A new year marked a new day for Canadian Anglicans who are Cree, Inuit, Ojibway, Oji-Cree, Dene, Inuvialuit, Slavey, Dogrib, Blood, Haida, Peigan, Sioux – indeed, for all aboriginal Anglicans.
As reported elsewhere in this issue, on Jan. 4 the church announced the appointment of Bishop Mark MacDonald to the new post of national indigenous bishop, responsible for ministering to all native Anglicans.
A news conference held at the national office in Toronto drew more print and broadcast reporters than any event since the signing in 2003 of an agreement limiting the church’s liability in abuse cases at the former Indian residential schools.
Surely that is both ironic and fitting. Native Anglican elders identified the creation of a national leader as an essential part of their journey toward healing, a journey from the despair of victimhood towards pride of self-determination.
The event generated great interest, receiving widespread coverage within Canada, the U.S. and abroad.
In their typically compressed way, various headlines revealed different aspects of the story: Natives get own bishop (Toronto Star), Bishop to reach out to natives (National Post), Anglicans name aboriginal bishop (Toronto Sun) and, most intriguingly, Bishop wants to see Christianity go native (Globe and Mail).
The local angles were covered in the Mississauga (Ont.) News with Former Mississauga priest named bishop and in Alaska (where Bishop MacDonald has led the diocese since 1997) with Head of state Episcopal Church leaves for Canada.
Some of the headlines made it seem as if Bishop MacDonald was Canada’s first aboriginal bishop. Actually, there are five bishops with native ancestry: the retired Paul Idlout, Charles Arthurson and Gordon Beardy and the active Andrew Atagotaaluk and Benjamin Arreak. Bishop Arthurson, the first native bishop, was consecrated in 1989.
An editorial in the Vancouver Sun saw Bishop MacDonald’s appointment as extremely positive, noting that he “probably best exemplifies the church’s new attitude toward aboriginals.” Some might argue that the “new attitude” arrived with the election of Bishop Arthurson or the election in 1996 of Bishop Beardy in the Kenora, Ont.-based diocese of Keewatin as the first native diocesan bishop.
The Vancouver newspaper also praised Bishop MacDonald as one who “seems ideally suited to the task” of ministering to 225 indigenous Anglican congregations, saying that he “displayed a level of humility and respect toward aboriginals that was sorely missing in Canada throughout most of its history.”
The editorial quoted Bishop MacDonald as saying he intends to be “respectful of aboriginal authority,” adding that is “precisely what’s needed.”
Criticism, though, surfaced on the Web site Virtueonline that caters to right-wing Anglicans. One writer, posting under the name Gander, noted sarcastically that, “I thought that perhaps the backward orthodox were going to get their own bishop!” Another writer, posting as Soundbytes, wrote, “It’s extremely disappointing that the Anglican Church of Canada couldn’t find a native Canadian indigenous person to promote to bishop.”
One aspect of the event that was not mentioned in much of the coverage was noted by Bishop MacDonald himself in a letter to his American constituents that was posted on the diocese of Alaska Web site: “My task over the next few years is to mid-wife the creation of a native jurisdiction within the Canadian church.”
That is an issue that will develop over the next few years and is highly political, despite Bishop MacDonald’s assertion at the news conference that the new episcopate is “not just a political agenda but a spiritual holistic agenda for native people.”
The original call by native elders in 2005 was for a national bishop with authority and jurisdiction – that is the capacity to ordain and supervise priests, among other things. That goal, noted the primate, Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, would require approval by three triennial General Synods.
That idea is not greeted with universal joy by the church’s existing bishops, including some of those native bishops who already work in Canadian dioceses.
For the time being, however, it is the pastoral aspect of the new job that is causing a palpable glow in the hearts of many native (and non-native) Anglicans. No matter what difficulties confront him, Bishop MacDonald is a shining symbol of hope. His appointment is a sign that the Canadian Anglican church cares about native concerns, takes them seriously and wants to proclaim that nationally and internationally.