Bishop Steven Charleston, a Native American Choctaw and outspoken advocate for healing the long-lasting after-effects of early Christian colonizers on North American native peoples, will preach at the opening service of General Synod in July.
As one of three international “partners” at synod, Bishop Charleston will also participate in Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP) meetings. (The other two partners are Bishop Sebastian Bakare of Zimbabwe and Judy Berinai of Malaysia.) International partners are invited to every General Synod to offer outside perspective.
Bishop Charleston is also a former Bishop of Alaska and the second Native American to be elected a bishop. Six years ago, he raised ecclesiastical eyebrows by resigning his position in Alaska after just five years to spend more time with his wife and then-teenaged son.
In an interview, Bishop Charleston said that in the indigenous way he speaks from the heart with no text. However, he plans to preach an inspirational message of hope and reconciliation at synod, he said.
“As a native person, I have no desire to blame European Canadians for what has happened with indigenous people. I will talk about facing the past honestly and truthfully, a past when relationships were unbalanced and some people were seen as inferior to others.”
People hide from the “touchy” parts of their history, he added. “In the United States, our inability to look at ourselves and our assumptions about always being in the right and always being unbeatable, cost us dearly with the Vietnam War.”
Careful to add that he is “not here to preach to any other culture about what’s right for it,” he added, “I can help to hold up the mirror so that we can really look at ourselves. This means we can release ourselves from bondage together – this should not be threatening, but liberating.”
Noting that Canada has a good international reputation for being a fair and just society, Bishop Charleston said, “Every Canadian, whether religious or not, is a stakeholder in how we can resolve this issue (residential schools).”
In the January/February 2001 issue of The Witness, a broadly-distributed U.S. Episcopalian magazine with a 70-year history, Bishop Charleston wrote, “The colonization of the Americas by European imperialism, aided and abetted by the Christian church, continues to haunt this hemisphere. Indigenous people, who are the survivors of one of the most systematic efforts at “ethnic cleansing” in the history of world, remain in the shadow of what I believe must be named American apartheid.”
Currently president and dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., Bishop Charleston is familiar with the history of residential schools and other Canadian indigenous issues within the Anglican church.
Dr. Eleanor Johnson, Director of Partnerships, said, “Bishop Charleston is no stranger to us. He has been a partner at Council of General Synod, and participated in a recent House of Bishops dialogue with representatives of ACIP.”
Bishop Charleston also participated in the design of the Winnipeg covenant in 1994 at the invitation of Canadian aboriginal church leaders. This covenant identified the aim of First Nations people to be “a new, self-determining community with the Anglican Church of Canada” and announced the intention to build “a truly Anglican Indigenous Church in Canada.”
A strong justice advocate, Bishop Charleston is also known for his authorship of the Cambridge Accord. The 1999 Accord was an attempt to find common ground among feuding Anglican bishops to prevent acts of violence against homosexuals, especially when these acts were vindicated on a biblical basis. Although some conservative bishops did not sign it, it was warmly received and approved throughout the Anglican Communion, particularly among Canadian bishops, Bishop Charleston said.
“It hasn’t worked any magic but the goal was to provide common ground. We could protect an awful lot of people from being abused by speaking out against sexuality-based violence.”