The Rev. Blair Allison Dixon never set out to become one of the first people of African descent to be ordained in the Anglican Church of Canada, nor does the 82-year-old clergyperson see his more than four decades of service as a black priest as a political act. “I felt a calling. And I wasn’t the first—there were two black priests from the West Indies ordained before me,” he recalls.
Born in Saint John, N.B., he is the seventh of the 11 children of Muriel and George Dixon, whose family’s roots go back to former Louisiana slaves settling in the Maritimes after the U.S. Civil War.
Despite their long establishment in the eastern provinces, black Canadians faced an all-too-familiar climate of racism. “We couldn’t eat in certain restaurants or play in pool halls. But it was the same right across Canada, not just in the Maritimes,” Dixon recalls, without bitterness.
Dixon’s mother was a committed Baptist, a denomination in which black pastors were common, and he attended Baptist services, but he was intensely drawn to the English rite through the influence of his godmother, Sister Sheila, an Anglican nun. “As a child, I was very much involved in the Anglican church. I sang in the choir and served as an altar boy,” he says.
Growing to a height of six-foot-three, Dixon excelled at sports, a skill that would later stand him in good stead in youth camp ministry, and he went on to play for Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., where he also competed in track and field.
It was on the path to what he thought would be a lifelong military career in the Royal Canadian Air Force, where he spent five years, that his thoughts pivoted to the Anglican priesthood. But he would face racist roadblocks there as well, since the consensus of the day was that Canadian Anglicans would not be comfortable with a “coloured” priest. “When I asked the then-Bishop of Fredericton Henry O’Neill if he would sponsor me for ordination, he said he couldn’t do it, as a coloured priest wouldn’t be accepted,” Dixon recalls.
Determined, in 1961 he tried again in Ottawa, where Bishop Ernest Reed agreed to be his sponsor. “He asked me how I thought parishioners would react to a black priest and I said, ‘I don’t know, but I sure want to find out.’ ” So, after divinity studies at King’s College in Halifax, Dixon was deaconed in 1965 and ordained in 1966, and spent six years in several parishes in the diocese of Ottawa. “A black priest then was more than a novelty, more than a curiosity, but people in the diocese did not react openly because of the deep respect for the priesthood,” Dixon recalls.
By the end of the decade, he and his first wife, Linda, and their three children found themselves stationed in inner-city Detroit, where Dixon served for the next five years at Grace Episcopal Church and St. Matthew’s-St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church. It was a seismic time, when Motown was plagued by urban decay, racial tensions, rioting and looting, and hit by rapid shifts in the socio-economic milieu and gender relations. “There was a lot of resentment and always the potential for crime,” he recalls.
While in Detroit he tried his hand at TV production, hosting a weekly children’s program and producing a weekly adult religious show on ABC.
By 1977, Dixon was back in Ontario, working first as director of the diocese of Huron’s youth camp program and then returning to parish ministry in 1988. He served nine years at Christ Church in London. “I was really enjoying myself there. I didn’t have to work hard, but I realized God hadn’t called me to such an easy life,” he says.
So, in 1991, he was off to Saskatchewan, where for 17 years he was rector at St. Matthew’s parish in Regina, retiring as rector in 2008 but currently serving as an honorary priest.
Over the years, Dixon honoured his African lineage by spending sabbatical time in the diocese of Grahamstown, South Africa, and the diocese of Malawi in various roles that included volunteer priest and police chaplain.
The Rev. Allan Higgs, a Regina police chaplain, has known Dixon for decades, working with him across the diocese of Qu’Appelle. “He has no airs, no axes to grind and is very easy to talk to,” Higgs says. “He particularly specialized in taking care of seniors and unattached people in the congregation, and the parishioners all dearly loved the reverend.”
Looking back on his time in the church, Dixon is struck by how its perspective has widened to one of broad discipleship. “We still need the rectors and priests to run things and steer the ship, but many more can enter the church’s ministry,” he says. “Before, the focus was on building up the ministry with more ministers, of getting more men into the ministry, but now the reality is not so much the ministry but the mission of the whole church—male, female and lay people. The focus has switched to teaching and anyone can aspire to ordination.”
And in that, he says, the contemporary church is heeding God’s call for all of us to come together in as diverse a harmony as possible.