Bishops discuss new model for Native church

Bishops of three dioceses in Manitoba and northwestern Ontario are looking at a new approach to creating a Native Anglican church.

The dioceses of Brandon, Rupert’s Land and Keewatin are discussing a proposal that would bring aboriginal parishes under the direction of Bishop Gordon Beardy of Keewatin, Canada’s first Native diocesan bishop.

“Rather than real structural changes, it’s more a pastoral jurisdiction of oversight by Gordon Beardy of the aboriginal parishes,” explained Bishop Malcolm Harding of Brandon.

In return, Brandon would oversee some non-Native parts in the western area of Rupert’s Land and Rupert’s Land would work with part of southern Keewatin.

“I think the time is right for aboriginal people to take on the leadership,” Bishop Harding said.

In a recent interview, Bishop Beardy said Natives have been seeking a “more equal partnership in the Anglican Church. We want to address our cultural background more effectively.”

That could mean a single Native diocese – as the Keewatin northern region indicated it was interested in during its diocesan synod this year – or a more gradual step which would see the three dioceses co-operate in rejigging the pastoral oversight.

Brandon has been ordaining a large number of aboriginal priests, Bishop Harding said, most of whom are now on some level of stipend. An aboriginal archdeacon oversees the indigenous ministries and helps the bishop understand the culture.

But it makes sense for an aboriginal bishop to work with Natives, he added.

“There are cultural things I’ll never understand,” he said. “We can be partners and brothers and sisters in Christ.”

The first step in this new partnership would be the shifts in pastoral jurisdiction, a move the dioceses would assess periodically to see how it’s working.

“The fulfilment of it all would be for the aboriginals to have their own diocese in partnership with the Anglican Church,” Bishop Harding said.

The covenant states: “Under the guidance of God’s Spirit, we agree to do all we can to call our people into unity in a new, self-determining community within the Anglican Church of Canada. To this end we extend the hand of partnership to all those who will help us build a truly Anglican Indigenous Church in Canada.”

Bishop Patrick Lee of Rupert’s Land is also enthusiastic about the idea. While there are only a few Native parishes in his diocese, Winnipeg has a large Native population of as many as 60,000, he said.

Bishop Lee believes it would be much more effective for Bishop Beardy to oversee that area. And in not redrawing the boundary lines – at least not yet – the dioceses retain the flexibility to best use their resources or to make further changes in the future, he said.

“I think (aboriginals) need a time on their own to find themselves and to flex their muscles,” Bishop Lee said. “One criticism I have heard is that we’re going to ghettoize them. I can’t accept that. I think we’re just giving them wings and saying, `Go and fly.'”

The national church supports what the dioceses are doing but is content to leave the discussions at the local level, said Donna Bomberry, Indigenous Ministries Co-ordinator. She too sees the move as a natural outgrowth of the covenant.

Dioceses in other provinces, particularly Saskatchewan, are watching their work with interest, Bishop Lee said, and have asked to attend some future discussions.

But all three bishops say they are working slowly and trying to consult widely with the grassroots.

“It is complex,” Bishop Lee acknowledged. “We are legal entities, we all have our carefully defined boundaries, we all have financial holdings and trust funds. That complicates it.”

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