The term “churchman” fell from favour long ago, and deservedly so. Over time, what once described denominational movers and shakers began to evoke a kind of clubbiness that assumed the church’s main players were rightfully men.
The fact that a word has fallen from favour doesn’t always mean it’s a bad word. Sometimes it’s the only one that fits. No doubt some of the mourners at a memorial service for Rev. Albion Wright this past summer were surprised to hear “churchman” crop up in spoken tributes. But I think most of the people gathered at St. Stephen’s-On-The-Hill United in Mississauga, Ont., understood that the term was being used as an expression of great admiration for a man who loved The United Church of Canada and devoted the better part of his life to it.
Albion Wright wasn’t a high-profile church leader. He preferred to work in the background. But if ever there was a United Church mover and shaker, he was it. Ordained in the late 1950s, he went on to hold an astonishing number of key positions at all levels of the church. Moderators sought his counsel, and up-and-coming church leaders considered him a mentor.
There is no question he walked confidently down the corridors of influence during the years when men ran the show. But he was too smart and decent a human being to believe even for an instant that the United Church should be the preserve of any one group. He believed in an inclusive church and showed it by serving as an adviser to Anne Squire, the first laywoman elected to lead the United Church. As a member and eventually chair of The Observer board of directors, he was a mentor to Muriel Duncan, the first female editor-publisher of the magazine in more than 150 years of publishing.
He seemed to have a special place in his heart for this magazine. He believed the United Church was better off with an Observer that spoke freely, and he worked doggedly to enshrine the magazine’s independence. In the early 1990s, he was instrumental in setting up the Friends of the Observer Fund. It has been the magazine’s lifeline ever since.
After his official duties ended, Albion maintained an ongoing unofficial relationship with the magazine. A chat with Albion never failed to put things in perspective. His wisdom and his quiet, reassuring manner could calm the most troubled waters and point to hope just over the horizon.
When Albion Wright died on July 5 at age 81, The Observer lost a true friend and the United Church one of its greatest champions. A retired minister who was among the innumerable clergy Albion went to bat for over the years put it best: “He was one of the good guys” — a churchman in the best possible sense of the word.
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