At least 30 years have passed since Bishops Barbara Andrews and Mary Irwin-Gibson met in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Today, they live across the country from each other: Mary Irwin-Gibson is the bishop of the diocese of Montreal, and Barbara Andrews the suffragan bishop of the Territory of the People, in Kamloops, B.C. Yet still they call, visit and share their lives.
“It’s that kind of friendship,” says Andrews. “A long-time friendship through all sorts of twists and turns in our careers as well as in family life, but we’ve always stayed friends and stayed connected.”
“We always pick up where we left off,” says Irwin-Gibson.
Irwin-Gibson, then newly ordained, was serving at her first rectory parish in the Eastern Townships of Quebec when Andrews moved to the neighbouring town of Cowansville, Que., in 1985. They became fast friends. “We shared recipes and cooked together and gardened,” Irwin-Gibson remembers.
They bonded through their children—Andrews, a former hairdresser, gave Irwin-Gibson’s daughter her first haircut, and Andrews’ children nicknamed Irwin-Gibson “Mother Mary.” Andrews was the first guest in the hospital when Irwin-Gibson’s second child was born, which Andrews calls “a moment I simply treasure.”
When Andrews was facing a difficult transition, re-entering the workforce after 15 years of being a stay-at-home mom, and coping with the realities of being a single parent, Irwin-Gibson prayed with her. Andrews recalls sitting on a rocking chair in Irwin-Gibson’s home, where the two women were praying together, and Irwin-Gibson encouraging her to share her dreams for the future.
“She said, ‘I want you to tell me what your heart’s desire is for you, as you explore what the future is going to hold,’ ” Andrews remembers. “So I began to share my dream with her.”
About three months later, Andrews accepted a job at a church across the country in Winnipeg. As Andrews excitedly shared the details of the position, Irwin-Gibson reminded her that it was just what they had prayed for together.
This is the value of friendship for a person of faith, says Andrews: having someone who cares enough to “encourage you to dream your dreams,” pray during vulnerable moments and “remind us of God’s presence in our life.” Since the beginning of their friendship, she says, they have been connected by a love of Scripture and prayer.
Irwin-Gibson also cherishes the power of prayer in friendship. It’s good, she says, “to know that someone’s praying for you and thinking about you, and might pick up the phone…when I might not want to bother her with whatever’s going on.”
Both of them, she adds, are “committed to the Lord, so we’re both committed to hospitality, and generosity, and faithfulness, and forgiveness and all those virtues—but I really experience that in the friendship with her.” It’s also good to have a friend in leadership in the Anglican church, she says, who she can look to for advice.
As more women are elected to the House of Bishops, Andrews says, there and the ability to share some common experiences. “It’s lovely to be able to talk to other women bishops about the issues that we as women have, being bishops. And they’re not always big issues. It’s, what do we do with our purses when we show up at a church and there’s no place to lock our purses?”
Not only did the two friends both end up serving as bishops, they were elected to two dioceses that have been companion dioceses for years. This means that they often travel to each other’s dioceses, and continually encourage and pray for each other.
Because the dioceses visit back and forth, Irwin-Gibson was invited to the synod when the Territory of the People was ratified. She recalls staying with Andrews, having coffee in the morning and talking over the day to come. “I’m glad for the Territory of the People that they got her to be their bishop, because she has a lot of heart and she’s generous. She’s got such a positive outlook all the time. I love to call her if I ever need encouragement.”
Andrews also calls her friend for encouragement; once, Irwin-Gibson even sang to her over the phone, long distance. “I think what Mary did for me, in those early years, was encourage me to develop myself as an individual…we can become so enmeshed in family life and children that we lose our sense of our own passions in life,” she says. “Mary always encouraged me to seek my own dreams, and to develop myself.”
“When I first met her, I knew Barbara not only as a homemaker and mother, but I knew her as somebody with a great deal of passion for Christian education,” says Irwin-Gibson. “She’s really a very competent person business-wise, as well. I just always looked up to her and her capacity.”
Of course, at the heart of any friendship are two people who simply enjoy each other’s company. “We laugh a lot together, and that’s a great thing,” says Irwin-Gibson. “It’s a great feature in a friendship to laugh together and to support each other.”