Obit: Eugene Fairweather (1920-2002)

Rev. Canon Eugene Fairweather, an Anglican priest who taught for decades at Toronto’s Trinity College, helped introduce major liturgical reforms to the Anglican Church of Canada and played a leading role in promoting ecumenical dialogue around the world, has died in hospital in Kentville, N.S. at the age of 81.

Known as an outstanding scholar and teacher with an encyclopedic knowledge of Christian theology, particularly of the early and medieval periods,.Fairweather taught at Trinity College for more than 40 years after becoming a tutor and fellow in divinity there in 1944.

“If he started teaching at the beginning of the year, he wouldn’t get through the curriculum [by year end] because he had so many things to add that it would slow him down,” said Rev. Harold J. Nahabedian, a minister at Toronto’s Church of St. Mary Magdalene, where Fairweather had been an honourary assistant priest since 1949.

Rev. Canon Eugene Rathbone Fairweather, Anglican teacher and minister; born Ottawa, November 2, 1920, died Kentville, N.S. on April 6, 2002.  

Ideologically situated in the “high church” wing of Anglicanism that stands theologically closest to Catholicism, he pushed for the ordination of women as priests, an innovation now accepted by Anglicans everywhere. He also championed the full inclusion of children in the church’s sacramental rites and gave them such a prominent role at St. Mary Magdalene that its services became affectionately and jocularly known as “Fairweather’s Frolics.”

Born in Ottawa, he grew up in Montreal and attained a B.A. from McGill University. He received an M.A. from the University of Toronto in 1943 and a Th.D. from Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1949.

An official observer to the influential Second Vatican Council of the mid-’60s, he became a leading proponent of dialogue among various Christian denominations, nationally and internationally. “He really was the leading figure on the Anglican side of Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue in Canada for decades,” said Dr. Richard Alway, president of the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto.
At the request of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Fairweather joined a high-level interdenominational group in the late ’60s to discuss disputed matters of faith with a group of Catholic officials appointed by the Pope. The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission met intermittently in Windsor Castle, Venice and other locales throughout the ’70s and ’80s and became — as Rev. Dr. David Neelands, director of the Toronto School of Theology, puts it — “one of the most important ecumenical conversations of the 20th century.”

“They came to the conclusion that Anglicans and Roman Catholics held the same beliefs about the eucharist, salvation and other topics that they thought had divided them,” Dr. Neelands said. “They were able to find common ground.”

Adhering to the modern approach to liturgy promoted by the Vatican Council, Fairweather worked with a committee for 20 years to update the Anglican liturgy in Canada. The result was the widely-used Book of Alternative Services, published in 1985.

He also wrote, edited, translated and annotated numerous books of theology. Among the best known is A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham (1956), which presents excerpts from dozens of medieval Western Christian works from Anselm of Canterbury’s “Letter to Pope Urban II on the Incarnation of the Word” to William Ockham’s “Eight Questions on the Power of the Pope.”

Another of his books, The Oxford Movement (1964), presents key texts of the tractarian “counter-reformation” that revitalized British church life in the mid-19th century.

Many of his students and colleagues recall him as a formidable scholar who enjoyed telling a good anecdote, and was especially adored by children.

“He was probably one of the greatest influences on Canadian Anglican teaching and thinking in the latter part of the 20th century,” said Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan, a Church official who went from being his student to his teaching assistant.

“And then there’s his ecumenical legacy,” she continued. “He showed Canadian Anglicans how important it is to be in dialogue with Roman Catholics and indeed, with all other Christians. That art of dialogue and of making friends with people from different traditions has enabled us to break down a lot of barriers.”

A requiem mass was sung for Rev. Fairweather at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene on April 24, 2002.

“He was a very impressive man and I feel quite privileged to have known him well,” said Dr. Alway, a former Trinity dean. “I think it’s a considerable loss in that he was part of a generation of scholarship that has not been totally replaced.” ♦

© 2002