A large percentage of the books in my personal library are memoirs of the great, the not-so-great and, in some instances, the ingrate. Both biographies and, especially, autobiographies can be self-serving, presenting their subjects in the best possible light. Such foible-free works, which are called hagiographies, are of limited value in creating well-balanced portraits.
I recently read the reminiscences of a great man, Stewart Payne. He retired in 1997 as Anglican metropolitan of the Ecclesiastical Province of Canada and archbishop of the Diocese of Western Newfoundland. He is one of the Church of England’s most respected clergymen in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Cut from the Cloth of Fogo, which is published by Flanker Press of St. John’s, is refreshing by its very transparency. Payne recalls his life in a modest and engaging manner, paying tribute to those who helped him on his peripatetic journey.
“My story,” he writes, “is made up of a number of short stories of events that happened to me growing up on Fogo Island and along the way, which have moulded and nurtured my physical and spiritual growth.”
Two incidents in particular resonate with me.
First, soon after the federal government declared a moratorium on the cod fishery in 1992, Payne joined the Roman Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Grand Falls, Faber MacDonald, in forming a coalition for fishing communities to help its unemployed fisherfolk and fish plant workers. Such social awareness is to be commended among clergy who, all too often, restrict their activity to spiritual matters.
Payne’s stated priority in life has been to “contribute to the common good.” It is worth noting that he sees his life as a way of serving “in the corporate life of the church and outside.” The church coalition he helped form reflects the twin foci of his religious and social sensibilities. To their credit, several churches, including Pentecostal, the denomination I served as an ordained minister for 35 years and which typically shies away from ecumenical activities, sent representatives to the formative meeting.
The coalition determined to listen to those affected, represent them to governments, and do all within their power to ensure conservation laws were followed. Payne is convinced that the coalition “made an intensive and effective effort in bringing the tragedy of the moratorium and the plight of our people to the attention of governments and the Canadian public.”
The second feature of Payne’s memories which especially registers with me is the loving tribute he pays to his wife, who late in life developed dementia and sadly had no comprehension that her husband was even writing his autobiography.
In a short but moving chapter, entitled “Selma,” Payne recalls that, by 2006, it was patently evident that she was having significant memory-related issues.
“She has progressed to the point of seemingly having no recognition and no real communication, though one can never be sure of those things.”
In his own twilight years, Payne perceives his ministry to be caregiver to his Selma, nothing more nor less.
“God’s will,” he suggests, “is always for our wellness and healing.” In a profound addendum, he writes, “Healing takes place again and again, not always resulting in a cure.”
In his Foreword, Don Downer describes Payne’s book as “a sensitive amalgam of the personal and of the professional.” The churchman “has served his family and the people well” and, I might add, in that order, family first, other people second.
There is much more about this book to capture the reader’s attention and admiration, but these two alone–Payne’s social awareness and devotion to his ill wife–make its reading eminently worthwhile.