Westminster.
First, congratulations on being named a Member of the Order of Canada. How did you feel when you found out this was happening?
I was surprised and in fact speechless when I was notified in mid-November. I feel honoured of course, but also more than a bit humbled at being included in the august company of the Order of Canada.
Are you aware of other clergy who have been nominated and appointed to the Order?
I understand that Fr. John Emmett Walsh of the Catholic diocese of Montreal was invested in the Order in 2017. I am not aware of other clergy appointed to the Order but no doubt there are some.
Please take us back a few decades and share some memories of your life as a youngster. What was your home life like? What were your interests? What excited you? How did you come to faith?
I was born in the US. In my very early years, I lived in Egypt where my father taught at the American University of Cairo. At the tender age of three, I was evacuated with my family to Rome during the Suez crisis of 1956 (the fear and disruption of that event haunted me for many years afterward and I still remember it). After a brief return to Egypt, the family moved back to the States. I grew up in Washington DC, part of a loving family of modest income but with many academic high achievers, including of course my namesake grandfather who was a leading figure in international law for many decades.
My faith journey began at an early age, from singing in the choir of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown NJ in the late 1950s (I still have my Hymnal 1940 from that time) to my time in DC at St. Albans and Washington Cathedral, to my penchant for visiting churches and other places of worship across China during the early years of my studying there. I often describe my experience in the MDiv program at VST as one of learning the vocabulary to describe the experience with God that I have felt all along.
Your academic career is broad, and it would be difficult to encapsulate it in this forum and do it justice, however, please share some highlights of your initial years of tertiary education and the decision to devote your career to the study of China, specifically Chinese law and policy?
I first studied Chinese history during my Grade 12 at St. Albans. I was enthralled by Chinese culture and art, continuing to study Chinese history as an undergrad at George Washington University as I searched for a path to distinction separate from what other members of my family were doing. Under the tutelage of a number of prominent scholars at GWU, I gradually began working on contemporary People's Republic of China (PRC) politics. This took me to the University of Washington where I combined a PhD in political science focusing on China and comparative law and politics with a JD in law (the influence of my grandfather’s work in international law was never far from view). My dissertation focused on PRC contract law, which was newly re-emerging after decades of neglect. In January 1987, I moved with Vicki to Beijing to take a position with an international law firm negotiating investment and trade deals, while also teaching at Peking University Law Faculty. I witnessed first-hand the 1989 Tiananmen democracy demonstrations and the massacre and harsh repression that followed. Vicki and I together with our eldest daughter Kathleen returned to the US at the end of that year, and I resumed practicing law in San Francisco.
You speak Mandarin (and Cantonese?) fluently. What can you share about learning that language (those languages)? Do you speak other languages?
Well, my Mandarin is passable, my Cantonese and Shanghainese much less so. Most of my work in China has been conducted in Mandarin. Foreign language study requires diligence, persistence and patience – especially when there are few opportunities to engage with the language in daily life. I was fortunate to be among the first US graduate students to study Chinese in Beijing, and also studied in Hong Kong and Taiwan. I studied Japanese for a time, forgetting the blood, sweat and tears I had expended in learning Chinese. I have also studied French and German, although my facility with either is limited. I studied Biblical Greek at VST.
What were the circumstances around your move to UBC?
After returning to the US at the end of 1989, I was busy with China work at the law firm that had posted me to Beijing earlier. UBC Law Faculty reached out during the spring of 1990, and I joined the Faculty in the fall. I recall that at the time when I was considering the possible move to UBC, I was walking across the campus of UC Berkeley while studying for the California Bar Exam, and asking myself the question whether I’d prefer to live and work in a university environment or in the glass and steel confines of the elite downtown office tower that housed my law firm. The answer was not long in coming.
Was St. Helen’s the first Anglican church you attended in this diocese?
Our first experience with Anglicanism in Canada was at St. Mary’s, Kerrisdale, where our younger daughter Jessie was baptized. After three years on Bowen Island where we attended the United Church, we returned to Vancouver and attended St. Helen’s at the recommendation of several friends.
What was it about St. Helen’s that let you know that this was to be your spiritual home for the foreseeable future?
