Archbishop Percy Coffin, metropolitan of the province of Canada since 2014 and bishop of the diocese of Western Newfoundland since 2003, is planning to retire following the election of a successor this summer.
Coffin announced his intention to retire to the diocesan synod’s executive council Dec. 1, 2016. An election to pick a coadjutor bishop for the diocese will be held in Corner Brook, Nfld., June 3. The date of the election of his successor as metropolitan will be decided by the provincial executive.
Coffin, 64, said a number of factors were behind the decision.
“I’ve reached the age, and it’ll be 14 years, and it’s very tiring work,” he said. “It’s time for somebody else to lead as well. You run out of steam, you’re not as innovative as you used to be. I just don’t want to get into a ‘maintenance’ thing. I think I’ve done what I can and I’m grateful for it. It’s been a good ride and I’d like to go on this note.”
Coffin said he greatly admired all the people who worked to keep the church running in his diocese during his time as bishop, and priest, when it was facing the enormous challenge of dramatic out-migration. One of Coffin’s first appointments as parish priest was in 1992, not long after the federal government’s declaration of a moratorium on the cod fishery, a traditional mainstay of the Newfoundland economy. He had been working as a military chaplain in Nova Scotia and was driving to Newfoundland with his young family. He still remembers the words of the ticket agent at the Cape Breton ferry terminal who peered into the car and noticed their three children and his wife, eight months pregnant at the time.
“He said, ‘The school board’s going to love you, because they’re all going the other way,'” Coffin said.
The most memorable time of his career in ordained ministry, Coffin said, was not his tenure as bishop, but his first appointment as parish priest, when he served a string of communities along the coast of southeast Labrador from 1985-1988.
“Nothing’s been able to compare with that,” he said. “Those three years on the southeast coast of Labrador were a terrific experience, and I met the richness of the people, and there I realized what ministry means,” he said.
Their richness, Coffin said, lay in the spirit they showed in harsh weather and other adversity.
“They were wise people, they were witty-of course, wit and wisdom go together,” he said. “But they also bore witness, they were true to their faith as well. The two main themes that run through Scripture from Genesis right through to Revelations-gratitude and hospitality-I learned that very early in Labrador.”
Coffin said he would especially cherish his memories of presiding over confirmations and ordinations.
“The confirmation experience has been good-it’s a high point,” he said. “When everything else gets to you, go and do a confirmation. You can put a lot of stuff behind you then. And ordination, of course-it’s a sacred moment. These are holy times.”
Coffin said that at one point he developed a habit of asking confirmation candidates to write him notes explaining why they thought they should be confirmed-and got some very interesting, and often amusing, replies.
“I’ve had some wonderful theological discourses sent to me,” he said.
Coffin said he also greatly enjoyed the fellowship he experienced with other bishops, at both the provincial and national levels, beyond the differences they might experience from time to time.
“The House [of Bishops] has been fun. Testy at times. But we grow through that stuff, you know,” he said. “It’s been a joy.”
Born in 1952 and raised in Joe Batt’s Arm, Fogo Island, Nfld., Coffin served in the Canadian Forces Medical Services Branch from 1974 to 1980. He earned a BA from Memorial University in 1983 before completing his MDiv at Queen’s College in St. John’s in 1985.
Coffin served as a military chaplain from 1988-1992, after his service in Labrador. In 1992, he became rector of the parish of Bonne Bay North, located within Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park. After serving there for four years, Coffin became rector of the Parish of All Saints in Corner Brook.
Coffin’s wife, Monica, is also ordained. They have four children, three of whom, Coffin said, were married last fall.
Coffin said his plans for retirement-apart from gardening, golf and other hobbies-include offering up his services in relief ministry; many parishes in the diocese are often without a priest.
The last three or four decades, Coffin said, have seen great challenges for the church. But these challenges, he adds, can also be seen as opportunities for the church to adapt. He said he keeps a plaque near his desk inscribed with the words, “If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance a lot less.”
Said Coffin, “any change is bound to ruffle some feathers…But I think for the Spirit to move, there has to be change. It can’t be stifled or smothered.”