A Memoir: Harold Lee Nutter

Book Review of A Memoir: Harold Lee Nutter,
VI Bishop of Fredericton and Metropolitan

(This review was written by the PBSC National Chairman, the Revd. Canon Dr. Gordon Maitland.  Archbishop Harold Nutter was the PBSC’s first Episcopal Visitor, and his ministry spanned some of the most tumultuous times in the history of the Anglican Church of Canada.)

Archbishop Nutter
Archbishop Nutter
The subtitle of this book is ”It Remains for Me to Say”, and this is appropriate because it is a first-person account of the life of the Most Rev’d Harold Nutter (1923-2017), the sixth Bishop of Fredericton and sixteenth Metropolitan of the Ecclesiastical Province of Canada.  The book draws on a set of memoirs that Archbishop Nutter wrote in the early 1990s for the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, a few years after his retirement in 1989.  These are supplemented by further reflections that he wrote some years later.

In his foreword to A Memoir, David Richards remarks that this is a story about “a time now gone, remote, and dimming in all memory”, and truer words could hardly have been spoken.  Whether it be Harold Nutter’s birth in a community composed of only English-speaking, white Protestants, his education in a one-room schoolhouse, and his early ministry in a context in which most people went to church, the times in which he spent his youth appear to be remote indeed.  What will appear most striking to anyone under 50 years of age is the extent to which the Church was respected and taken seriously by the wider society and by the governing authorities of the time.  An example of this may be seen in the meeting of the Canadian House of Bishops which took place in Fredericton in September of 1966.  Nutter was Dean of the Cathedral at that time, and was thus responsible for organizing the event.  The Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, was coming to speak to the Canadian bishops, and so a large diocesan service was planned at which the Archbishop would give his address.  It turned out that the service had to be held in a local hockey arena because there were about 5,000 people in attendance.  Among the guests at this service were the Mayor of Fredericton and members of city council, the Premier of New Brunswick and members of the provincial cabinet, justices of the Supreme Court of New Brunswick, and the Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick!  Various media were present in large numbers and Dean Nutter could say that “all went away feeling the that the Church was still alive and vigorous”.  Such was Archbishop Nutter’s stature in the province of New Brunswick that he was twice approached to stand for leader of the Provincial Liberal Party, was invited to become the Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick, and was offered a seat in the Canadian Senate, all of which he refused because he felt that his calling as a bishop in the Church of God was more important than secular preferment.  After his retirement, Archbishop Nutter received the Order of Canada.

How different it is today.  When the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada met in Calgary this past summer not a single politician was present.  It is inconceivable that any Canadian Anglican bishop would now be invited to hold an important government position or even to be awarded the Order of Canada.  The Church has become completely invisible to our secular society.  This divorce between the Church and those who govern or hold leadership positions in the wider Canadian society was much lamented by Archbishop Nutter who saw it as a loss for both constituencies.

Archbishop Nutter’s time as Dean of Fredericton (1960-1971) and as a bishop (1971-1989) spanned some of the most tumultuous times and events in Canadian and Church history.  As a senior leader in the Canadian Church, Harold Nutter was an eyewitness to almost every development in the Anglican Church of Canada during this time period. His account of the issues of the day, the proceedings of the House of Bishops, the unfolding of events at the various General Synods, and his attendance at two Lambeth Conferences (1978 and 1988) is very important from a historical point of view.  The last serious history of the Anglican Church of Canada was written by Archbishop Philip Carrington in 1963, and until another distinguished historian comes forward to continue the history of the Canadian Church since that time, Archbishop Nutter’s memoir is a valuable source of information for those who wish to understand how Canadian Anglicans dealt with the radical changes to society in the 1960s and 1970s.

