For about an hour and a half, late on a sunny summer afternoon, the threads of Peter Elliott’s lifelong life in the Anglican church tied themselves up together in a remarkably tidy manner.
As a 17-year-old in 1971, he watched with his family in St. Thomas’ Church in his hometown of St. Catharines, Ontario as an unknown bishop from the Kootenays named Ted Scott shouldered the job of tenth primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.
Now, at 65, in Christ Church Cathedral where he had been dean and rector for close on 25 years, and with his September 30 retirement heading towards him, Dean Elliott watched Linda Nicholls installed as the church’s fourteenth primate.
It was the closing act of July’s General Synod, 2019, the first national synod in Vancouver since 1965, and Dean Elliott’s eighth, as either staff or delegate, including terms first as deputy and then as prolocutor.
Artwork created during Synod by his husband, fabric artist Thomas Roach, covered the altar and ambo, and CCC was looking and sounding its renovated best, long-time music director, Rupert Lang, at the 15-year-old custom-built organ and the custom-cast bells in the three-year-old bell tower pealing.
“For me, it was sort of the two big parts of my ministry coming together,” Dean Elliott said, in an interview. “What warmed my heart was seeing General Synod fall in love with Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver.”
“I was satisfied and moved in a lot of ways that Christ Church Cathedral could host (Synod delegates) and I could serve as dean.”
As chair of the national task force on residential schools, Dean Elliott saw the 2003 settlement agreement signed in a CCC meeting room. Now he had seen Synod delegates vote enthusiastically for a self-determining indigenous church.
As a gay man who never tried to seem otherwise, he saw a same-sex amendment to the marriage canon founder in the House of Bishops. But a less celebratory, though perhaps more workable, local option was endorsed, likely ending the decades of rancorous debate over same-sex unions. “I don’t think General Synod is going to talk about the place of gay and lesbian folk again,” Dean Elliott said.
Twenty-five years ago, much was different. The rector’s office at CCC seemed fitted with a revolving door. Jenny Birtwell, a CCC parishioner since the mid-1970s, was rector’s warden, heading CCC’s second search for a rector in less than three years.
The late Jim Cruickshank, after nine years as rector, including a period off with serious illness, had been elected bishop of the Cariboo in 1992. Michael Ingham, fresh from a stint as the primate’s principal secretary in Toronto, spent only one year in the job before his 1993 election as bishop of New Westminster.
“It was a very uncomfortable time,” Mrs. Birtwell remembers. “That’s what Peter came into. He came into an unstable parish which had seen too many changes in too short a time.”
On paper, Dean Elliott’s fitness for the job looked iffy, at best. As a self-described teen-age “church nerd”, he had rooted, from a distance, for the ultimately unsuccessful plan of the early 1970s to replace an aging CCC building with an Arthur Erickson-designed church/office tower.
Once, out from Toronto on a consultation, he had even ducked out of a downstairs meeting at CCC to view the red linoleum, grey carpet and duct-taped organ in the upstairs sanctuary.
But Dean Elliott had served a bare four years (1981-85) in parish ministry as curate at Christ Church Cathedral, Hamilton. He moved into church bureaucracy, first for the diocese of Toronto and then in the national office, where he felt freer to live his private life as a gay man.
Bishop Ingham, now looking for a dean, had once met, and couldn’t help but notice, Dean Elliott during those curacy days. In an interview Bishop Ingham said, “It was immediately obvious that Peter was a creative liturgist. He had the sort of strength of personality to create worship that was fun and solemn.”
At Church House, where they dealt with dwindling revenues and drastic downsizing in the early 90s, Bishop Ingham saw Dean Elliott’s administrative and political skills at work, even when he was accused of shutting down the national women’s unit because he was a man. “Peter dealt with that with grace and humour.”
In his telling of it, Dean Elliott was somewhat gob-smacked when Bishop Ingham asked him to apply for the job.
“I recall saying, ‘You must be mad.’ I’ve never been a rector of a parish. I’ve never lived west of Burlington. I’m gay and I’m not called to celibacy.”
Bishop Ingham’s reply? The position needs a chief executive, not a parish priest, there is life west of Burlington, and, as for being gay in a church that still had a very large closet, ‘I will support you as far as I can.’
Under church rules, the cathedral parish chooses the rector and then the bishop appoints the dean of the diocese, almost always one and the same person. So Dean Elliott threw his hat into the ring, and the canonical committee picked it up. “He just seemed the best fit for our parish,” Mrs. Birtwell recalls. “He was just very engaging.”
First and foremost, the building demanded attention – “When Peter came there was a sense that it was an impossible task,” said Mrs. Birtwell’s husband, Ian, who subsequently spent too-many-to-count years as associate warden overseeing, ultimately, $25 million in renovations.
Dean Elliott drew on his love of Ontario’s Stratford Festival in telling the canonical committee he saw his job as that of artistic director, shaping the seasons of the liturgical year.
