Canon Susan Bell was elected coadjutor bishop of the diocese of Niagara Saturday, March 3.
As coadjutor bishop, she will automatically become the 12th bishop of Niagara—the first woman to hold that title since the diocese was founded in 1875—when the current bishop, Michael Bird, steps down in June.
An electoral synod convened at Christ’s Church Cathedral in Hamilton, Ont., elected Bell on the fifth ballot.
Reached by phone on Monday, March 5, Bell said she was feeling “full of gratitude.”
Bell, who grew up in Hamilton, says her election is a “full circle moment.”
“My family are all from, and still in, Niagara…I know and love that region in the church,” she says. “Who says you can’t go home again? You can, but in a different way.”
Bell says letting her name stand for nomination was about answering a call—literally. When she received a phone call saying that she had been nominated, she says, it was “pretty much out of the blue.” But throughout a process of “prayerful discernment,” Bell says she felt “an inner urging that this was the right thing to do.”
Bell, 51, is the canon missioner for the diocese of Toronto, an honorary assistant at the Cathedral of St. James, Toronto, and an associate priest at the parish of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Toronto.
Bell says the core principle of her leadership style is to “listen, very deeply.” As canon missioner, she says she has learned a “missional methodology”: to look for where God is already working and to join in. “The idea is to come alongside where God is already working, and to bless that energy with more energy and more resources.”
When asked about her plans for the diocese in the next few years, Bell says, she hopes to expand on the “wonderful” work that is already going on, highlighting the ministry to seasonal workers in the Niagara Peninsula and the Mandarin ministry in Oakville, Ont.
Bell, who worked for 10 years as a school chaplain at Havergal College in Toronto, is also looking forward to working with youth in the diocese. “They’re a force,” says Bell. She recently had a meet and greet with some of the diocese’s youth. “They were so engaged, so prepared and so impressive…I just want to engage deeply with them and hear their hopes and dreams for the church and how they can be a part of that.”
Bell says she is “profoundly honoured” to be the diocese’s first woman bishop, and says she hopes that her election will be an encouragement for other women considering leadership in the church. “It makes me proud of our church,” she says.
“I was raised by a very strong woman, my mom. She was a single parent. I think that some of this—well, much of it—is as a result of her wonderful parenting and tremendous support,” says Bell. “My mom has been my biggest cheerleader, and my biggest inspiration.”
She is also thankful for the support of her husband, Tom, and her four children, Emily, Nicolas, Andrew and Olivia.
In response to a question posed on the diocesan website to all candidates about the next steps the diocese should take in pursuing reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, Bell recalled being present at the formal apology by the General Council of the United Church of Canada in 1986, which she said was received but not accepted. “In the years since, I have realized that it is not for us to suggest steps for our Indigenous Peoples to follow but to listen respectfully for what they suggest,” she wrote, adding that “it is for us to pray for peace and justice and to continue to acknowledge our part in fractured history as we live and work on the side of reconciliation and justice. And, in time, following their leading, it is for us to respond to their directions for next steps.”
Now, after the election, she says she plans to work closely with the diocese’s archdeacon for Indigenous affairs on “fleshing out” the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
In response to a question posed to all candidates about their views on “equal marriage,” Bell wrote that she would be voting in favour of a change to the marriage canon. She also said that she would preserve the diocese of Niagara’s current practice regarding same-sex marriage in the lead-up to General Synod 2019, when the motion to change the marriage canon is presented for second reading. (After General Synod 2016, Bishop Michael Bird was among three bishops who announced they would allow same-sex marriages in their dioceses.)
Bell’s election was “unanimously confirmed” late Monday afternoon by the House of Bishops of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario, according to Canon Bill Mous, communications coordinator and director of justice, community and global ministries of the diocese of Niagara. Her consecration is tentatively set to take place May 5, followed by a transitionary period, after which she will assume the full responsibilities of diocesan bishop June 1.
Ordained in 1997, she holds a BA from McMaster University, a MDiv from the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College, and is currently a PhD candidate in church history at St. Michael’s College within the Toronto School of Theology.
Bell also has acted as Anglican representative for the National Ecumenical Dialogue between the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada, co-led the Inter-Diocesan Learning Community for Mission in the diocese of Toronto, and was a member of General Synod 2016. She is a member of the board of Threshold Ministries and the current national team leader for Fresh Expressions Canada.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated. The election of Canon Susan Bell as coadjutor bishop of the diocese of Niagara was “unanimously confirmed” by the provincial House of Bishops of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario on Monday, March 5.
The election took place March 3, not March 13.