A conversation with Sacred Circle’s new archbishop and presiding elder, Chris Harper
On Dec. 5 Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, along with Canon Murray Still and Caroline Chum, co-chairs of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP), announced that diocese of Saskatoon Bishop Chris Harper had been named national Indigenous Anglican archbishop. In this role, Harper will serve as presiding elder of Sacred Circle with pastoral oversight over all Indigenous Anglicans. He is to take office Feb. 1.
Harper is Plains Cree and the son of a residential school survivor. He worked as an emergency medical technician before his ordination, and his service to the churh has included a stint as Indigenous native priest for the diocese of Toronto. He was elected bishop of Saskatoon in 2018.
The Anglican Journal spoke to Harper about his plans and priorities as the new national Indigenous archbishop. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Congratulations on your appointment as national Indigenous archbishop.What went through your mind when you heard you’d been chosen?
I was shocked … It is the recognition that there’s going to be a drastic change in my responsibilities and duties. It’s going to be a huge responsibility to try to lift and to bless the church as much as we can with Indigenous ministries—at the same time, trying to unify everybody’s voice, especially for the church and for the Indigenous ministries across Canada; trying to bring healing, trying to bring some commonality.
It’s going to be continuing my ministry right now, building bridges. I’ve always [been] one who’s been striving to keep walking in the path of faith, but at the same time trying to build the bridges of understanding, acknowledgement, and reconciliation.
How do you plan to approach your new job?
Number one, we need to bring a stronger sense of healing—to try to build the church, especially for the Indigenous ministries, to a point where there is a sense of hope from the church, and faith; there is a sense of peace with the inherited legacy that all of us live within and walk within, and sometimes either do not acknowledge or blind ourselves to.
But this is an opportunity also to ensure a new process of finding where we are, to find our own voice, to be able to be acknowledged within the church, and to try to build better communications and understanding with both sides, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, going forward. I think the Indigenous church has a lot to offer in the sense of building community and how integral it is that we understand that we are one in the body of Christ.
You’re taking up the position at what seems like a critical time in the Indigenous church, a time of both crisis and progress. Former national Indigenous archbishop Mark MacDonald resigned after acknowledged sexual misconduct last spring; meanwhile, Sacred Circle will be voting on the Covenant and Our Way of Life when it meets May 28-June 2. How do you feel about becoming Indigenous archbishop at this particular moment?
The work that was done is something that cannot be negated by any one individual. It is something that has been done with the heart, the prayers and the love of the people. All the work that has been done—it’s still there.
I think it’s going to be a wonderful opportunity for us to again take up that mantle, to take up prayers, to take up understanding and grow and walk with each other, to see each other as one in the family of faith. But that’s why I say right now, what we need to do is be unified in one voice, and I think that will help everybody.
When I’m talking about healing, what I mean is with the legacy that as Indigenous people we’ve lived with and the [residential school] survivors—to acknowledge them and to honour them. They have asked that we begin to understand and to acknowledge what happened as a church, which we’ve done through the apologies, which we’ve done through the process of reconciliation. But the wider church needs to understand that reconciliation is an ongoing process and it’s going to take time.
If one part of the body’s injured, you tend to it. And it can’t be ignored for too long.
The Rev. Vincent Solomon, urban Indigenous ministry developer for the diocese of Rupert’s Land, has criticized the process of a selection committee choosing the national Indigenous archbishop. He believes Indigenous Anglicans should be able to elect their archbishop at Sacred Circle. How would you respond to this criticism?
[Editor’s note: As this issue was going to press, Solomon’s statement could be found on the Facebook page of Epiphany Indigenous Anglican Church, in a post dated Nov. 26.]
I agree that there is no perfect process, as each process needs to accommodate the needs of each different community at the table. It is and always should be an examined and evolving process. Our ACIP was elected to be our acting Indigenous elders and voice, and they were given the call to address the need of the people, during a time of transition and vacancy. I believe they prayerfully acted and responded as needed for the people and all nations across our land.
We as a Sacred Circle will discuss and attend to this issue and question, to ensure going forward the voices of all peoples are heard, and that a balance will be met. Will it then be perfected? It may not, but we can only try and do the best that we can in the light of Christ and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and by a lot of prayer and listening to the elders and peoples. This is the Indigenous way. As we define and strengthen our voice and presence in the church and community, I believe that we will come together and go out stronger and better, and our Christian witness of community and respect will be a standing example of who we are as Indigenous peoples, who are bold, strong and resilient.
What are your plans between now and Sacred Circle?
The hard part right now is getting everybody back to the table, taking inventory of what we have, what we’ve done and at the same time hearing the voice of the people. I’m going to try to do the best I can in the coming days and find out more about the role and what is needed by the people and try to bring everybody to a better way of communication.
At least for Sacred Circle, I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be a time for everybody to catch a breath and to again speak and be heard. I’ve been asking everybody for prayers for the diocese of Saskatoon as well as for the province of Rupert’s Land as we start to look forward to change in 2023, and now an accelerated sense of change with this new appointment.