Twenty-One Today

On October 24th 1990 I was ordained a deacon in the Church of the Resurrection, Holman, Northwest Territories (the church I had been serving as a lay minister in charge for two years), by Bishop Jack Sperry, Third Bishop of the Arctic. The service was a bilingual one, in English and Inuinaktun, and the Inuinaktun parts were especially translated from the Book of Alternative Services by Bishop Sperry. The only other clergy person present was my father, who had made the long trip from England for the occasion. It was a little different from the formal ritual of the ordination services I now attend at our cathedral in Edmonton; there was no choir, the organ was a chord organ, and after the service was over the pews were pushed into a circle around the walls to make room for a great feast in the little church. The feast was not just for my ordination, I haste to add; it was also in honour of Bishop Sperry’s intending retirement. I was the last person he ordained before he stepped down from his position as Bishop of the Arctic after seventeen years, and a total of forty years of ministry in the Diocese of the Arctic.

I consider Jack Sperry to be one of the unsung heroes of the Canadian Church. He was born in the same city as me, Leicester in England; he served in the Royal Navy during World War Two and then came to Canada, where he took his theological education before moving to the Diocese of the Arctic. He was the missionary in charge at Coppermine (now Kugluktuk) from 1950 to 1969; during that time he made extensive travels by dog team all over the central Arctic, doing mission work in what are now the parishes of Holman, Cambridge Bay, Bathurst Inlet, Bay Chimo and beyond. He learned to speak Inuinaktun, the central or Copper dialect of Inuktitut, with great fluency; he translated parts of the Book of Common Prayer, the Gospels and the Book of Acts, some selections from the epistles, and many hymns and psalms, for the use of the people of the central Arctic. After nineteen years in Coppermine he served briefly in Fort Smith before being appointed as the Third Bishop of the Arctic in 1973, a position he held until his retirement at the end of 1990.

I remember Jack as a down to earth, ordinary Christian; he loved the Gospel and he loved the people of the Arctic, and he loved most of all bringing the two together. He was a man of prayer and a man who knew how to build things with his hands (you had to do that a lot as a missionary in the Arctic). He knew that his first job was to care for his clergy and their families, and when he came to visit us he always made time to play games with our children, draw pictures for them, and talk with them. Episcopal visits in the Arctic always involved staying overnight in the mission house, of course, as there were no roads in and out of most of the communities, and very few had more than one flight in per day. But with Jack, it wasn’t a case of necessity but of vocation; he knew how isolated his clergy were and he did his best to care for us as individuals and as families.

One of the best times I ever spent with him was in the early winter of 1988 after we moved to Holman. I was learning to negotiate a new language and Jack was one of the acknowledged authorities on that language, so he came to stay at our mission house for a week which we spent in intensive language study. For eight hours a day we poured over the few written resources available (most of which he had written himself), and it was then that I discovered that I not only enjoyed language, but I had a pretty good ear for it. But we also visited and told stories, and each night the local people would arrive at our door and come in without knocking, as was the custom, to sit and drink tea with the man who had once been their minister (Holman had been part of Jack’s patch in those nineteen years when he used to travel up the western side of Victoria Island by dog team each winter). The respect and affection they felt for him was quite obvious.

At the time of my ordination I had been serving as a lay-evangelist with the Church Army in Canada for twelve years. I had worked in parishes in Ontario and Saskatchewan, and had served in the Diocese of the Arctic for six years as a lay-minister in charge of two missions, first in Aklavik and later in Holman. I had done some theological study by correspondence but had not completed a full theological degree. But Bishop Sperry’s view was, “Well, if you’re not qualified to do the job I shouldn’t be leaving you on your own in charge of an isolated mission station, should I?”

I will always be grateful for Bishop Sperry’s trust in me. There were other bishops in the Canadian church who did not consider me educated enough to be a candidate for ordination. Bishop Sperry took a different view, and that is why I am where I am today.

As for Jack, he is still alive in a retirement home in Hay River, with his children nearby; I think he must be over ninety by now, and I know for a fact that macular degeneration has made him almost blind. I know this must be very hard for him, as he always loved to read. I will think of him especially today, with a prayer of gratitude for all the good he did in my life. God bless you richly, Jack, and thank you so much for everything.

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