We joined St. Helen’s largely unaware of the controversies swirling around same-sex blessings, which Vicki and I supported but which the rector at the time did not. We were actually preparing to move back to St. Mary’s, Kerrisdale, when the Reverend Brian Vickers was appointed rector at St. Helen’s. Brian’s compassionate, thoughtful and supportive ministry encouraged us to foresee St. Helen’s as our spiritual home.
Do you recall the circumstances around your vocational call to the diaconate?
I have said many times (too often perhaps) that I became a lawyer to defy my family, I became an academic to please my family, but I entered seminary because that is what I have wanted to do my whole life. I enrolled at VST wholly unaware of the standard processes of discernment and raising up that most VST students experience. While at VST, I was encouraged to consider the diaconate by the Venerable Richard Leggett, who supplied a number of books and materials for me to review. I quickly determined that the diaconate was a place where I could serve God in my parish, in my community, and also through my academic work on China.
What was your discernment experience like?
Under the Rev. Vickers’ leadership, the community at St. Helen's was hugely supportive of my discerning a call to the diaconate. I was so convinced that diaconal ministry was the path for me that I was undeterred and unintimidated by the discernment process, which was difficult and painful for many of my VST classmates. I enjoyed it all, probably too much. I recall being asked by the Examining Chaplains about my commitment to Christianity in light of my relationship with the Dalai Lama, whom I had sponsored for an honorary UBC degree and whose 2004 visit I chaired. My reply was something along the lines of ‘I have studied many religions and experienced their practice, but Jesus is the one who speaks to me.’ Good enough I suppose.
Several Anglican Saints are lawyers, did any of those influence you in responding to your vocational call or inspire you through your career?
Not sure about Anglican saints, but I have certainly been influenced by the teachings of Augustine, Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas. My interest in Christian mysticism has led me to the examples of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers), Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross and more recently Thomas Merton and Dorothee Soelle. I would also note that I have studied and observed many world religions, ranging from the Islamic practices I observed in Egypt as a young child to later study of Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, and beyond, from which I have gleaned much wisdom, some of which is presented in my recent work, Fever Dreams (2020).
What have been some of the most rewarding moments in your career as both a legal academic and an Anglican deacon, and how has your faith informed your approach to legal scholarship and your service to the community?
Naturally, I have felt rewarded in my academic career with each new book, article, or research achievement. But the most rewarding aspect of my academic work has been the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues in Canada, China and the world. The people with whom I have had the privilege to work are what has made my academic work most rewarding.
Similarly, as an Anglican Deacon, I have felt rewarded by the encouragement and support I have received by so many clergy and laypeople in the diocese. Certainly, WANM has been a high point.
Most of my professional work on China was initially that of a foreign business lawyer. After joining UBC, and certainly by the time of my application for admission to VST, I had begun to shift my focus toward human rights. Without consciously thinking about it, this seems an example of faith at work. My work with the Neighbourhood Ministry reflected an effort to move beyond policy discussion about the homeless and needy on our streets to concrete action, a faith position much inspired by the Book of James.
Your commitment to compassionate service to your neighbours is a substantial part of your ministry. How did Westside Anglicans Neighbourhood Ministry (WANM) evolve from that initial group of people at St. Helen’s and St. Philip’s to where it is today?
We designed the Neighbourhood Ministry to facilitate and encourage cooperation among the parishes of St. Helen’s, St. Anselm’s, and St. Philip’s in a project to serve the homeless and needy on the streets of West Point Grey. Challenging parish “silos” was an important goal in the design and operation of the Neighbourhood Ministry, informed by the theme of transformation – both for friends on the street and also for participating parishioners. To that end, all of the operational teams, both the street outreach teams and the indoor teams preparing packets and information for our friends on the street, intentionally combined members of all three participating parishes. Reflecting this commitment to inter-parishional collaboration, the evolution of the Neighbourhood Ministry has now come to include St. John’s, Shaughnessy as a partner parish along while welcoming invaluable support from St. Mary’s, Kerrisdale and St. Faith’s.
What do you think the future holds for compassionate service faith-based organizations like WANM?
