Crockett remembered as ‘giant intellect’ of the church

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The Rev. Bill Crockett, pictured here with his wife, Jean, “was one of the superstars of the Canadian church…but a very self-effacing guy, quiet, with a real sense of humour,” recalls Peter Elliott, dean of Vancouver’s Christ Church Cathedral. Photo: Contributed

The Rev. Bill Crockett, who died October 29 at age 84, was a brilliant but humble theologian whose importance shaping liturgy and thought in the church runs deeper than is often realized, say some Anglicans who knew him.

“He has been an influence and an inspiration to many, and perhaps they don’t even know it,” said the Rev. Barbara Liotscos, a retired priest who was one of his students at the Vancouver School of Theology (VST) in the late 1970s, then frequently worked with him when she was the Anglican Church of Canada’s consultant for ministry and worship.

“You wouldn’t know to meet him that here was a giant intellect of the Canadian church whose impact goes way beyond Vancouver, indeed across Canada and around the world,” said Peter Elliott, dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, where Crockett worshipped.

As a longtime professor at the ecumenical VST, Crockett educated future leaders, not only of the Anglican but also of the United and Presbyterian churches, Elliott said. He was also a member of the Anglican Church of Canada’s doctrine and worship committee of 1969–1995, a group that began a series of liturgical reforms that would ultimately result in the 1985 Book of Alternative Services (BAS). Crockett also played a role in shaping Anglican worship around the world through his work with the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, a Communion-wide network for the research and discussion of liturgy.

Raised in the Anglo-Catholic parish of St. Thomas’s Anglican Church in Toronto, Crockett would become known for supporting the ordination of women and the blessing of same-gender unions.

Crockett, Elliott said, “opened up the orthodox Christian faith in ways that were faithful to the tradition and also contemporary in their expression…For Bill, the Christian tradition wasn’t a static, unchanged set of philosophical tenets. It is a living thing that continues to bring the love of God into the ever-changing circumstances of the world.”

His intellect, Elliott said, was cloaked by a remarkable modesty.

“I don’t know anybody else who was able to express complex theological matters so succinctly and effectively,” he said. “He was one of the superstars of the Canadian church…but a very self-effacing guy, quiet, with a real sense of humour, and a really devoted family man.”

Crockett had a “lovely, gentle” wit and a personality of the sort not typically associated with authorities in his domain, recollected Victoria Matthews, former bishop of Edmonton diocese and of Christchurch in the Anglican province of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia.

“There are many jokes about liturgists, mostly projecting on them insufferably exacting personalities, but Bill Crockett did not fit that persona for one moment,” she said. “The Canadian church and the Anglican Communion have lost a man, a priest, pastor and a scholar who was graciousness personified; open-minded and generous to all.”

Liotscos said Crockett’s obituary, published in the Vancouver Sun and Province, suited his whimsical spirit in closing with the words, “In lieu of flowers, please take a friend out for dessert.”

Crockett is to a great degree responsible for a sense of balance and a “beauty of the theology of love” in Canadian Anglican worship, Liotscos said.

“It’s so positive, you know? Positive in tone. Full of love. Full of love. And I know he’s been part of that, because that’s what I saw in his life and in his teaching. I’m grateful,” she said.

Crockett studied philosophy at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College before taking a year off to work and travel. He returned to study theology, and was ordained a deacon in 1960 and a priest the following year. He served as a priest in Weston, Ont., for a year, then began doctoral work in historical theology at the University of Chicago’s divinity school. Crockett received his doctorate in 1971. Meanwhile, in 1964, he had been appointed professor of church history at the Anglican Theological College in Vancouver. He switched to systematic theology at the college two years later, and continued in that role when the Anglican Theological College and Union College merged to form the Vancouver School of Theology in 1971. His book on the history of the eucharist—Eucharist: Symbol of Transformation—was published in 1989.

In a profile in VST’s magazine, Perspectives, published on his retirement in 1999, Crockett said he felt the gap between conservatives and liberals posed a challenge to the church. “The strength of conservatism is that it holds fast to the gospel. The problem is it freezes the tradition,” he said. “Liberalism, on the other hand, is responsive to culture, but can become captive to it. We must prepare people theologically to deal with this diversity within the church.”

Crockett is survived by his wife, Jean, whom he married in 1960; three daughters; and seven grandchildren. A celebration of his life will be held at Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver on November 24.

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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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