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Canon Francis: A remarkable life of service

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In mufti he could easily pass for a retiree en route to visit his grandchildren.

But retirement is not in the lexicon of the 80-something man seated in 15F on Delta's Atlanta-bound flight. It's just past midday and already he's put in enough hours to tire someone half his age.

Up at the crack of dawn he took his daily walk, played nine holes of golf, finalised church business and now, accompanied by his wife, he's taking a rare period of relaxation – a Caribbean cruise.

Formally, he's the Reverend Canon James Woodcock Francis, Senior; Bachelor of Arts; Master of Divinity; Justice of the Peace and a Member of the Order of the British Empire, received from the hands of the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

A consummate workaholic, he enjoys local and international admiration and respect as a man of God.

He is refreshingly informal in his demeanour and bereft of the sin of pride.

Baptised as an Anglican, Canon Francis, like so many of his ilk, was greatly influenced by the spiritual guidance of his West Indian parents who, though Anglicans, found greater acceptance in the Church of God denomination.

Young James' interest in the ministry was nurtured by two outstanding men of God: the late E.B Grant, Pastor of the Church of God on Angle Street and the late Rev. Stanley Thornley, of St. Paul AME Church in Hamilton.

Those were the days of Elmo Bean, Darnley Mouchette and Donald Ming, iconic reverends whose paths to the pulpit were also paved at a young age.

But his burning desire to enter the ministry was almost quashed before it began.

When he inquired of a former Canon at the Anglican Cathedral as to how he should prepare himself for the priesthood, he was promptly told there were no plans for a "native" to aspire to the priesthood in the Anglican Church in Bermuda and was directed to Codrington College in Barbados where, he was told that after much study he could become a Lay Reader.

Those words made him more determined to achieve his goal, if not in Bermuda, then overseas.

He was soon accepted at Wilberforce University and later Payne Theological Seminary and graduated from both African Methodist Church institutes. Then on to Bexley Hall Seminary in Gambier, Ohio.

It wasn't long before this Bermudian had carved out a career in the United States through an extensive variety of clergy experiences from Priest-in-Charge at St Simon of Cyrene Mission in Lincoln Heights, Ohio to the Diocese of Ohio in Cleveland; then on to Detroit, Michigan as Rector of St. Cyprian Church.

The tide in his spiritual journey was turning.

Coincidentally, the winds of change were buffeting Bermuda-– pressing the Anglican Church to introduce diversity at a higher level.

Bishop Christopher Luxmore, then Bishop of the Diocese of Bermuda, felt the time was right to embrace change and the best place to start was in the Mother Church of Anglicanism, the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity.

The post of Canon Residentiary was soon to become vacant, but the Anglican Church's lack of outreach towards Bermudians in general and blacks in particular meant there was a minuscule pool from which to draw the required talent.

Reports of a man named James W. Francis reached the Bishop's desk and soon afterwards, with the support of an influential Anglican, Sir John Sharpe, then Minister of Labour and Home Affairs, James W. Francis, adorned in cassock and surplice, was processing up the nave, led by resplendently robed clergy, to be installed as the first Bermudian Canon Residentiary of the Anglican Cathedral.

Hardly had the ink dried on his Seal of Appointment when the new Canon Residentiary threw himself into the task of building the congregation with a boundless energy that belied his years; encouraging Bermudians of all persuasions to regard the Cathedral as their Church, not the elitist enclave perceived by of some segments of the community.

Throughout his pastoral life he had adopted a method of using passages of scriptures and thoughts for daily living as his personal guide. Cathedral telephone callers were soon greeted with a recorded "Thought for the Day", words of comfort and hope.

Example:

"Every noble work accomplished was at

first impossible." Quite likely his personal testimony upon becoming Canon Residentiary was "God's Love is too deep for me".

As great as God's love may well have been his attempts at congregation-building in a church with a particular history soon revealed not too subtle absences, some due to attrition and others by a desire to worship elsewhere, perhaps attributed to an unwillingness to embrace diversity in their Church. His take on the situation:

"Don't sweat the small stuff."He pressed on, broadening the Cathedral's outreach by ratcheting up the radio ministry, encouraging the youth to worship and work in the Church – even exchange their wedding vows there, regardless of their religious persuasion.

"Put God first in all that you do, then work with him to see it through."But with the hard work came challenges, and one in particular was the election of a new Bishop of the Diocese. Canon Francis, in spite of his immense popularity in the community, failed to muster sufficient votes to participate in a second ballot.

With training and preparation for the priesthood; his honours and awards and public service on boards and committees, the Bishop's mitre eluded him.

