Bishop of Niagara to take new position with diocese of Ottawa

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Michael Bird, who will be stepping down next year as bishop of Niagara, said he was glad to have advocated for a more inclusive church. Photo: André Forget

Michael Bird, who has served as bishop of Niagara since 2008, will be stepping down as of June 1, 2018 to take up a “new, yet-to-be announced ministry position” with the diocese of Ottawa, the diocese of Niagara announced Tuesday, September 12.

“I have an opportunity to transition back to my first love in ministry, which is to be more directly involved with parish ministry and people in parishes,” Bird said in an interview with the Anglican Journal. “So I’m really excited about it, and I’m looking forward to working out exactly what that will look like in the next few months.”

He declined to provide details on the position, however, saying he would prefer to leave it up to the diocese of Ottawa to make any announcements when the time comes.

The election of a coadjutor bishop, who will succeed Bird, has been set for March 3, 2018.

Bird said one of the highlights of his near-decade as bishop was the putting together, soon after he arrived, of a diocesan vision with the people of the diocese, and seeing that vision take shape over the following years. The vision, he said, was “a strong statement about some things that were really important to us in our life as a diocese” including “prophetic justice-making,” leadership, stewardship, and life-changing worship.

Bird also said he found it a great privilege to have advocated with the diocese for a more inclusive church and to walk with marginalized people.

As of this May, Niagara was one of three dioceses in which same-sex marriages had been performed before the required second reading in 2019 of a resolution to change the Anglican Church of Canada’s marriage canon. After the resolution passed its first reading in General Synod in July 2016, Bird was among three bishops who announced their intention to allow same-sex marriages, citing the view of General Synod Chancellor David Jones that the canon as it is currently worded does not in fact forbid the practice.

Bird said the diocese’s support for the marginalized, however, included a range of other types of work also, including its ministry to migrant farmworkers on the Niagara Peninsula, its response to the Syrian refugee crisis and an “explosion” within the diocese of community kitchens and other food programs.

Bird said he was also greatly pleased by the emergence of more interactive, innovative and lively Sunday morning services in the diocese. “We’re seeing more children and families in church than we have in the past lately, and various varieties of worship services and music,” he said. “That’s all very exciting to see.”

Among the most challenging times in his episcopacy, Bird said, was the departure of four parishes from the diocese after it decided, shortly before he became bishop, to allow the blessing of same-sex marriages. Legal battles between the breakaway parishes and the diocese over the ownership of properties cost the diocese more than $1 million, Bird said in a 2015 profile. The diocese’s financial difficulties were compounded by the 2008 recession.

Another stressor, Bird said, was the need to react to a “paralysis” gripping the church because of a widespread sense of pessimism as it entered the 21st century. Bird said he was encouraged, however, by the way the diocese has confronted this pessimism by asking the right questions about its purpose.

“My sense is that we’ve moved beyond that period of doom and gloom, and I’m experiencing a lot more hope, and encouragement and excitement about what the Anglican church is doing right across the whole diocese,” he said. “The real challenge is to help people ask the questions about what we are really all about, and what God is calling us to do, and then finding ways to make that happen.”

Suzanne Craven, archdeacon of the diocese’s deanery of Trafalgar, has served in the diocese in a variety of capacities since 1999. Bird, she said, will be remembered for having led the diocese through “a fairly challenging decade” largely because of the controversy surrounding blessings of same-sex couples and same-sex marriages.

His leadership style, she said, always allowed room for dissent.

“There was never a down-from-the-top, ‘this is what we’re going to do and you’re going to be doing this,’ ever,” she said. “It was always, ‘It is your own conscience, it is your own choice’.”

Bird will also be remembered, Craven said, for helping the people of churches facing closures to look at things anew—to see, for example, the benefits that amalgamation can bring.

Craven said she believed Bird would do very well in his new position, because of his great passion “not only about the church and the polity, but about all those who attend and all those who have not yet discovered the church.”

Born in Oakville, Ont. in 1957, Bird received his B.Sc. from the University of Toronto in 1980, followed by an M.Div from the university’s Trinity College. He was ordained a priest in 1984. Bird’s first posting as a priest was as rector of a three-point parish in the diocese of Central Newfoundland. He then served at four parishes in the diocese of Niagara until being consecrated coadjutor bishop of the diocese in 2007.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with new information about the election date for Bishop Michael Bird’s successor. 

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Tali Folkins
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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