Since my review has been written for the readership of the Prayer Book Society of Canada, it is important to look at what Archbishop Nutter had to say regarding liturgical revision and change during the time that he was a bishop.  He was not opposed to liturgical change in general; in fact he used some of the early experimental rites put out by the Church.  He even chose to use an experimental rite that was “strikingly different” from the BCP rite for the consecration of a bishop at his own episcopal consecration (a decision he later regretted).  However, at the General Synod in 1983 when the Book of Alternative Services was officially authorized for publication and use, Archbishop Nutter pushed hard to have his episcopal colleagues agree to a policy that the Book of Common Prayer was to remain the official Prayer Book of the Canadian Church and that every parish be required to use the BCP at least 50% of the time for their worship.  As Archbishop Nutter regretfully remarks, “without much support from other bishops” this policy failed to gain any traction.  With clear prescience the Archbishop wrote, “What is at stake in this discussion?  Essentially not only a love for the language of the Book of Common Prayer or a desire to use the more contemporary Book of Alternative Services wording.  These may cause some hurt, but they are not at the root of the controversy; rather it is the obvious pattern of Anglicanism to establish doctrine from worship – Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. If there is within the Book of Common Prayer a solid, scriptural portrayal of orthodox Christian belief, and if there are either subtle or significant changes of these beliefs in the Book of Alternative Services, then the Church is facing a decision which will change it for all time.  Today far too many people hold that it does not really matter what one believes so long as it is sincerely held. No, belief determines attitudes and action and is absolutely important.  Sincerity is no guarantee of truth or right.” (p.158)

Some years later, after more reflection, Archbishop Nutter caustically remarked, “It is true that there are major changes in doctrinal emphasis in the Book of Alternative Services, and the serious objections are not so much that the familiar services have been changed (that might be tolerated) but that the foundation of the Faith is being eroded deliberately.  The obvious question is “Why?”  Was there error in the Faith as transmitted from the Fathers of old and formulated in the Book of Common Prayer in accord with scripture and tradition?  If so, where was the error? Or has there been a progressive revelation under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in these latter days which is more true than that revealed in Christ?  Or is there a necessity to be relevant, to be “with it” and contemporary? If so, then we are on the slippery slope of constant change as society changes. And are we not allowing the agenda to be set by the fickle change of society rather than by the sure certainty of the Almighty?” (pp.163, 164)

It is important to note that Archbishop Nutter was the Prayer Book Society’s first Episcopal Visitor.  It is worth quoting the paragraph that he wrote regarding this appointment, because some may be surprised at the conditions that he required to accept this position: “Having spoken, in 1990, to the national Prayer Book Society in Toronto I was invited to become the first Episcopal Visitor to the Society. I gave it careful thought for, while aware of the trauma caused by the new rites and being concerned about the implicit changes of doctrinal emphasis in them, I did not want to be identified as a liturgical reactionary. There was much in the Book of Alternative Services which was good. In additional to personal liking I have always felt that the bishops could have been more responsible toward our people by ensuring that the Book of Common Prayer was used at least 50% of the time in all parishes. Where this was not done it led to a very serious division in the Church. Consequently, I finally accepted the position with the understanding stated in writing that I would use the Book of Alternative Services and work toward an acceptance of it by the Prayer Book Society as an alternative to, and not a substitute for, the Book of Common Prayer.” (p.182)

Needless to say, the Society has never had a problem with the BAS being an alternative to the BCP; it is the fact that so many congregations now no longer even possess a single copy of the BCP, let alone use it, which is the reality that the PBSC works so hard to remedy.

There is a poignant element of tragedy in this memoir.  Harold Nutter was clearly a capable, bright, sensitive, optimistic, progressive (in the true sense of that word) cleric, who sought the best for the people and the diocese entrusted to his care.  His close family ties, his deep sense of community, his strong moral compass, his thorough grounding in classic Anglicanism, were all values that were increasingly questioned, challenged, and discarded by the wider society and by many in the Anglican Church itself over the course of his long ministry.  By the time of his retirement in 1989 he was seen as one of the most conservative prelates in the Canadian House of Bishops.  He was, in many ways and like many others, a person who was “left behind” by a Church that no longer valued the things that he believed were important.

The contrast between the confident and optimistic Anglican Church of Canada which hosted the Anglican Congress in 1963, and the pitiful condition that it manifests in 2023, is deeply saddening.  In many ways, A Memoir is a cautionary tale worth reading for all who still love our Canadian Church.

[A Memoir: Harold Lee Nutter, VI Bishop of Fredericton and Metropolitan by Andrew B. C. Nutter. Dartmouth, Nova Scotia: Atlantic Digital Reproductions, 2022. Pp. 261. ISBN: 978-1-77835-166-2.

Available from St. Peter Publications in Charlottetown, PEI (www.stpeter.org) for $28.00 plus postage.]

A Memoir: Harold Lee Nutter