BURN, WILLIAM JOHN, Church of England bishop; b. 28 Oct. 1851 in South Moor (Durham), England, son of William Lewis Burn; m. 1890 Maud Mary Banks, and they had one son; d. 18 June 1896 in Indian Head (Sask.).
William John Burn came from a cultured, well-educated family and received his early schooling at Richmond Grammar School in Yorkshire. Having won a scholarship to the University of Cambridge, he entered St John’s College in 1872. While an undergraduate, he decided to take holy orders and, following graduation with first class honours in mathematics, he was ordained deacon on 28 Dec. 1874. The next year he was ordained priest and appointed curate of St Andrew’s, at Chesterton (Cambridge). After serving two years in a rural parish, Burn returned to his native County Durham to become curate of St Paul’s at Jarrow and, in 1881, vicar of St Peter’s, in the same town. During his ministry in Jarrow he lived and worked among the urban poor, a people hitherto neglected by the Church of England. A breakdown in health eventually forced him to retire to the rural living of Coniscliffe, where he served as rector from 1890 until his appointment in 1893 as second bishop of the diocese of Qu’Appelle. The diocese, created in 1883 and located in present-day southern Saskatchewan, covered the District of Assiniboia, then part of the North-West Territories; in 1893 it consisted of 16 parishes and missions.
Burn was consecrated in Westminster Abbey on 25 March 1893 by the archbishop of Canterbury, the bishops of London and Bangor, and his predecessor, Bishop Adelbert John Robert Anson. The announcement of his appointment was not well received by all prairie Anglicans. Some lay members of the diocese and the local and regional press had called for the appointment of an evangelical clergyman to succeed Anson, a staunch Tractarian. The diocesan clergy, however, were mainly of the Tractarian (or Anglo-Catholic) tradition and were therefore pleased with the appointment. Burn arrived in Qu’Appelle (Sask.) on 20 May 1893 and that same day was enthroned in St Peter’s Pro-Cathedral. Within months of his arrival he had so united the clergy and laity of the diocese that a correspondent to the Canadian Churchman commented that Burn’s “orthodox doctrine, together with his genial disposition, Christian deportment and liberal Catholic sentiments make him a welcome visitor among all classes, irrespective of nationality or creed.”
Like his predecessor, Burn unswervingly upheld the tenets of the Anglo-Catholic faith in the diocese Controversy over ritual and church ornaments occasionally surfaced, the most serious incident occurring in 1895 when the rector of St Paul’s in Regina threatened to resign over the refusal of vestry to allow candles on the altar. The bishop quickly defused the situation, but made it plain that any church which did not accept such ornaments would never become the cathedral of the diocese. Soon after he arrived, his administrative skills were put to the test when the fledgling see suffered a financial set-back with the loss of substantial funds through embezzlement and with the closure of St John’s College and farm. Economic uncertainty continued to hurt church revenues and membership, making it difficult to maintain existing missions. Timely financial assistance from the Qu’Appelle Association in England, consolidation of missionary operations, and a gradual improvement in the prairie economy saved the diocese from financial ruin. During 1894–95 Bishop’s Court was moved from Qu’Appelle to Indian Head as the result of a generous gift to the diocese by a wealthy benefactor.
Burn travelled extensively throughout the diocese gaining first-hand knowledge of mission work and getting to know the people entrusted to his pastoral care. A powerful and eloquent preacher, he attracted large congregations. He was concerned about the welfare of his clergy, isolated on the prairie frontier and living in a sometimes hostile environment. To this end, he rescheduled diocesan synods for every second year so that in the intervening year the clergy could meet with their bishop for devotions and fellowship. He endeared himself to clergy and laity alike, commanding both their loyalty and their respect.
His episcopate came to an abrupt end with his death on 18 June 1896, at the age of 44. He was laid to rest at Qu’Appelle. In three short years this devout and tireless worker had brought prairie Anglicans closer together and had placed the Church of England in this part of the Anglican communion on a more secure economic footing.
Church of England, Diocese of Qu’Appelle, Occasional papers (Regina), 1893–96. Canadian Churchman, 1893–96. Church Times (London), 1893–96. Qu’Appelle Progress (Qu’Appelle, [Sask.]), 1896. Frederic Boase, Modern English biography . . . (6v., Truro, Eng., 1892–1921; repr. London, 1965). T. C. B. Boon, The Anglican Church from the Bay to the Rockies: a history of the ecclesiastical province of Rupert’s Land and its dioceses from 1820 to 1950 (Toronto, 1962). History of the diocese of Qu’Appelle, ed. J. T. Embury ([Regina, 1958]). T. J. D. Powell and J. H. Archer, Living faith: a pictorial history of the diocese of Qu’Appelle from 1884 to 1984 (n.p., ).