In the Book of Genesis we read of a covenant between God and his people. “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you” (Genesis 9:9).
A covenant is a sacred agreement between two parties-in this case, God and God’s people. Covenants have been important through the ages, as they have a way of cementing relationships, giving each side an understanding of how to be in relationship.
Back in 1987, the Anglican Church of Canada held its first sacred Indigenous gathering at Fort Qu’Appelle, Sask. Other than the primate, Archbishop Michael Peers, everyone in attendance was Indigenous (First Nation, Inuit, Metis and non-status). They came from across Canada, and for some, it was the first time they had left the reserve. For others, it was the first time they had seen Indigenous clergy.
That sacred gathering in the diocese of Qu’Appelle became the model for other sacred gatherings that eventually became known as the Sacred Circle. Over the years, the Sacred Circle has welcomed non-Indigenous partners, and the primate’s role has remained the same: to listen, to celebrate communion and to bring reflection at the end.
In essence, the Sacred Circle is a truly Indigenous program, planned by Indigenous people and representative of Indigenous beliefs, culture and spirituality. I have attended all but the first Sacred Circle. Last year, we celebrated 20 years since the primate apologized on behalf of the church to Indigenous Anglicans for the way they were treated in church-run residential schools. Many of us who were there 20 years ago returned for the celebration in Toronto.
The Sacred Circle is an empowering place, and we are constantly reminded of our unity as a people and our connectedness to one another. We celebrated the 20th anniversary of the National Native Covenant in 2014. I was one of six who wrote the covenant; today, only two of us remain.
The covenant’s roots are anchored in a planning and visioning process that the Anglican Church of Canada engages every once in a while. In spring 1994, such a process was underway across Canada. A total of 21 who had been involved in Indigenous ministry were invited to meet at St. Benedict’s Retreat Centre in Winnipeg. We were provided with a listing of various church committees and their work and invitations to discuss the direction and vision for the church.
Our leader for the process was the Rev. Canon Laverne Jacobs. After a lot of discussion with our elders, the decision was made to abandon the laid-out church process and to simply share our story and our hopes for our community. This meeting came one year after the apology, so that was fresh in everyone’s minds and hearts.
There was much to say, and, as we are a spiritual people, we often prayed and held a lot of worship. Our international guest was Bishop Steven Charleston, himself an Indigenous bishop, who compared Indigenous people with the people of God coming out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land.
After some lengthy discussions, the circle came up with about six or seven pages of newsprint. The entire group decided to ask six people to retreat to a separate room, go over the assembled information and come up with a statement for the church. The team of six, which included me, was supported by the laying on of hands and prayer. Inside a room not far from our gathering space, the rest of the members of the Indigenous community prayed and sang hymns.
The six people tasked with the writing included three elders and three clergy. I recall we began by revisiting the Sacred Circle and the emotions of the people who had told their stories of residential schools. We read over the six or seven pages of newsprint data. We discussed the pain of the loss of language and our despair over the number of Indigenous people who were in jails or who turned to drugs or alcohol to fill the hole left by loss of language, culture, spirituality, family. We discussed the long journey of healing that would be needed, and the fact that for many, this journey had only just started.
We had a lot of newsprint available to us, so we started by throwing out sentences and words that captured our thoughts. I recall we debated over many words and phrases. We entered the room after supper, around 8 p.m., and by midnight, the Rev. Mervin Wolfleg dismissed us and completed the final editing.
We felt a bit of nervousness returning to the plenary session, but we led the gathered through the words and phrases that would become for us a covenant between ourselves, the Indigenous Anglicans and the Anglican Church of Canada. The covenant included a rationale that set out the reason for the covenant. One by one, in a sharing circle, we heard from everyone about what had been presented. The covenant was passed unanimously.
Before we left St. Benedict’s, at the closing eucharist we all signed the covenant. That covenant would become a working document for future Sacred Circles and would help shape the vision of a truly self-determined Indigenous Anglican Church.
The National Native Covenant
We, representatives of the Indigenous people of the Anglican Church of Canada, meeting in Winnipeg from the 23 to 26 of April 1994, pledge ourselves to this covenant for the sake of our people and in trust of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ:
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.
May God bless this new vision and give us grace to accomplish it. Amen.
The National Native Covenant was eventually ratified by the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada and has resulted in a vision that has provided a governance structure that includes a National Indigenous Bishop, the Sacred Circle, the Anglican Council of Indigenous People.
The Rev. Canon Murray Still lives in Winnipeg, where he is the rector at St. Stephen & St. Bede Anglican Church.