“The liturgy expresses the deepest realities of life in ways we miss most of the time,” Dean Elliott said. “For me, it’s like entering the eternal now, the timeless moment.”
Step by step, meeting after meeting, fund-raising campaign after fund-raising campaign, CCC’s 100-year-old bones were respected while its shabby clothing was stripped off to create an up-to-the-minute theatre space.
Chairs (moveable) replaced (most) of the (immoveable) pews; the lectern and pulpit were fused into one ambo; the altar was made portable. The organ and choir (after much persuasive discussion) were shifted from front to back.
Stained glass windows were donated by generous parishioners and others, replacing coloured and plain glass. New lighting and sound systems sharpened the liturgical drama.
More prosaically, the three-year-old roof should be good for another 97 years. And the 10 cubicles in the women’s washroom, up from 4, continue to be appreciated.
Mr. Lang's mass and psalm settings, anthems, hymns, and the Kontakion, now a funeral standard, are sung regularly. Mr. Roach's fabric art, changing with the liturgical seasons, became a staple.
And there’s no carpet anywhere to suck up sound. “Music is the vibration of air and wood picks up the vibration,” Dean Elliott said, so congregational singing can actually seep into the floor beneath one’s feet.
His one and only piece of advice for the next rector is this: Don’t put a carpet down the centre of the church. Just don’t. Please.
Underneath the scaffolding, parish life ticked along – in only one example, today’s Maundy Project, serving several hundred meals a week from the new commercial-grade kitchen, started with one parishioner in the late 1990s, on her own initiative, bringing in home-made sandwiches.
Church staff grew from 6 full-timers and a couple of part-timers to today’s contingent of 25. Mr. Birtwell, who laboured long as envelope secretary, sees that as a good thing. “It’s given volunteers more time to get to the mission part of (church life), instead of dealing with the administration stuff,” he said. “Otherwise, you burn out.”
The membership is larger, at nearly 800, up from 714 in 1994. The growth of the parish list has been augmented by the 5:30pm Sunday St. Brigid’s congregation, started in 2014, the first church plant in the diocese in 50 years. However, a more accurate measurement of parish health and growth is Regular Sunday Attendance (RSA) and that number is arrived at by averaging Sunday attendance several times a year at different times in the liturgical calendar. RSA for Christ Church Cathedral in 1994 was 395 and for 2018 it was 492.
The 2019 budget tops $2 million, compared to the $600,000-$700,000 budgets of the mid-1990s.
Maybe 100 parishioners – or a few more - have been along for the whole 25-year-ride, meaning that at least 85 per cent of the three Sunday congregations (including 8 and 10:30am) have never known CCC without Dean Elliott sitting in the rector’s stall.
To some on the outside, the place can look pretty pleased with itself, an impression confirmed by a 2018 parish survey. Mrs. Birtwell recognizes the danger. “We’re very happy with how we are, so where do we go from here?”
Dean Elliott, ever the realist, compared CCC to a swan, gliding serenely, thanks only to vigorous underwater paddling. Some 75 per cent of his job, he said, had always been about anticipating those interpersonal conflagrations, a fact of life in every parish, and trying to stamp out the first sparks.
At the same time, he was up to his elbows in national church work – in one memorable year, he sat on the CCC Parish Council, Diocesan Council, the Council of General Synod and the international Anglican Consultative Council - routinely working 16-hour days as he stayed on top of parish business while in Toronto or England or New Zealand or wherever.
Bishop Ingham acknowledges that any assessment of Dean Elliott can easily veer into hagiography (the writing of the lives of saints/biography that idealizes its subject). Peter Wall, also with a Sept. 30 retirement date, as dean of CCC, Hamilton, and also a veteran of eight General Synods, makes his own contribution to that.
Dean Wall has watched Dean Elliott in action since the early 1990s, working with him nationally, and playing with him at the annual North American Deans’ Conference.
“He’s such a larger-than-life character,” Dean Wall said, in an interview. “If he’s not a wild extrovert, he acts like one. People just love him.”
“Peter is widely respected by deans from around North America for what he’s done at the Cathedral here in Vancouver.”
Dean Elliott plans three months off before teaching a ‘spirituality and leadership’ course at the Vancouver School of Theology in January, and then watching to see “whatever God has in mind for me.”
He’s promising himself to take up the Chinese practice of Qigong seriously, penance perhaps for all those years he regarded his body as just something that carried his head around.
In his last years at CCC, he found he liked little more than taking tea with older parishioners, simply listening to their stories, and marveling at the irony of being lured in as a chief executive, and then working happily for a quarter century as a parish priest, weeping with those who wept and rejoicing with those who rejoiced.
As the altar party waited for Dean Elliott’s installation service to begin on the evening of September 11, 1994, People’s Warden Penny Charlesworth, hoping for a stretch of calm water, asked the incoming thirteenth rector and eighth dean to stay for 10 years.
