When he was just five years old, Bishop Peter Fenty told his family that he would like to be a priest when he grew up. Today, after 45 years of ordained ministry, his passion for God and the Church remains undimmed.
As he heads towards retirement at the end of November, Bishop Fenty, 68, has no regrets about the path he has followed from an early age. “I’m convinced that God called me to ordained ministry and I would do it all over again,” he says. “There is no other vocation I would choose than a priest of the Church and now a bishop. It’s something I enjoy getting up to do every single day, in its good moments and not so good moments.”
After attending Codrington College in Barbados, he was ordained a priest in 1975 and served in three parishes there, as well as being a chaplain to the University of the West Indies. From 1980-82, he attended Huron College in London, Ont., earning a Master of Divinity degree. He ministered in Barbados until 1992, then answered a call to be the rector of St. Lawrence, LaSalle in the Diocese of Montreal, moving there with his wife Angela and two young children.
He says he learned an important lesson during his early years in ministry, one that has stayed with him all his life. “I learned that it was important to listen to the other voices whom God has placed before us in sharing God’s mission, especially those of the laity,” he says. “I’m grateful that I was able to quickly learn that it’s not all about me – it’s about many others whom God has also called. That helped me to be a team player – to value and respect the gifts of others and to affirm and encourage the raising up of those gifts in ministry.”
In 1997, he became the incumbent of St. Joseph of Nazareth, Bramalea, in the Diocese of Toronto, serving there until 2003, when he became the Executive Assistant to the Bishop of Toronto and Archdeacon of York. He held that position until 2013, serving under Archbishop Terence Finlay and then Archbishop Colin Johnson.
During those years, he was involved in a number of important initiatives in the diocese. He was part of the planning group for the diocese’s annual Black heritage service, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. He was also a member of the committee that drafted the diocese’s guidelines for the blessing of same-sex couples.
In 2013, he was elected bishop at St. James Cathedral and has served as the area bishop of York-Simcoe since then. York-Simcoe is one of four episcopal areas in the diocese, comprising 47 parishes with 74 congregations.
He says being the area bishop of York-Simcoe has been a joy and a pleasure. “I’ve worked alongside wonderful clergy and lay people. I’ve really valued the leadership of our regional deans, our two liturgical officers, our area council, our youth coordinator and of course Jennipher Kean, my wonderful administrative assistant.”
Like many bishops, he says his Sunday visits to parishes have been the highlight of his ministry in York-Simcoe. “I’ve enjoyed the privilege every week to be in a parish with the clergy and people, doing what we do well, which is to worship an awesome God – to celebrate God’s unconditional love for us and for all of God’s creation.
“I am also proud of the manner in which a number of our parishes, who even with their challenges, are doing creative things to fulfil their ministries. That has been a real joy to watch and to see how dedicated and faithful our people are.
“My seven years have been wonderful and enriching,” he adds. “I give thanks to God for the clergy and people of York-Simcoe for the privilege of serving them. I will leave this ministry with fond memories.”
Throughout his ordained ministry, Bishop Fenty has worked for social justice. He recently co-chaired the national church’s Partners in Mission and Social Justice and Advocacy Committee. In that role, he worked with national church staff on global issues, supporting partners in mission across the Communion. He also led an antiracism workshop at a meeting of the Council of General Synod.
In the Diocese of Toronto, he served on the planning committee for the annual Black heritage service for more than 20 years. He was a member of the Social Justice and Advocacy Committee and, until recently, a member of the Bishop’s Working Group on Intercultural Ministries, which seeks to turn the recommendations of the report Being Multicultural: Becoming Intercultural into concrete action.
He says the diocese has made significant strides over the years to welcome and embrace those who are not part of the dominant culture, but it still has a long way to go. “We need to guard against complacency or a belief that we have arrived,” he says. “Systemic racism is still very much present in the Church.”
A sign of hope has been the number of Black lay leaders who have held prominent positions in the Church in recent years at both the diocesan and area levels, he says. “We can look at that and recognize that progress is being made.” The diocese also plans to create a staff position to support the work of the Diversity Officer and the intercultural working group.
With his election to the episcopacy in 2013, Bishop Fenty became the first Black bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada. It was an historic occasion and his consecration at St. James Cathedral drew a huge crowd.
But he points out that, seven years later, he is still the only Black person to hold that office. “I think that’s something that speaks volumes about the Church across the country, which likes to claim how diverse it is. Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in North America, so we have to ask some questions around leadership in our Church. We also have to recognize that some hard work still needs to be done around sensitivity training and anti-racism and all of the other challenges that we have, so that those who are not part of the dominant culture may really feel welcomed and involved.”
Although he is closely associated with Black and minority issues, he is passionate about seeking social justice wherever it is needed. “It’s about justice around same-gender inclusion, ageism and economic equality. It’s about addressing all of the inequities and prejudices that exist in our communities and to some extent in the Church. If we are going to be true to what the prophet Micah says – ‘What does the Lord require of you, O mortal? To do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God’ – we can only do that if we are acting righteously, and that means walking in a right relationship with God and with others. It’s at the core of our baptismal call.”
He intends to continue lending his voice to social justice issues while in retirement, but first he plans to spend time with his family, including his grandchildren. “My family has always stood by me and been supportive, and that has been a wonderful joy,” he says.
After a period of rest and relaxation, he plans to make himself available to the College of Bishops and to fill in at parishes on Sundays if needed. He has a passion for supporting clergy who are struggling with their vocation and he would like to continue doing that. He is also looking forward to continuing his involvement with Black Anglicans of Canada, a new organization that advocates for and supports Black Anglicans in lay and clerical leadership positions.
As he looks back on his 45 years of ordained ministry, he is full of gratitude. “I’ve been really blessed to serve the Anglican Church in the way I have,” he says. “Ordained ministry is a privilege, not a right. We have the wonderful opportunity of pastoring and supporting in a way that few other occupations do. We walk alongside many people in their moments of joy and celebration but also in their moments of sadness and grief. And that is a privilege for anyone to have.”
Bishop Andrew Asbil, the Bishop of Toronto, says he has mixed feelings about Bishop Fenty retiring. “On the one hand, I feel sadness. I’m really going to miss him in the College of Bishop and his work in the diocese. He’s been such a faithful, tireless leader. He always brings a calming influence and a thoughtful approach to all issues. He has this wonderful way of slowing things down, containing anxiety and helping us in our discussions on whatever the matter may be.
“On the other, I feel deep gratitude and thanksgiving for his service. Forty-five years of ordained ministry is incredible. To work in the vineyard in all those different capacities is monumental. What he has seen and touched and encouraged in his ministry is breathtaking.”
He says Bishop Fenty has been a stellar bishop for York-Simcoe. “His ability to apply pastoral wisdom and care for parishes and ministries on the ground has been amazing. He does it with such constancy. He always makes himself available to clergy and lay leaders in his area.”
He says one of Bishop Fenty’s most important contributions to the Church, both in the diocese and in the rest of Canada, is his work in social justice and advocacy. “His perspective on justice and looking for those who are missing, those who have been left out, whether by systems or individuals, is one of his lasting legacies, and the compassion he has for the one who is left behind is a great contribution.”
Another legacy will be his preaching, says Bishop Asbil. “His passion for scripture and the Word and his ability to talk about hard things in the gospel light has been a real gift to us.”
He says plans are underway to celebrate Bishop Fenty’s ministry and the contributions that he and his family have made to the life of the Church. Those plans will be communicated as soon as they are finalized. Bishop Fenty will retire on Nov. 30, 2020.