Guest reflection: Black and Anglican in Canada

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, "We are a rainbow people of God." Photo: UN/Jean-Marc Ferre
Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, "We are a rainbow people of God." Photo: UN/Jean-Marc Ferre
Published February 4, 2011

On Feb. 27, St. Paul’s Bloor Street, diocese of Toronto, will celebrate Black heritage in the Anglican Church of Canada with a unique annual service. This year-which the United Nations has declared International Year for People of African Descent-marks the 15th anniversary of the special Anglican service, planned by the diocese’s Black Anglicans Coordinating Committee and held every February during Black History Month. Each year, hundreds of Anglicans, many of them Blacks, come to give thanks to God for the rich heritage of Blacks in Canada and for the many gifts they share. Always in the presence of a Toronto-area bishop, this inspiring service of prayer and praise to God includes story-telling, drumming, dancing and preaching.

As a baptized member of the Christian church and as a Black Anglican priest in the diocese of Toronto, I view this milestone occasion as an opportunity for theological reflection. I invite all my sisters and brothers to join me in conversation.

In the opening chapter of Genesis, we read that God created human beings in the image of God. As Christians, we believe this to be the fundamental truth of our existence. What an awesome truth-because, from a Christian perspective, Christ is the image of God, and as followers of Jesus Christ, we are “in Christ.” This means all barriers are broken down; as Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, “We are a rainbow people of God.” St. Paul, in his Letter to the Galatians, affirmed “we are all one in Christ Jesus.” It is in the celebration of our diversity that we come to a deeper understanding of that great truth: Jesus came to save us all. The church, as the body of Christ, with the power of the Holy Spirit, shows God’s love to the world.

As human beings created in God’s image, we need to ask: how does our church celebrate that diversity, particularly as it is expressed racially and ethnically? How do we see ourselves, how do we see others and how do others see us? These questions lead us to consider the reasons for the celebration of Black heritage in our Anglican church.  To speak of the celebration of Black heritage in our Anglican church without speaking about racism, however, would be inauthentic. I admire the boldness and compassion of Bishop Torraville of Newfoundland, who, in an article on racism in the October 2010 edition of Anglican Life, asked his readers to challenge and defeat racism by obeying their baptismal promises.

Indeed, the annual diocesan celebration is held during Black History Month, which was born out of the realities of racism and can cause us to imagine racism as being inauthentic-a virus that endangers the health of the Body of Christ.

The Anglican church in Canada, and particularly those who celebrate Black heritage during the annual service, need to face some truths. First, we must recall a dark period in the history of Canada-slavery existed in Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 1767 census of Nova Scotia, 104 enslaved Africans were listed. This number remained “small” until the United Empire Loyalist influx after 1783. During that period, the church played a pivotal role.

Canadian-born Rev. Denise Gillard writes of the arrival of Blacks more than three centuries ago:

For example, most Blacks believed that baptism in the Anglican Church would make them “one and equal with Whites.” However, even when Dr. John Breynton, Rector of St. Paul’s, baptized many hundreds of them, Blacks found that while they could attend services and receive communion, they were segregated from White parishioners and forced into galleries set apart for Blacks, the poor, and soldiers. By 1815, Black worshippers were kept behind a partition. Ultimately, Blacks were excluded when White parishioners grew in numbers. Furthermore, they were advised to gather in their own private homes. This displacement left Black lay leaders with little supervision or instruction. To add insult to injury, in 1784 the Anglican-related Society for the Propagation of the Gospel had some Blacks displaced because after years of waiting for the property promised to them, they had settled on an area of land reserved for church and school.

Apart from arriving as Loyalists, however, thousands of enslaved Africans between 1840 and 1860 travelled the Underground Railroad to freedom in Canada. They did not always find the freedom they sought in a place they might have considered “the promised land.” Though they often met abolitionists sympathetic to their cause and were aided in escaping harsh treatment in the United States, often these Underground travellers were disappointed when they arrived at their Canadian destinations. While Canada and most English colonies had no slavery after 1834, discrimination was still common. Many of the new arrivals to Canada had great difficulty finding jobs, in part because of mass European immigration, and because of overt racism. For example, the charter of the city of Saint John, New Brunswick, was amended in 1785 specifically to exclude Blacks from practising a trade, selling goods, fishing in the harbour or becoming freemen. These provisions stood until 1870.

