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Harry Rodney: 53 years with the same congregation.

Why become a Presbyterian minister?

"It was always in my mind," recalls Harry Rodney, "since I was about five years old and filled with admiration for the minister in my home church."

Now 80 years of age, he chats in his comfortable home, a former manse a block away from historic Knox Church in the southwestern Ontario city of St. Thomas. Rodney has served this congregation for 53 of his almost 56 years since ordination in what he recalls as a "truly happy ministry in a caring, loving congregation."

Honoured as Man of the Year in St. Thomas because of his community service, and granted an honorary degree because of his ministry by The Presbyterian College from which he graduated, Rodney ends almost 56 years of active congregational leadership in June. He thinks retirement will be "sort of like a bereavement."

Recent economic blows to St. Thomas cannot fail to affect the churches. "Five of eight young people may have to leave," he fears, returning to their homes and churches only at Christmas and Easter.

The huge railway office buildings not far away are now boarded up (the line once counted thousands of employees in the city), many industries connected to the automotive industry have closed, and the Ontario psychiatric hospital that once sheltered 3,500 patients may close. This once bustling city with crowded sidewalks to which Rodney came during the Second World War is totally changed.

The mood of the country is different now than when young Harry Rodney was called away from Ephraim Scott Memorial in Montreal, his first congregation. And it will be more difficult for future ministers, he thinks. Organized religion does not seem to be meeting the spiritual needs of many people in the changing world.

Rodney's ministry has been a busy one. He was asked to serve on many St. Thomas and area community organizations such as the Maple Leaf Foundation and Family and Social Services, to be chaplain of the Elgin Regiment, moderator of presbytery six times and moderator of synod. He turned down nominations to be Moderator of the General Assembly three times. Failure to win election in his only entry into federal politics pleased him. "It was a by-election following the death of the sitting member, and a three week campaign. I didn't enjoy it. I never wanted to leave the congregation," he says, recalling that the duties of a federal politician were simpler years ago when he ran.

Rodney has been a Kiwanis club member for more than 50 years and has delivered several key addresses at the organization's conventions across North America. He has also given hundreds of talks and sermons closer to home. "It has been part of my outreach," he says. "Whatever the subject, there is a sermon camouflaged within it."

Are there dangers in long-term ministry, such as his 53 years at Knox?

Of course. "There can be a temptation to settle into a comfortable pulpit. This must be countered by growth in a personal ministry. There must be study and a continuing depth of commitment to maintain a high standard of preaching."

He never really felt tempted to accept any of the several invitations to move to other congregations, in Canada or the United States. "But, maybe, I should have taken that one in Florida," he laughs, looking out on a snow-covered lawn and a misty late-February drizzle. The biggest temptation, he recalls, was an invitation to move to St. Andrew's in Windsor, Ontario, after 10 years at St. Thomas.

His congregation has been like a big family, with the minister a part of it, Rodney muses, thinking of the benefits of such a long career in one pulpit. "You can get very close to the people and share their joys and sorrows." And he watched them grow up, officiating at the wedding ceremonies of sons and daughters of couples he married years ago.

"I have been blessed with a great deal of energy," he says, "and congregational work has never been a burden." There are about 900 members at Knox and, "in a city of this size, I see many of them on the streets from day to day." Shut-ins and those in hospital receive frequent visits.

Rodney is a native of Winchester, near Ottawa. He hopes to spend more time at his cottage near there. "I've never had more than a couple of weeks without an urgent need to come home," he says.

When Rodney was at his first church in Montreal, a St. Thomas resident wrote to Leslie Pidgeon, then with the United Church but a former minister of Knox, and asked him to recommend an applicant for the vacant St. Thomas pulpit. Go for Harry Rodney, Pidgeon suggested. So Rodney left Montreal after two and a half years to work with his second congregation. He continued there until this year.

"I would love to be beginning my ministry now," he says. "When I was a student, we Presbyterians thought of ourselves as a small group of survivors [following the union of Methodists, Congregationalists and some Presbyterians to form The United Church of Canada in 1925], striving to regroup, wondering about our future. We have produced great preachers, and great leaders, and a great body of loyal people. We are not large, but we have a role to fulfil. There are great and growing opportunities ahead."
COPYRIGHT 1996 Presbyterian Record
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Ivor Williams
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Date:May 1, 1996
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