Shortly after Bishop Gordon Beardy of the Diocese of Keewatin was consecrated, his diocesan bishop asked him to officiate at an ordination service.
There was Bishop Beardy with mitre and staff, dressed in full episcopal regalia and some of the congregation looked around and asked, “Where’s the bishop?”
Bishop Beardy, one of the Canadian Anglican church’s three indigenous bishops, tells the story to illustrate how ingrained attitudes adopted during the white missionary days are hard to break, particularly among Native elders.
“Many elders who gave up everything – who they are, their identity – they remain as they were taught while the church keeps changing,” he said. “The way they receive the Gospel is the way it was planted by the missionaries.”
Bishop Beardy was a participant in a Northern Lights forum which examined ways of bridging the gap between the church in the North and the church in the South and rethinking attitudes that have clouded relations between Native and white since 1753 when Rev. Thomas Wood came as a missionary to the Micmacs.
Indigenous people make up four per cent of Canadian Anglicans. About 210 Anglican congregations have all, or nearly all, indigenous memberships.
The Diocese of the Arctic membership is indigenous, mainly Inuit. Besides the three bishops, there are 130 indigenous priests, many working as volunteers.
But statistics are only a small part of the story. There are the vast distances, isolated congregations, the cultural diversity of the indigenous population and a sad sense of lost identity.
“Identity comes from knowing who we are, what we are and what the creator says to us,” Bishop Beardy, an Oji-Cree, said in an interview. ” Many have forgotten they are people of God and are now dependent on other people. They have forgotten their history.”
Native spirituality is part of that history, Bishop Beardy said. “Some people want to be Christian but relate to their tradition as I can relate to it and be proud of it,” he said. “I’m a Christian but I accept what we are.”
While he would welcome more indigenous leadership in the church, Bishop Beardy said indigenous people don’t want a separate church.
“We want to be a part of the whole church, we want to be a voice,” he said. “We want native people to become models, to inspire changes and we would like the church to support them. Recognize us, recognize our leadership.”
Rev. Susan Barclay of Sioux Lookout in the Diocese of Keewatin says a lot has to be done to bridge the gap between the church in the North and the church in the South.
One of the ways to do it is to “go places, to meet the people. I’ve done that. This is my ministry.”
Seventeen years ago Mrs. Barclay moved from Toronto to Sioux Lookout with her firefighter husband and three children. She has learned there is wide diversity among indigenous people.
“It’s not the same in Keewatin as it is in Brandon or Rupert’s Land,” she said in an interview. “You have to recognize the diversity.
“Everybody is on a different point in their journey. There is a lot of pain associated with the bad things that have happened over the years and some people are not willing to accept that and face it.
“I know people from residential schools who think the experience was absolutely wonderful and appreciate the education and the time spent there.
“I know others who were hurt very deeply physically, emotionally and sexually. And not all of them are willing to speak out and to talk about it and to take a step toward healing.”
And there are elders who were “taught in certain ways and believe very strongly in their faith and they want to hold on to it, and it’s hard for young people.”
Cultural interaction, the twinning of Southern with Northern congregations and better listening techniques were among suggestions from forum work groups on fostering better relations with indigenous people. Other suggestions included exploring alternative models of ministry and realigning diocesan boundaries.