“It’s a bit overwhelming, frankly—joyful, wonderful, exciting and quite remarkable—to be elected in a diocese that I have never served in, and to be entrusted with the responsibility to be coadjutor bishop,” Nicholls told the Anglican Journal February 16.
Nicholls was chosen out of eight candidates, winning on the third ballot. As coadjutor bishop, she will automatically become bishop of Huron—the first female to hold the title in the diocese—when the current bishop, Robert Bennett, retires.
The election was called following an announcement last June by former Suffragan Bishop Terry Dance of his plans to retire at the end of 2015. The diocese decided to have an election for a coadjutor bishop instead of a suffragan bishop because Bennett is expected to retire soon also, and it’s unclear whether the diocese will be able to continue to afford two bishops in the future, Nicholls said.
“I am delighted that people of Huron gathered in synod have called the Rt. Rev. Linda Nicholls to the office of coadjutor bishop for the diocese of Huron,” Bennett said after announcing the election results. “She is a gifted and faithful leader who will help chart our future to that place where God-in-Christ wills us to be. I very much look forward to working with her.”
Her first priority as coadjutor bishop, Nicholls said, will be to get to know the diocese—its history, its geography, its people and its clergy. One issue she expects to be important, she said, will be following the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)—in particular, ensuring Anglicans in the diocese are educated about the history of Canada’s Indigenous peoples, including the history of the Indian residential school system.
“We don’t know the history of residential schools very well—we know a bit about it,” Nicholls said. “And so, the TRC recommendations around education of our own people are critical, particularly in a diocese like Huron that has the large Six Nations reserve right there. And residential schools have been part of the history of that diocese in a way they weren’t here,” Nicholls says, referring to the diocese of Toronto.
The diocese of Huron, which stretches from Lake Erie in the south to Lake Huron and Georgian Bay in the north, includes the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve, the largest Native reserve in Canada.
Though Huron is a more rural diocese than Toronto, it faces many of the same challenges, Nicholls says, including “small communities struggling, small churches struggling trying to find new forms of ministry that will be viable and sustainable.” Therefore, she says, among her challenges will be “managing a diocesan structure with decreasing resources” while at the same time “keeping an eye and a vision that is hopeful and positive about what God is already doing and is continuing to do.”
Discerning what God is calling the diocese to do—that is viable, given its financial challenges—”does require us to ask hard and difficult questions about things that we love, that may not be sustainable,” she said. “And sometimes we start with very simple things—can we share resources, can we work together in clusters, can we amalgamate, can we work with other Christian communities? We look for the logical and easier ones first, but then we may have to ask some more radical questions about what ministry needs to look like when we can’t afford a professional clergy.”
The answer, she said, may lie in reexamining the roles of vocational deacons, lay readers and “locally raised people” for offering pastoral care and leadership in worship.
“I think the assumption that we will be able to have full-time stipendiary clergy—who come with the kind of education that they come with—in small rural communities is not going to be sustainable,” Nicholls said. “We’re just not going to be able to do that.”
Nicholls said she is hoping to be able to begin her new job this May 1.
A self-described “cradle Anglican,” Nicholls was born and raised in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. When she was a teenager, her father, who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, was transferred to Toronto, and that’s where she finished high school.
Nicholls, who has had a lifelong passion for music, completed a bachelor of music degree at the University of Toronto in 1976, then a bachelor of education at the same university the following year. In both high school and university, she said, she was active in Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship of Canada.
After her studies in music and education, Nicholls spent five years as a music and math teacher at Woodstock International Christian School, an international boarding school in Mussoorie, India. Mussooorie lies in the Himalayas in northern India, not far from Rishikesh, a place much revered by Hindus and a popular destination for yoga retreats, and spending time in a place so deeply spiritual, where Christians make up such a tiny portion of the population, was an experience that shaped her deeply, she said.
“Any experience that takes you out of your own assumptions and culture and forces you to see things afresh and to experience things that you had not experienced before takes you both inside yourself, to question you, but also opens you to people who are different—different spiritually,” she said.
Returning home, Nicholls decided she wanted to explore her faith more deeply, and began a one-year certificate in biblical studies at the Ontario Theological Seminary. She decided to enter the priesthood and was ordained a deacon in 1985 and a priest in 1986, switching to the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College to complete a master of divinity degree.
Nicholls then served for a time as incumbent of the parish of Georgina on Lake Simcoe, Ont., and was incumbent of the Parish of Holy Trinity, Thornhill, Ont., from 1991-2005. From 2005-2008, she worked in the faith, worship, and ministry department of General Synod in Toronto as co-ordinator for dialogue, ethics, congregational development and interfaith relations. Meanwhile, she continued her theological education, completing a doctor of ministry degree at Wycliffe College in 2002.
Nicholls’ career has included participation in a number of church bodies. She currently sits on the diocese of Toronto’s Doctrine and Worship Committee and the Faith, Worship and Ministry Committee of the Anglican Church of Canada. She is chair of the Standing Committee on Religious Orders of the National House of Bishops and co-chair of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue in Canada. Since 2011, she has served on the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission.
Nicholls’ other passions include canoeing—a pastime she hopes to continue as bishop in her new diocese.