Despite this bleak past, Blacks have played outstanding roles. As the third-largest visible minority group in Canada, and with half of Blacks having been born in this country, their contributions and achievements are remarkable. They include the gifts of composer and jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson; former governor general Michaelle Jean; Olympic medallist Donovan Bailey; inventor and engineer, Elijah McCoy; entrepreneur and activist, Viola Davis Desmond; and activist Donald Willard Moore. All make the 400-year presence of Blacks in Canada great reasons for celebration at any time.

In addition, the active involvement of Blacks throughout our dioceses, as clergy and lay persons, highlights the myriad gifts offered by those of African descent. Many parishes in the diocese of Toronto would be unsustainable if not for the gifts and contributions of their Black members.

The annual service, though, need not be viewed as a celebration for Black Anglicans by Black Anglicans-for, in the context of the racial and ethnic diversity in Canadian Anglican dioceses, the attendance and participation of all ethnic and racial groups must be recognized as a celebration of a loving God who created that diversity.

Let us remember that the history and rich traditions of Blacks in the Anglican church were shaped by the Church of England. Given the historical contexts of the Caribbean Province of the West Indies, for example, many Anglicans in the diocese of Toronto who emigrated from the English-speaking Caribbean were spiritually nourished in the Church of England, long before immigrating to Canada. It is because of this reality that Black Anglicans, particularly those from the Caribbean, bring different perspectives to Anglican worship. As immigrants with a rich Anglican heritage that has socialized us, Blacks are able to bring an Anglican sensibility to how Anglicans worship and how worship with a clear understanding of culture can be integrated. Coming out of a historical context where some English Anglican clergy were owners of enslaved Africans, Caribbean Blacks baptized in the Anglican church have remained faithful to God as active members in Canadian dioceses, particularly in the diocese of Toronto. Blacks in Canadian dioceses are proud to be Anglican Christians.

When this reality is captured within the annual celebratory service (or when done at the parish level), we help to create distinctive ways of conceptualizing and speaking about ultimate concerns. The story-telling, hand clapping, the singing of gospels and Negro spirituals, the drumming and dancing, the preaching and the responses to the preacher, are all parts of the big story-that we are part of one church and serve the One Lord who created all humankind. In the worship, an African-derived worldview and the complexities of our ancestors’ slavery experiences converge; oppression, survival and harsh daily realities are mixed with a faithful and compassionate God. In our celebratory services, we are deeply aware of the quest for freedom, a freedom that is found only in our Saviour Jesus Christ. While it is true that love will keep all together, and hope will provide us with the fuel to keep going on, it is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ that will lead all who are Jesus’ followers on the course that God has charted for us.

Within this context, I appreciate the efforts of the diocese of Toronto to recognize the racial and ethnic diversity, and the attempts that have been made to address it by instituting, in the past, a Multicultural/Diversity position. We also await recommendations from the Diocesan Ethnic Ministries Committee, chaired by Canon Matthias Der. In making these important steps, we must remember there is no quick or easy way to navigate the gifts God has given so generously, to the diocese of Toronto in particular and to the Anglican Church of Canada in general. The annual celebration of the Black History Service-as it is commonly called-causes us to reflect because it is an invitation to all Anglicans in Canada, especially in the most populated areas of the diocese of Toronto, to look again at who we are and where we going, and to experience in the celebration of our gifts that we are indeed celebrating the love of God who offers gifts freely to everyone.

The United Nations’ designation of 2011 as International Year for People of African Descent is in line with what God has told us from the beginning: “Then God said, ?Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness?.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26a?27). As all humankind is created in the image of God, and therefore created equal in the eyes of God, let us together, as the body of Christ, work for the transformation of humanity in the power of Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Sonia Hinds is an Anglican priest in the diocese of Toronto. She emigrated from Barbados in 2001 and is currently a doctoral student at Trinity College. The article above is excerpted from her book, Black and Anglican in Canada? A Womanish Response.





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