Clarence Mitchell was my hero.
I first met him when I was seven years old. He had just been appointed rector of my home parish (St. George’s, Guelph), and he came to visit the Sunday School. It was a large group — I’m sure we were a little overwhelming — yet he took the time to chat with every class.
He was a tall man — with a very deep voice — and he listened intently to every word that was said. But the thing that struck me most was the twinkle in his eye. It was a twinkle I had only seen once before … Santa Claus.
Everyone in the parish loved him. He was the ideal parish priest — encouraging members to step up and share their gifts, the whole time being aware of all that was happening.
- Seniors loved him, because he visited and listened, and made sure that the shut-ins and sick always had someone from the church connecting with them
- Parents loved him, because he preached relevant sermons and spoke about how it was possible to live lives of faith even in a secular world.
- Teenagers loved him, because he allowed them to explore their faith in a ’70s context. Experimental liturgies, guitars and saxophones and folk masses, and allowing servers to wear jeans and sneakers under their cassocks.
- Children loved him, because he took the time to stop, address them by name, and listen.
He often used his humour as a way of knocking down the walls of “stuffiness” that the Church had built over the years
As I grew up and became more involved in parish life, I came to respect my rector even more. He loved to laugh (and in all honesty — the church does give us plenty to laugh about). He often used his humour as a way of knocking down the walls of “stuffiness” that the Church had built over the years, and used humour as the great equalizer among us all. And that twinkle was still there.
He was very attentive to the Youth Group and all its members. While some rectors liked to delegate this responsibility to lay leaders and curates, then run away, Clarence stayed connected to the youth and their leaders. Somewhere along the way, he and I developed a small “greeting ritual”. Whenever we met we would join right hands (in a traditional handshake) then lift our left hands to each others cheeks and give a gentle and loving “pinch”.
When he was elected Suffragan Bishop of Niagara (in 1980) our parish was both thrilled and devastated. The youth group even more so. Among one of our gifts to him was a purple T-shirt with the words “Bishop Mitch” printed on it.
Two months later the Suffragan Bishop visited the Niagara Youth Conference. He arrived in suit and clergy collar … delivered greetings from the diocese and the bishop … then (in front of us all, with that twinkle in his eye) proceeded to take off his jacket, pectoral cross, and shirt … revealing his Bishop Mitch T-shirt. The crowd went wild. He then returned to his seat, amongst the people, where he felt most comfortable.
Clarence was a people person. It was what made him a great parish priest, and a very pastoral bishop. He believed that being in relationship with others was a keystone of Jesus’ ministry, and was the foundation of his own. He knew there would be no shortage of people to fulfill all those other tasks that the church needs in order to function … but it all hinged on the foundation of relationship.
He taught me (through how he lived his own life) that every person is worthy of dignity and respect, especially those who may think differently than we do — because that is how our church was founded and how we will continue.
Clarence was a practical person. He knew that boilers needed repairing, bulletins needed printing, that shingles will fly off the steeple … but that should not be our focus or our reason for being. He taught us how to address the one, without compromising the other.
Clarence was a real person. We sometimes forget that about our bishops. He wasn’t afraid to admit his own faults, and that was appreciated by many. He showed us that bishops are human, and that endeared him to me even more, knowing the huge task we had laid upon his shoulders. He carried it well, knowing God was always with him.
Our church has said goodbye to one of the greats … and we rejoice that we were blessed with him in the first place, and that our lives (and our world) are richer because of him.
The Reverend Rob Towler is the editor of the Niagara Anglican.