Bishop Mark MacDonald said the welcome that he has received as the Anglican Church of Canada’s first national indigenous bishop has been “phenomenal,” with communities – both native and non-native – “expressing goodwill” towards his role as well as the concept of having a self-determining church for indigenous Anglicans in Canada.
“We’ve had doors open that I hadn’t anticipated both in church and outside of church,” said Bishop MacDonald, who looked back on his nearly one year in office in an interview. “There are a lot of people who have found that the creation of this position has sparked their imagination.” He said that aside from holding consultations with native communities, he has met with bishops interested in pursuing native ministry in urban areas as well as in other sectors, including the Armed Forces, youth and women’s groups.
There has also been “a strong concern” that he must speak “for the living connection between First Nations people and the land,” he added.
In his visits across Canada, Bishop MacDonald said it has become clearer that “we’re not talking about one model of self-determination; self-determination means different things in different communities.” He added: “One of the most critical ideas that has emerged is that self-determination is about being a spiritual movement within the communities that we serve across Canada; it’s not political or administrative action. It’s more of a spiritual renewal and awakening.”
Native communities “are excited not so much about the political implications or ramifications but of the spiritual ramifications of it,” he added.
Bishop MacDonald also noted that while resistance to the creation of his position and the concept of a self-determining church has not disappeared, it has nonetheless “softened considerably.” He noted that, “When we began to talk about what this might mean in different communities and how it would be shaped, I think people found it a lot less threatening. I think that for many people, they saw this as a political response to the residential schools crisis, (but) in the way the elders have shaped it and in the way that the youth are carrying it forward, it’s not that at all. It’s really about following the path of healing rather than just an administrative shuffle out of hurt and resentment.”
When the creation of Bishop MacDonald’s position was announced in January last year, some Anglicans had expressed concern that the appointment would set a precedent for other special interest groups that might want their own bishop. Under Canadian church polity, however, bishops respect each other’s geographical boundaries.
Bishop MacDonald assured Anglicans that the setting up of a new native institution within the church is not meant “to tear something down,” but rather to “go deeper into our relationship” with the whole church.
As envisioned by 43 native elders, who presented a petition for the appointment of a national native bishop during a Sacred Circle gathering in 2005, the position should be one “with episcopal and pastoral responsibilities as well as full authority and jurisdiction for aboriginal communities across the country.” (This calls for an amendment of national church canons, a process that would require the action of three meetings of General Synod.)
Bishop MacDonald said that a priority that has emerged in his work is responding to the needs of non-stipendiary native clergy. “They’re out serving in very difficult circumstances without much support,” he said. “We really have to work hard and I think, imaginatively, to find ways to support this vital work. They’re doing an extraordinary job… They’re responsible for massive chunks of territory and an unbelievable number of churches.” He said that while they often respond to “a lot of crisis and tragedy” in native communities, they’re also in areas “where there is tremendous potential. It’s not like they’re propping up churches that are withering on the vine.”
He said that a lot of urban bishops have begun conversations with him about the large indigenous communities that are emerging across Canada. “Everyone seems to be aware that the fastest-growing demographic in Canada is indigenous peoples,” he said. “Those urban communities, like reserve communities, are very young.”
The church’s task, he said, is “to be church … to provide a Gospel-centered church that is able to go where they go … that’s a little more mobile than it has been.” He added: “For many young people, it appears that the church of the past has been a kind of static identity that is quite apart from their experiences as First Nations people.”
Bishop MacDonald said that he has been surprised by the welcome he has received, even in native communities that are conservative Evangelical or Pentecostal. He attributed it to an understanding that “this is a unique and really unprecedented recognition by a church body of the primal, original, pre-existing authority and identity of First Nations people in this country.” It also represents “an opening of the mind, so to speak, on the part of the church, which has great promise for the future. People see that it’s reconciliation and renewal in a way that really carries this conversation a lot further in the life of the church.”