Ellie Johnson: An Appreciation — One year after her death in 2022

A photo of Ellie Johnson talking with Bishop Willie Pwaisiho in the Solomon Islands in May 1996

On bookstore shelves it is the biographies which interest me most. The great stories of great people both entertain and inspire me, and I don’t think I am alone. When I say “great” people I don’t mean those famous historical characters, the Churchill’s, Steve Jobs or Mother Theresa’s, who have dared to do things differently often with positive effect and consequence. I am interested in anyone who follows through on their personal convictions and puts these in practice for the good of everyone, indeed for the common good amidst the miracle of creation, sometimes at significant personal cost.

Eleanor Jean (Ellie) Johnson (1942-2022) who died on January 7 was one such person, a talented and tough leader who worked in many contexts including the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada. I first met her as a member of the General Synod EcoJustice Committee from 2001 – 2007. A note from her own church of St. Simon’s in Oakville provides this summary:

Ellie had a distinguished career with the Anglican Church of Canada from the late 1980s until her retirement in 2008. From 1994 until 2008 she was Director of Partnerships and led a department that covers residential schools healing projects, mission and justice work, and grants to overseas partners.”

Upon her retirement, Archdeacon Jim Boyles, with whom she worked said of her: “Ellie was one who always reminded the church that the goal was of healing and reconciliation and that needed to be done in partnership, taking the lead from Aboriginal peoples.”

One may ask, was she successful in making healing and reconciliation central to the life of the Church working in partnership with others? I could only answer yes, knowing that the work remains to be completed if indeed that is ever possible. Working with a number of indigenous and non-indigenous leaders she was more central and influential than I was previously aware on helping the Church move through the early days of the Residential Schools Settlement Process. Such engagement must have led to many sleepless nights and a tragically broken heart. To one who believed, valued and embodied partnership relationships, it must have been grievous to hear the stories of broken trust and to see the effects of such behaviour in the lives of indigenous persons and communities.

At the time of her retirement in March of 2008 Archdeacon Jim Boyles noted: “Her title ‘Director of Partnerships’ is quite appropriate . . . Not that she directs, but she believes in, nurtures, and develops partnerships.”

Her work for General Synod also took her abroad, from Switzerland to the Solomon Islands, on various trips and consultations to maintain partnerships throughout the Anglican Communion and to work on defining what it means to be a church in mission today.” Onetime Bishop of Malaita Terry Brown in the Solomon Islands wrote on Facebook:

“Like many others, I have been mourning the death of Dr. Ellie Johnson, former Director of World Mission of the Anglican Church of Canada, and one of my former bosses . . . She was bright, funny, full of life, occasionally a bit off the wall, a very sharp mission thinker. Sadly, her last years were marked by dementia, though I am told she was still cheerful. Ellie, thank you for your friendship and support, and may you rest with the saints and rise in new glory.”

Ellie helped us all to think about what Christian Mission was and is. It would have been interesting to hear her speak about the negative influence and legacy of colonialism in our Church. She was both a keeper of wisdom and history, as well as a keen observer of what must change in order to remain faithful to the invitation of Jesus, to go forth, in a reconciling and collaborative way. In her own words:

“Mission education . . . for the last 20 years or more (has been about) helping people pushing and shoving and dragging people to let go of their paternalistic attitudes and understand that we are all dependent on each other,” she said, “We have mutual responsibility and we all need to be helping each other as we go through life and walk with Christ.”

At an international level, Ellie served on several Anglican Communion international mission bodies, including the Inter-Anglican Standing Committee on Mission and Evangelism, and its predecessor, MISSIO, which drafted the Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission. She describes these times as “real highlights.”

The influence of the Five Marks of Mission and their interpolation into Baptismal liturgies, cannot be overstated. In part, our faith formation leads directly to our vocation, as witnesses, eyes wide open, hopeful and resilient. How she might have responded to pandemic challenges is unknown. Reporting on a conference in Spain in 2007 she said:

“There’s nothing that beats face-to-face conversation.” This is what Ellie Johnson, director of Partnerships, said after returning from a one-week consultation between African and American bishops called ‘Walking to Emmaus: Discovering New Mission Perspectives in Changing Times,’ held in El Escorial, Spain.”

Well yes, I also miss the travel; I have learned so much from her and so many others through travel, engagement and deep immersion into local environments abroad. How many times would I call or write home saying, “I don’t know why I am here or what I am doing.” Well, I was learning, and she was a great teacher. It must be admitted that the days of in-person meeting and travel are significantly altered, now and in future. The fiscal and environmental costs are simply too great. Almost everything can now be done online.

This represents a huge loss however, especially given my memory of my own environmental journey, all occasioned by a call one day from Maylanne Maybee sometime in 2002. “Would you like to go to South Africa to participate in an environmental congress” an invitation supported and encouraged by Ellie. Thank goodness I said yes! My ministry was forever changed, even as I write today. I am so very grateful.

Ellie’s dynamic ministry has been justly (!) honoured: “Ellie Johnson, partnerships director and former acting general secretary, was honoured by Montreal Diocesan Theological College, an Anglican college affiliated with McGill University. Ms. Johnson was recognized for her “faithful service over many years to fostering the (Anglican) church’s global mission, and her leadership at the national level in social justice initiatives, including resolution of the residential schools legacy.”

UPDATE, January 2023 — I am pleased to report that work on a festschrift in Ellie’s honour is now well underway. A number of scholars, activists, observers, family and friends have contributed to a growing body of work which we hope to publish a year from now. In addition to documenting partnership and mission under Ellie’s leadership at Church House these essays will help us think about justice, partnership, healing and reconciliation in our own day. Watch this space, and Thank You Ellie. Your work is done; time to bask in the Son-shine.

One thought on “Ellie Johnson: An Appreciation — One year after her death in 2022

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  1. Mrs.Johnson leaves a legacy of work and commitment she was passionate about. Her daughter Kate, as well as her grand daughter Melanie, are following her footsteps in their own way!

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