“I think I said ‘Maybe I’ll retire from here in 25 years’ and everybody laughed,” Dean Elliott recalled. “I was just being facetious.”
The Seven Things that Peter Elliott Taught Me
By Archbishop Melissa Skelton
Archbishop Skelton delivered this list in person at the Christ Church Cathedral Wardens and Treasurers Dinner held March 12, 2019 at the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club amid much laughter. Many thanks to Her Grace for sharing this with the diocese and beyond. Editor
These are things taught to an American who arrived in Canada thinking she knew more than she did.
Welcome. Ms America. Americans can be fascinating, colorful, even dazzling. But remember that Canada is a quiet, slow burn, not a fireworks display. And so, Ms. America, learn to wait, watch and listen.
In Canada, there are ways to express opinions that claim where you are but that are not frontal, combative, or polarizing. When you have an opinion, begin it with this phrase: “in my view.”
“In my view we should let this idea go and pursue another.”
“In my view, it would be a good idea to revamp all our liturgies.”
“The diocese should take a stand on pipelines, in my view.”
A learning not so much about Canada as a country and a culture but about the land of Dean Peter Elliott: Sometimes gestures and expressions can say much more than words. (the smile)
Again, a learning from the land of Dean Peter Elliott: it’s possible to chair a meeting in which a lot gets done, people have fun, and for you as Chair to walk out of that meeting with no next steps assigned to you.
Yet another learning from the land of Dean Peter Elliott: timeframes on bad ideas are a help. “Yes, Bishop, go ahead with collaborating with the Archdeacons on liturgical permissions….for a period of two years, after which you would evaluate how it’s going.”
A way to gauge if you are actually doing your job as Bishop is whether you can actually surprise Peter Elliott with information. He knows everyone and everything. If you find yourself as Bishop knowing someone or something he does not know, you are either generating new work on new ground or you are out there connecting in the way that you should have been all along.
Canadians can and do have more fun.
by Anne Fletcher
See it and hear it – Peter Elliott and Rupert Lang, really just a pair of grown-up church kids, singing hymns to and with each other, the office door closed to keep the noise level down.
That went on regularly for 25 years, a mutual admiration society producing liturgy that has retired bishop Michael Ingham calling Christ Church Cathedral the best place in the country to worship.
Mr. Lang, CCC music director since 1986, is the only one of the Cathedral’s 25 full and part-time clergy and staff to pre-date Dean Elliott’s August 1, 1994 arrival.
And he knows exactly why this particular working partnership of priest and organist, which can so frequently be frictional, did, in fact, work.
As the son of an Anglican priest, Mr. Lang grew up in a musical family whose idea of a good time was to sing hymns around the piano. Ditto for Dean Elliott, close in age and the son of a lay canon, who took both piano and voice lessons.
“That really hit it off with me because music is generational,” Mr. Lang said. “Our tastes are pretty similar.” Both cherished the Anglican heritage of liturgical music; both saw the Cathedral, because it’s a cathedral, to be a keeper of that heritage; both wanted that heritage to shine.
Still, a priest with musical skill doesn’t guarantee harmony. “Sometimes that can go in the opposite direction,” Mr. Lang said. “They’re opinionated about music but they don’t have a depth of knowledge. I hear about a lot of falling out. It’s quite common actually.”
But Dean Elliott “never flaunts his knowledge,” Mr. Lang said. “It’s more about his personal opinion.”
Apart from choosing hymns together - “I can’t say enough good things about that because hymns are so important,” Mr. Lang said – Dean Elliott kept his hands off. “He rarely says anything about my choice of mass settings.”
For his part, Dean Elliott knew who he was working with, in a position that the late bishop Jim Cruikshank saw as the Cathedral’s ‘second dean’. “Music connects us at a level below words,” he said. “No one, in my experience . . . reads a room better than Rupert Lang. He has an uncanny ability to get the feeling right.”
For years, Mr. Lang saw, up close and day after day, his boss at work - building parish-leading teams; envisioning projects so appealing that people came on board with open pocketbooks; focusing firmly on the big picture in the face of daily aggravations; by-passing off-the-rack sermons to custom-tailor each funeral and wedding homily; keeping office life light with his irrepressible sense of humour.
And the list could go on. “To have that many skills in one person is rare,” Mr. Lang said. “He’s the best CEO I’ve ever worked for.”
For those of you who don’t know, the Very Reverend Peter Elliott will officially retire after 25 years from his ministry as Rector of Christ Church Cathedral and Dean of the diocese of New Westminster on September 30, 2019. His last Sunday, September 22.
In consultation with the canonical committee, Archbishop Melissa Skelton has appointed the Reverend Dr. Canon Richard LeSueur as priest-in-charge during the interim period. Canon LeSueur begins his ministry October 22, 2019.
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