Robert Machray, First Primate of Canada, 1904

Born in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1831 to a middle class professional family of ardent Presbyterians, Robert Machray studied mathematics at King’s College, Aberdeen and at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge earning the MA from Aberdeen in 1851 and the BA from Sidney Sussex in 1855. Having witnessed in his youth the bitterness of the division in the Church of Scotland between the adherents of the Kirk and the supporters of the Free Church and attracted to the Episcopalian traditions of his mother’s family, Machray was confirmed in the Church of England while at Cambridge. He was awarded a fellowship at Sidney Sussex, which permitted him to seek holy orders, and he was ordained a deacon in 1855 and a presbyter in 1856 by the Bishop of Ely, who had confirmed him four years earlier. After a brief stint as a tutor in Rome and in the Isle of Man, he returned to Cambridge to earn the MA in mathematics.

In 1859, shortly after receiving his MA, Machray was appointed dean of Sidney Sussex College and was given the living of the parish of Madingley, positions which assured his social and financial security. He gave up this security after six years, when he was chosen by the Church Missionary Society on account of his evangelicalism, his administrative skills, and his scholarship to become the bishop of Rupert’s Land, a diocese that in 1865 covered the present-day area of the Prairie provinces, the Yukon Territory, most of the Northwest Territories, northern Ontario, and northern Quebec.

Machray reorganized the church in Rupert’s Land to make it more responsive to the needs of the people it served by decreasing its emphasis on personal piety and strengthening it as a community. In preparation for the establishment of a permanent diocesan synod, he called a meeting of the clergy and laity of the diocese in May 1866. The synod, which first met three years later, would prove to be an effective means of giving the laity a sense of involvement with the work of the church, thus encouraging them to support it financially. He also introduced the elected vestry as the main focus of parish organization and he initiated a regular offertory in order to make individual parishes self-sufficient. Machray recreated the Church of England’s system of parish schools, building a school in every parish in the colony by 1869. With the help of his friend John McLean he reopened St John’s College in 1866 to offer higher education and to train promising individuals for the priesthood. He was a professor there from 1866 until his death, with the exception of two brief periods in 1883 and 1890. Although he held the chair of ecclesiastical history from 1866 to 1883, he actually taught a variety of subjects during and after that period.

In 1865 Machray decreed that the services of the Church of England should conform to the Book of Common Prayer and that Presbyterian practices, traditionally tolerated in the colony, should be eliminated from the church. Although his decree earned him the charge of high churchmanship from evangelical clergymen, he dismissed the criticism with the argument that there was no better way to worship God than in the manner prescribed by the Church of England. Stressing the Anglican Church’s prayerbook practices distinguished it from the other Protestant churches and helped to build a strong sense of identity.

Machray also reorganized the native missions, long in disarray under his predecessor. It was his intention someday to create a native church with Europeans acting only as supervisors. Meanwhile, he tried to place more of his experienced missionaries in the field and enraged some when he ordered them from their comfortable berths in parishes in the Red River colony to outlying mission stations. He lamented the lower pay that native missionaries such as Henry Budd (the first native Canadian Anglican priest) were forced to accept from the Church Missionary Society and he criticized British missionaries for treating them as inferior. He never succeeded in creating a native clergy on any significant scale, and missions and residential schools continued to be manned primarily by Europeans.

In 1869 Rupert’s Land was annexed to a newly confederated Canada, and in 1872, several years after he had first suggested the idea, Machray was allowed to divide his diocese, with the resultant creation of the dioceses of Moosonee, Athabasca, and Saskatchewan. He was now bishop of a much smaller diocese of Rupert’s Land. In 1875 his former entire former diocese became the ecclesiastical province of Rupert’s Land, of which he was chosen metropolitan archbishop. At the first General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada n 1893 he was unanimously elected the first Primate of All Canada, serving in that office until his death on March 9, 1904.

prepared from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online

The Collect

O God, our heavenly Father, you raised up your faithful servant Robert Machray to be a bishop in your Church and to feed your flock: We pray you to send down on all bishops, the pastors of your Church, the abundant gift of your Holy Spirit, that, being endued with power from on high and ever walking in the footsteps of your holy Apostles, they may minister before you in your household as true servants of Christ and stewards of your divine mysteries; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


A biography of Archbishop Robert Machray written by his nephew is available online.

The collect is adapted from the 1962 Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church of Canada.

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