The Rev. William Portman, who died in Regina Monday at the age of 85, will be remembered by many as both a priest and journalist. He also advised the Saskatchewan government on policy. Photo: Contributed
For many years, says Bishop of Qu’Appelle Robert Hardwick, a man from Swift Current, Sask., found himself tuning in to daily five-minute radio slots on spiritual themes, hosted by a Saskatchewan Anglican priest. The man, though he was not actually a believer, was drawn to the broadcasts because of the way they made him think about faith.
Eventually, Hardwick says, the listener did turn to faith—and became the diocese’s chair of finance. Meeting the priest behind the radio slots one day, he was able to tell him what they had meant to him, and the part they had played in his becoming a Christian.
The priest behind the broadcasts, The Rev. William “Bill” Portman, died this Monday, October 26, after struggling with a number of health problems. He was 85.
For Hardwick, the anecdote illustrates how many people will remember Portman—as someone who changed their lives through his twin passions for Christian ministry and journalism.
“I think because of his good communication, his love of telling stories, he communicated the gospel well,” Hardwick says.
Apart from serving the church, both as parish priest and administrator for the diocese, Portman also worked in print and broadcast media. He hosted two daily radio shows on spiritual themes: “Family Worship,” broadcast on CBC in the ’60s, and “In Touch With Today,” broadcast on CKCK Radio Regina from the ’70s through the early ’80s. His journalism work also included a lengthy stint as book review editor for the Anglican Journal, from 1990–2004.
This position, it seems, was an excellent match for another of Portman’s passions: reading.
“There were books everywhere,” his son Gordon recollects of childhood in the Portman house. “There were always books. He was constantly going to and from the library.”
As a reader, he was both “voracious” and “eclectic,” according to an obituary prepared by Portman’s family. His tastes, says Gordon, spanned “everything from political biography to military history to cozy murder mysteries.”
Says former Anglican Journal editor, the Rev. David Harris, “Bill was a great book review editor—very enthusiastic. He was so widely read. Sometimes you had to contain that enthusiasm, because many of his suggestions could be books that were a little bit esoteric for the general reading public. But he was always very thoughtful...And you know, I think he always had a good strong following because people trusted his suggestions.”
But Portman was also, Hardwick says, a prophet of sorts, challenging the church he loved with, at times, “edgy” ideas.
“He had a great missional heart—ahead of his time, I think, in many ways,” he says. “He always wanted a church that engages with the world.”
Portman was, for example, a great believer in the baptismal covenant—the notion that every baptized person is to be a minister of the gospel. He also had a strong desire for a more ecumenical church, and was instrumental in encouraging closer links with the Roman Catholics and Lutherans, says Hardwick.
His father, Gordon Portman says, was not a believer in change for its own sake, however.
“I think he was a voice for change within the context of history and increased knowledge,” he says. “I think he was a voice for reasonable change, and patient change.”
Portman’s work as a communicator sometimes led him to political activity. He became a friend of former federal finance minister Ralph Goodale while working for a local Progressive Conservative candidate, despite their allegiance at the time to different parties. It was decades ago, Goodale reflects, when he himself was “a young Liberal, cutting my teeth on election campaigns in the rural Saskatchewan constituency of Assiniboia.”
“Bill was an excellent communicator,” remembers Goodale. “I learned a lot from his skilful writing and his ability to take complicated topics and make them resonate with the public without distortion.”
Portman loved a good debate, Goodale adds, but he was also a cherished friend. “I always looked forward to his notes, or better still, his personal visits to my office,” he says. “I will miss Bill's sage advice and that perpetual twinkle in his eye.”
Portman moved further left politically as the years went on, says Gordon Portman, and was a supporter of Goodale during most of the time he knew him.
Portman died with his family by his side, according to an obituary prepared by his family. He had suffered a range of health problems including adult onset diabetes, a heart attack and prostate cancer.
Born in Prince Albert, Sask., to Herbert and Margaret Portman (Bickle) in 1930, Portman spent his younger years in a number of towns in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. He began his career as a journalist in 1947, working for newspapers, including the Winnipeg Free Press. After having felt increasingly drawn to the priesthood, he began theological studies at St. Chad’s College in Regina, and was ordained a priest in 1956.
Portman would serve almost his entire ministry in the diocese of Qu’Appelle. He was vicar of Hazenmore-Vanguard from 1955–1958 and rector of Milden from 1958–1960. Looking to broaden his experience, he went to the U.K. on a work-study program. He met his future wife, Barbara, while serving in the parish of Cannock, Staffordshire, England.
The couple married in Regina in 1962, and went on to have two children. Over the next two decades, the family would come to make their home in a number of communities in southern Saskatchewan as Portman pursued his twin careers. He served a number of rural parishes but was also editor of the diocesan newspaper, the Qu’Appelle Crusader, from 1963–1972, and then of the Saskatchewan Anglican, covering the three dioceses of Saskatchewan, from 1973-1982. In 1966, Portman was appointed associate editor for western Canada of the Canadian Churchman, the Anglican Journal’s predecessor. From 1969 to 2004, he covered every General Synod except one.
In 1983, Portman was appointed executive secretary for the diocese of Qu’Appelle, where he played a key role in setting up the diocese’s companion relationship with the dioceses of Lichfield, England and West Malaysia. He retired from this position in 1995. But he continued to play supporting roles in a number of churches in the Regina area; was for a time secretary of the Regina Council of Churches; and also served with advisory committees in several provincial government organizations, providing advice in areas such as hospice care and living wills. During his last years, he served as honorary assistant at All Saints Anglican Church in Regina. He also continued writing after his retirement, apart from his work as the Anglican Journal’s book review editor, and won an award from the Canadian Church Press for an article that appeared in theSaskatchewan Anglican in 2014.
Portman is survived by his brother Jamie; his wife Barbara; his son Gordon (David) and daughter Shelley (Michael); his grandchildren Miranda and Brandon; and a large extended family.
A funeral for Portman will be held this Saturday, October 31, at All Saints Anglican Church in Regina.
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Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.
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