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Richmond Hill, Ont.
The scent of sage and sweetgrass lingered in the cavernous Grand York Ballroom of the Sheraton Parkway Toronto North Hotel & Suites as members and guests of General Synod raised their voices to sing Reginald Heber’s classic hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
No pianos accompanied the singing, nor were their guitars, drums or any other instrument-only the hundreds of intermingled voices of those gathered together to celebrate the Sunday morning Eucharist organized by the church’s Indigenous ministries.
“We wanted you to have a taste of what many of our churches are like, where the only instrument is the human voice,” said National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald as the Eucharist got underway.
“Indigenous ceremony is the attitude that you bring to it-not the words you express, necessarily, and sometimes not even the actions that you use. One of the most important aspects of today is for you to enter into ‘ceremonial time.’ ”
The congregation was primed to enter this “ceremonial time” through an opening smudge, performed by the Rev. Andrew Wesley, a Mushkegowuk Cree residential school survivor from the diocese of Moosonee and former chair of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP), and through the drumming that led the procession of Indigenous priests and bishops into the hall as the service began.
While there was much that would have been familiar to Canadian Anglicans of any race or liturgical bent, the service was marked by its use of the practice of gospel-based discipleship common in many Indigenous parishes.
Gospel-based discipleship, as MacDonald explained at the beginning of the service, is an approach to worship that sees the Bible as being central. Instead of moving straight into the homily following the reading of the gospel, the congregation sits down in smaller groups to talk about the reading.
“We…want you to understand that we have a spiritual movement going among us that is centred on dwelling in the word, and specifically on dwelling on the gospel,” MacDonald said as he introduced the concept.
As it happened, the lectionary reading for the day was Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan, and after the congregation finished the gospel-based discipleship process, Bishop Lydia Mamakwa of the Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh launched into a sermon that threw one the best-known stories in the New Testament into stark relief against the church’s current historical moment.
“We should have love and compassion for someone who was victimized, that has been a victim, that is still a victim, just like the Samaritan did,” Mamakwa said, going on to note that the church will not be kept together by its “structures and institutions,” but by “the kind of love the Samaritan showed to the person who was victimized.
“In our meetings…we talk about how we can best serve our church, how we can keep our churches open: Let us show your love and compassion toward the people, abiding by what Jesus said and taught.”
When the sermon was over and the prayer over the bread and wine was said, and the members and guests rose to form long, snaking lines to wait their turn to receive the Eucharist, the hall filled with singing again.
This time, though, the voices belonged to a handful of Indigenous elders, priests and ministers from across Canada, and the songs they sang were in the rich vowels and subtle consonants of their own languages.
The melodies, however, would have been familiar to Anglicans around the world.
The Indigenous Eucharist was only the first part of an entire day of synod dedicated to the work of Indigenous ministries in the Anglican Church of Canada, which also includes, among others, sessions on the Primates’ Commission on the Doctrine of Discovery, Reconciliation and Justice; the commission of the primate’s council of elders and youth, which has been called to keep the reconciliation efforts of the church on track; and presentation on how Indigenous Anglicans are moving toward greater self-determination within the Canadian church.