Linda Nicholls, bishop of the diocese of Huron, was elected fourteenth primate of the Anglican Church of Canada on July 13, becoming the first woman in the history of the church to hold the position.
“You have bestowed on me an honour that I can hardly imagine, and it is terrifying. But it is also a gift, to be able to walk with the whole of the Anglican Church of Canada from coast to coast to coast,” Nicholls said in a brief impromptu speech on her arrival, after the vote at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, where the election was held.
Nicholls will be installed on the final day of General Synod—Tuesday, July 16—succeeding Archbishop Fred Hiltz, who has served the church as primate since 2007.
She was elected on the fourth ballot, with 64.2% of lay votes and 71.1% of votes among the clergy. Jane Alexander, bishop of the diocese of Edmonton, was the only nominee remaining on the fourth ballot. Alexander received 35.8% of laity votes and 28.9% of the votes of the clergy.
The election began with a slate of five nominees: Alexander; Archbishop Ron Cutler, metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Canada and bishop of the diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island; Archbishop Gregory Kerr-Wilson, metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Rupert’s Land and bishop of the diocese of Calgary; Nicholls; and Michael Oulton, bishop of the diocese of Ontario. After the second ballot, Cutler and Oulton dropped from the list, because each had received less than 10% of the votes of both houses.
In the third ballot, Kerr-Wilson received the fewest votes in both houses—15.5% of lay and 22.6% of clergy votes—and so, per rules governing the third ballot of primatial elections, was also removed from the list.
Electing a new primate was the first item on the agenda of General Synod on Saturday; the process, with opening worship service, began in the morning and stretched into the early afternoon, with a break for lunch. In accordance with the church laws governing elections for primate in the church, only lay and clergy members voted. Bishops remained at the hotel and convention centre, where most of General Synod’s other business is being conducted, while the election proceeded in the cathedral.
Once Nicholls had been declared elected, the bishops were notified, and walked the short distance to the cathedral. As they approached, the church’s bells pealed, and the assembled members of synod sang “Lift High the Cross.” The bishops entered the church, with Nicholls, accompanied by Hiltz, at their head—to claps and cheers.
Nicholls told the members of General Synod she believed the church was capable of the task that now faces it, of overcoming its divisions.
“We have reconciliation to do. And we have deep healing to work at. And I know that this church can do it,” she said. “I have seen this church rise to the challenge of its diversity; I’ve seen this church act in remarkable ways that the rest of the world does watch. And even though we at times can cause each other deep hurt and pain, I’ve also seen us rise to the challenge of that healing work of coming together around God’s table where our first calling is in Christ.”
An early order of business for Nicholls, in terms of reconciliation, will likely involve repercussions from the evening before her election. On July 12, the required second reading of a resolution to allow same-sex marriages failed to get its required two-thirds majority in all three houses. The vote, which came after a years-long divisive debate, left many members of synod in tears.
In a voice quavering with emotion, Nicholls asked for prayers for the diocese of Huron, which she has served as bishop since 2016, and which, she said, made her feel very welcome. She asked that members of General Synod pray for her as she prayed for them.
“Pray for us as a church, pray for us as a General Synod and pray that at the heart of everything we do is to seek the glory of God, the proclamation of the Good News, the care of God’s creation and loving one another as Christ has loved us,” she added.
Nicholls, who has described herself as a “cradle Anglican,” grew up in Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto. She earned bachelor’s degrees in both music and education at the University of Toronto, where she was active in the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship of Canada. She then taught music and math at the Woodstock International Christian School in northern India from 1977 to 1982—an experience she has said has deeply shaped her spirituality.
Ordained a priest in 1986, she served a number of parishes in southern Ontario, and completed a doctor of ministry degree at the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College in 2002. Nicholls was elected suffragan (assistant) bishop in the diocese of Toronto in 2007, becoming the Anglican Church of Canada’s fourth female bishop. She was elected coadjutor bishop of the diocese of Huron in February 2016, succeeding diocesan bishop Robert Bennett when he retired in November of that year.
Nicholls has sat on numerous church bodies, including the Commission on the Marriage Canon and the Faith, Worship and Ministry Committee. She has also served as co-chair of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue of Canada. Following the first reading, in 2016, of the resolution on changing the marriage canon to allow same-sex marriages, Nicholls, then still coadjutor bishop of the diocese of Huron, and then-diocesan bishop Bennett announced they would allow the marriage of same-sex couples in the diocese as a pastoral measure—one of a number of dioceses in the Anglican Church of Canada to do so.