Heather’s note: This is part 2 of a letter of reminiscences that Flemming wrote to his children in July 2009.
2. In or about 1962 the Home Mission Board of the United Church invited Lester Settle and me to attend a seminar on the rural church, to be held in Saskatoon. There we were encouraged to organize a Rural Life Committee in each of the Conferences across the country, with a similar committee in each presbytery.
At one time most ministers had grown up in rural areas, or at least had had grandparents living on farms. But now our society was becoming more urban, and many ministers who had spent their youth in the cities were being sent to rural charges on ordination, with little preparation. Some had no experience of farming, fishing or lumbering, and were poorly equipped for rural ministry. Not that we expected or aspired to be experts in those trades, but at least we could learn to discuss life intelligently with people who were living and working among us, and encourage them to make use of government departments and seek advice as needed, and thus do their work more competently. The need for such development was evident from the fact that personal income was on average higher in the cities than in the country. The country areas had their own problems, different from those of the cities.
Lester and I knew something about farm life. My father had managed a farm for an institution, had farmed on his own and had been President of the Pictou County Federation of Agriculture and of the New Glasgow Coop. He had read widely while farming; he had been an intelligent farmer. He had been an elder in Trinity Church, New Glasgow, a member of Truro Presbytery and of Maritime Conference, and had had experience as a lay preacher in Denmark. I never wanted to farm, but at least I had been exposed to various elements of rural life, including lumbering and fishing for lobsters – and of rural churches. Lester had grown up under the ministry of Rev. J.D. Nelson MacDonald, the one United Church minister who had worked consistently with the Extension Department of St. FX University in establishing coops and credit unions in eastern Nova Scotia. We were both serving rural charges. I don’t know for sure why we were chosen, but have come to the conclusion that Nelson MacDonald must have been involved, and that he had come to know (or at least know of) my father.
Lester started a campaign to have Nelson elected president of Maritime Conference. Thus it was that when our Rural Life Committee presented our first annual report to Conference Nelson was on the platform, presiding. Our report featured the Coady Institute. Bill Jenkins, principal of the Agricultural College attended and invited us to use the facilities in Truro for an educational program for rural ministers. We accepted, of course. So far Lester (secretary of our committee) had taken the lead. Now I, as chair of the Committee, contacted the heads of four other major denominations in the Maritimes, asking them to provide us with people for a planning committee; Bill Jenkins and Walter Grant from the College joined us, and I was made chair of that committee. The result was the First Interdenominational Institute for Rural Clergy, with about 35 persons from five denominations attending, from Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Presbyterian and Baptist churches. It was an exciting event, as many protestant ministers (myself included) had had little contact with RC priests, and few Catholic priests had known women ministers. We were pioneers – and that annual gathering in June of each year has continued to the present!
The focus the first year was on economic matters: farming, fishing, and lumbering. Presentations were made by people knowledgeable in each of these fields such as staff from the relevant government departments, and discussion resulted. We grew to know and like and respect each other. In subsequent years we did the impossible – we moved to matters of theology. And a few years later three of the major denominations combined their theological colleges to form the Atlantic School of Theology – the first such school in Canada. But we were there first !!
And now our local minister here in Mahone Bay attends each year. [It’s now called the Atlantic Seminar in Theological Education.]