And whilst the Diocese rejoiced in the knowledge that Bermuda finally gained as Bishop a son of the soil, there existed an undercurrent among the laity that Church politics worked against the good Canon and his ministry in the Cathedral soon came to an end.

He was not ready to hang up his clerical collar and desired another parish to continue this ministry.

Christians, after praying, are expected to be up and doing, rather than just sitting and waiting.

He did not have long to wait. Christ Anglican Church in Devonshire was in need of a new Rector for which Canon Francis, with all his gifts and skills, to say nothing of his parish roots, was a natural fit.

This historic edifice soon became "The Little Church with the Big Heart", drawing young new worshippers while still finding a place of honour and service for long-standing members.

The young sought him out for counselling, perhaps as a result of to his relaxed style.

They saw him as sincere, approachable and, as one young member put it: "non-judgmental".

His view: "Too many Christians are preoccupied with preparing to get the Heaven and neglecting to work to make this earth a better place before they leave it." This resonated with the youth and it wasn't long before The Little Church with the Big Heart was bursting at the seams.

Sunday morning worship services were different. They contained elements that were not in the Anglican tradition – puppetry and liturgical dancing.

Canon Francis feels that if you pray for something to happen, then you must be prepared to work to make it happen. And work he did.

The annual Christmas Candlelight Service became so popular that it's standing room only.

"Success comes as a result of working, not talking."

His keen sense of humour is present when he conducts funeral services.

Inviting the mourners to celebrate the life of their dearly departed by standing, rather than sitting throughout the service, as is typical of Bermudian funerals, he would have them erupting in peals of laughter by sharing an amusing anecdote about the deceased.

Instead of enveloping themselves in a pall of grief, many leave the church, sadness lifted, singing with gusto the popular recessional hymn: "When we all get to Heaven."

He accepts that his brand of Anglicanism is different and makes no apologies for it.

"Let's look at the statistics," he said. "In the last few Censuses, membership in the Anglican Church has decreased, not – increased. This is not the case in many of the charismatic churches and we must ask ourselves why?"

He answers his own question by suggesting that the Anglican Church needs to be more empowering; more, as he put it, "switched on".

"One of the failings of our Church is that we do not empower people to take leadership positions. Everything is left to the priest. Some of us tend to be so hung up on the liturgy that we fail to note our lack of appeal, particularly to the youth."

He sees similarities in the Island's failings.

"Our education system is failing. Our financial system, is failing. Our entire political system seems to be collapsing under the weight of double standards."

The influence of the Anglican Church in a future Bermuda, he feels, is dependent on its ability to attract some of the island's keenest minds, both male and female. He firmly believes candidates should be trained in recognised first class seminaries and be fully financed.

As for the Anglican liturgy, he believes it should be developed to adopt the "culture" of Bermudians, with less emphasis on pomp and ceremony and more concern for people.

There should be less reliance on the financial assets of the church and more on its people resources. There is ample evidence that Canon Francis has embraced his own philosophies.

Under his stewardship, and with the support of the Wardens, Vestry and an enthusiastic congregation, Christ Church has grown.

Its adjacent building that once housed the Elliott School, is now a commercial success. There is a new, two-storey Rectory, which replaced the structure of early 1920s vintage. An apartment complex sits on the spacious grounds, a boon to the Church's future financial stability.

The atmosphere in the church is one of congeniality. They recognise Women's Day, Men's Day, even a Mardi Gras Night, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, when a King and a Queen is crowned. Their Fellowship Hour, after Sunday morning worship, is a smorgasbord well worth experiencing.

His philosophy: anyone who enters Christ Anglican Church is a visitor once. After second and subsequent visits they are put to work. It's no secret that the young at heart Canon Francis is past the traditional retirement age, but somehow he didn't get the memo.

His day of ministry includes the role of Volunteer Chaplain of the Bermuda Fire Service, the Mid-Atlantic Wellness Institute and serves as a member of the Bermuda Permanent Arbitration Tribunal. All this is sandwiched between his parish duties and responsibilities in the Anglican Church. Saturday mornings are set aside for golf.

Then there's reading to catch up on, sermons to prepare and – wait for this – skating, walking, dancing, boxing and weightlifting, which are his hobbies. Singing, playing the violin and the piano are also part of his life's enjoyments.

A devout family man, his wife, Audrie, son James and daughter Kim share a close bond.

"Don't fear the future, you are never alone."

Even with his humility and informality, candour has always been one of Canon Francis's stronger characteristics; hence he demonstrates no reluctance in speaking his mind:

"The Anglican Church is my first love and will always be such. That is why I am free to say and be who I am in it."

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Published October 21, 2010 at 12:00 am (Updated December 13, 2010 at 3:49 am)

Canon Francis: A remarkable life of service

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