I believe that the Church is called to witness and celebrate the love of God lived out in ordinary circumstances by ordinary people. Programs such as the WANM serve as an example to the world that our Church is not simply about the trappings of ceremony, but about actual day-to-day work improving the lives of people through love and care – not so much about the concrete results of assistance programs (how many packets were distributed, how many folks got into supportive housing, etc.), but by the public example of caring that transforms the lives of the needy and those who minister to them. That’s why we wear WANM emblems in our ministry on the streets.
What role do you believe your faith can play in shaping public policy and how do you see that influencing your contributions as a member of the Order of Canada?
My faith informs all of my work. Friends in Ottawa and elsewhere are fully aware (for good or ill) that when I am invited to speak about relations with China, I will focus on human rights. I hope that membership in the Order of Canada will further this work.
Is there a passage or are there passages from Scripture that you have returned to throughout your ministry to help guide you?
While I am guided by many passages from Scripture, the Book of James certainly stands out for its focus on practical ministry. I am also influenced by the prophets – particularly Joel, Micah, and Isaiah – for their calls for social justice The Gospels (particularly Mark) are always inspiring as examples of the unexpected and challenging presence of the Divine in our midst. The letters of Paul (particularly Romans and 1st Corinthians) are powerful guides to thought and action in ministry and offer hope that we can overcome obstacles in their pursuit.
Do you align yourself with any liturgical style? If yes, which one and why?
I love all sorts of liturgy, from high stylings with incense, vestments, and decorations to communal gatherings of the faithful with little in the way of accoutrements. For me the key to liturgy is how it inspires and empowers people to live out their faith in the world.
BCP or BAS?
I am a BAS person, but there are elements of the BCP (evening prayer for example) that stir me still.
Do you have a favourite sacred piece of music?
Not really. I love (nearly) all forms of music. I have favourite hymns (including “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” and “The Spacious Firmament on High,” as well as the usual Christmas and Easter standards, particularly “How a Rose ere Blooming” and “The Strife is O’er”). I love Handel’s Messiah. An early favourite of mine was the Missa Luba, a mass set to Congolese music. Other favourites include Ave Maria and Ave Verum Corpus. And I love Taizé.
Of your many books, is there one that stands out to you?
Each of my published works represents a particular moment in my academic journey. Each one was important and reflected my thinking at the time about China and my work and relationships in the field. I suppose I would look to the following single- authored works as stand-outs:
The following edited volumes stand out for their subject matter, the excellence of my collaborators, and as examples of joint scholarship.
All that said, my two self-published works, The Gospel and the Grateful Dead (2014) and Fever Dreams (2020) are particularly close to my heart.
Tell us a little bit about how your book about The Grateful Dead came to be and what was the reaction to its publication?
I have long been a fervent follower of the Grateful Dead. I remember clearly the moment in Grade 10 (1969) when I first heard the GD tune “Cryptical Envelopment” and heard echoes of Christ’s passion:
The other day they waited
The sky was dark and faded
Solemnly they stated
He has to die
You know he has to die
And all the children learning
From books that they were burning
Every leaf was turning
To watch him die
You know he had to die
The summer sun looked down on him
His mother could but frown on him
And all the others sound on him
But it doesn't seem to matter
And when the day had ended
With rainbow colors blended
His mind remained unbended
He had to die, you know he had to die
You know he had to die
Cryptical Envelopment lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group
Through my many years of listening to and playing Grateful Dead music I came more and more to realize and appreciate the parallels to the Christian Gospel evident in the Dead’s music, lyrics, and life. I had the opportunity at VST to write a seminar paper on these themes, which friends at St. Helen’s urged me to publish – and quickly. Mindful of the time required for standard academic publishing, I elected to self-publish the book so as to get it out without too much delay. Not forgetting my academic standards, however, I did subject the work to full peer review. I sought and received permission from the Dead to publish the work and I understand it has been included in the Grateful Dead archives.
What’s next for the Reverend Dr. Pitman Potter C.M.?
Sorry to say but likely to be more of the same. I am working on a new book applying my "theory" (supposition really) of complexity and alienation to explain China's populist resistance to the international rules-based order, as exemplified in China's handling of three global crisis - COVID, climate change, and involuntary migration.
I continue to support the Neighbourhood Ministry as I am able – most recently in preparing for a benefit concert in June with my newly formed Neighbourhood Gospel Band.
All photos courtesy of Vicki and Pitman Potter except where noted