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A historic first – and last

By David Wilson

Frank Barkwell could have been a household name in The United Church of Canada. But he was a humble man who valued simple, genuine things like family and friends over celebrity. That’s likely why he kept his claim to fame mostly to himself for more than 80 years.

In 2011, Knox United in the central Ontario town of Coboconk threw a 100th anniversary party and invited Barkwell, then 86 and living near Owen Sound, Ont., to be the guest of honour. According to daughter-in-law Velma Barkwell, his response took everybody by surprise: “I guess I should go, since I was the first baby baptized in The United Church of Canada.”

Barkwell was born on Aug. 21, 1924, on a farm near Coboconk. When he was nearing 10 months old, he fell gravely ill with double pneumonia. Fearing he might die, his parents sent for a minister to baptize him. The minister had begun the day — June 10, 1925 — as the minister of Knox Presbyterian. By the time he performed the sacrament at the Barkwell farmhouse in the late afternoon, he was the minister of Knox United: the new United Church of Canada had officially come into being a few hours earlier in a packed inaugural service in Toronto. No one has ever challenged the strong likelihood that young Frank was the new denomination’s first baptism.

Barkwell recovered to grow up as one of 11 siblings, eventually marrying and raising four children of his own with his wife, Helen. The United Church thrived too, baptizing tens of thousands of other babies on its way to becoming the largest Protestant denomination in the country.

The United Church marks its 90th anniversary this month. Apart from the pealing of church bells across the country on June 10, official celebrations will be muted. But don’t let the low-key festivities fool you: this anniversary is important.

Depending on decisions taken by August’s General Council meeting, the United Church may be headed toward the most sweeping denominational changes since church union itself. A response to shrinking membership and dwindling resources, actions proposed by the Comprehensive Review Task Group would affect how the United Church is governed, how its ministers are regulated and how congregations relate to a pared-down central bureaucracy. The United Church that celebrates its centennial a decade from now would look very different from the United Church born in 1925.

Church historian Phyllis Airhart helps to put all of this in perspective in an anniversary essay this month. Author of the acclaimed A Church with the Soul of a Nation, Airhart observes that creating new life from old is very much in keeping with the United Church’s founding spirit. So is taking risks. Mourning past glories isn’t.

Frank Barkwell lived to see his 90th birthday, but not the 90th anniversary of his baptism. Before he died last January, he said he wanted his memorial service to be held back in Coboconk, at Knox United. To their dismay, family members discovered that Knox had recently amalgamated with another congregation and the building was for sale. But they prevailed upon a nearby minister, who generously made arrangements to open the church for the occasion. In early May, the story came full circle: Knox’s first official act in the new United Church of Canada had been to baptize Frank Barkwell; its final act before deconsecration was to lay him to rest.

The story of Barkwell and Knox United is not the whole story of the United Church. But the congruities are striking, almost providential. Perhaps the message is that 2015 should be more than just an anniversary year; it should be a watershed year.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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