The Clarence I knew …

by Canon William Thomas

Clarence was the most pastoral cleric I have ever known.  

I met him first as the father of the two sons I taught at The Guelph CVI, then as Rector of St. George’s, then as the Bishop who ordained me as a priest, the father of the groom at a wedding at which I presided, and finally as the grandfather of  my godaughter. He knew exactly what  his gifts were (marvellous singing voice, attractive and warm personality, great memory for people and places) and his deficiencies ( not a great academic or preacher, certainly not an administrator). He had a prodigious memory for people’s names and family connections. He always used people’s names when speaking with them, and usually inquired into how the rest of the family (often by name) was coming along. 

His warm and involving sense of humour, and humility, relaxed many a tense situation, and opened the door to a deepening trust. Above all, he was a gifted mentor, inviting individuals to grow and blossom in serving the community and the church.

I first met Clarence in 1970, when he became rector of  St. George’s in Guelph. In those days my normal practice was to drop Jette and the kids off at the church on Sunday mornings while I hustled off to my office at The G.C.V.I  “ to get some work done”. That was soon to change.

When our son Eric was born, unexpectedly with Down Syndrome, Clarence helped us through the shock, and was the first child he baptized at a main service on Sunday morning at St. George’s. Our previous two were baptized in the chapel on a Sunday afternoon. His caring leadership of the congregation resulted in our son being welcomed and involved, rather than being politely ignored as was the common experience of too many in those days.  

Having  employed his eldest son as a babysitter, and as a team leader for my Gr 13 Geography field camps, Clarence and I became closer and better acquainted. Under his gentle mentoring, Jette and I became more and more involved in not only attending church on Sunday mornings, but working with the new curate David Russell, in maintaining the youth group  which had grown hugely in just a couple of years under his predecessor, Ralph Spence.

Bishops Mitchell and Bothwell-adj
Clarence Mitchell at the time of his election, with Bishop John Bothwell.

One memorable incident was the invitation, knowing that I was comfortable around teens, and drove a VW van, to be one of the drivers to take the Youth Group in to see “Godspell” in 1972 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. Many of that cast went on to become famous – Andrea Martin, Gilda Radner. Martin Short and Eugene Levy. But for Clarence, the most memorable cast member  was Jayne Eastwood, who, spotting Clarence in full blacks in an aisle seat, came off the stage to wrap him in a feather boa, while singing “Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways…” his response, playing along with her, was to endear him to several generations of young people – and to those of us who worked both with him and with them. I soon found myself becoming a Sunday School teacher and advisor to other teachers, and on the staff of NYC.

Clarence was very much a supporter of youth ministry. One of the earliest members of the staff of NYC, he was a great recruiter for that program, and in my experience of him at St. George’s,  managed to calm those adults whose feathers were ruffled by the often barely restrained energy and actions of young people: especially when that involved use of the facilities for weekly coffee houses, and the use of electric guitars, candles, and chanting in special evensongs.

Clarence was, in his quiet way, a great evangelist. Feeling guilty that I was teaching in the Sunday School and mentoring a huge youth group, while remaining a Presbyterian, he seized on the opportunity to suggest that Jette ( a Danish Lutheran) and I could be confirmed within a couple of weeks, when Bishop Walter Bagnall was scheduled to come – IF we promised to participate in the next year’s class.

Bishop Clarence was also a great liturgist. He had a great singing voice, and presence as an officiant. I particularly recall his being called in to perform as the voice of God in a Benjamin Britton concert at the Basilica in Guelph.  In preparation for his participation in “Theology 76” at Huron College, he gathered together a community of about two dozen parishioners to meet in the parish parlour of St. George’s at 9:30 on Sunday mornings. We were divided into teams that, Sunday by Sunday, prepared and conducted one of the many “paperback liturgies”, including draft forms of services in what was to become the BAS. And we spent some time with him reviewing our reactions to those liturgies: discussing both what we liked and didn’t like, and what was disturbing, both positively and negatively. Two of us  were moved by that experience to consider ordination, and with Clarence’s support, were both ordained.

Underneath all of his many gifts and contributions to the Church in Niagara, was Clarence’s first vocation as a husband and father. His was a warm, loving, and welcoming family, who knew solidly who they were, and what values they held, while being encouraged to become the unique individuals they were created to be. 

Clarence grew up as the descendent of  one of the founding families of Port Dover, and he married a descendent of one of the others. He was related to just about half of the community , and knew the importance of remembering people’s names and who was related to whom. His children and grandchildren have carried on that  sense of belonging and community. I suspect  that the  example and the personal experience of encountering Clarence was what led so many of his congregations to be welcoming and stimulating places to be, and for this diocese to elect him as their Suffragan Bishop. It was a privilege and an inspiration to have known him.