Indigenous bishops criticize same-sex marriage vote

National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, left, and Bishop Lydia Mamakwa, of the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh, during the opening worship at General Synod 2016. Photo: Art Babych
National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, left, and Bishop Lydia Mamakwa, of the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh, during the opening worship at General Synod 2016. Photo: Art Babych
Published September 23, 2016

(This story has been updated with new information and comments from National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald , the Rev. Martha Spence and Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.)

In the wake of July’s vote on same-sex marriage at General Synod, Indigenous Anglicans intend to “proceed towards self-determination with urgency,” the Anglican Church of Canada’s three Indigenous bishops say.

General Synod voted this summer to provisionally approve changes to the marriage canon, which would allow same-sex marriages. The proposed changes must pass a second reading, slated for the next General Synod in 2019, before they can take effect.

On Thursday, September 22, National Indigenous Bishop Mark MacDonald; Bishop Lydia Mamakwa, of the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh; and Bishop Adam Halkett, of Missinipi, released a joint statement they say was requested by an Indigenous circle that met after the results of July’s vote were revealed. The bishops began by saying that they do not speak for all Indigenous peoples, although, they added, they have consulted “broadly and deeply” with many. The statement voiced displeasure both with the decision and the process by which it was made, and expressed desire for a more self-determined Indigenous Anglican community in Canada.

“We do not agree with the decision and believe that it puts our communities in a difficult place in regards to our relation and community with the Anglican Church of Canada,” the bishops said.

While they intend to discern their exact course of action “in the days ahead,” the bishops said they are also committed to continuing “in our conversation with the Anglican Church of Canada in regards to self-determination and mutual cooperation in our Anglican Christian ministry.”

The bishops continued, “We will proceed towards self-determination with all urgency.”

At the same time, they said they would also “seek ways to continue our conversation with the LGBTQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer] communities and individuals, affirming our earlier statements of love and welcome.”

Bishop Adam Halkett, of Missinipi, at General Synod this summer. Photo: Art Babych
Bishop Adam Halkett, of Missinipi, at General Synod this summer. Photo: Art Babych

The statement also called for a church inquiry into the process by which July’s decision was made.

“We believe that this entire incident calls for a review and rethinking of the ways that the Church conducts its business,” the statement read. “We have resolved to work with you to see that we never have to be in this kind of situation again.”

Particularly painful, the bishops said was the “silencing” of an elder during debate on the floor of synod. On July 12, after the final results of the vote on the marriage canon had been announced, the Rev. Martha Spence, of the Indigenous Spirituality of Mishamikoweesh, rose to address synod. But discussion had already been declared closed, and Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, asked her not to speak.

Although this was understandable given the “Western process” that was followed at synod, the bishops said an apology to the elder was in order.

For many Indigenous Anglicans, this was the most difficult moment of synod and one that really highlighted how different their decision-making processes are from Western ones, National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald said in an interview. “The legislative approach is often not very good at subtleties. Indigenous communities operate in a very, very different form. The voice of elders is particularly given attention, the voice of youth is given special attention,” he said.

Since the release of the statement, MacDonald added, the primate had apologized to Spence both directly, by phone, and by mail, and the bishops are happy with his response.

Spence herself, however, said she was still struggling with the incident. She was aware that synod was drawing to a close and there was a need to wrap up things quickly, she said, but still hoped the primate might allow her a few minutes. Being told to stop, especially in front of so many people, she said, was humiliating.

“I felt so small. I felt like crawling through somewhere [to] hide,” she said in an interview.

Spence said that at the time the primate called, she was not able to accept his apology. “I didn’t say, ‘Yes, I forgive you,’ ” she said. “He talked with me, I talked with him, but I was not ready.”

Through tears, Spence said she hoped for a public apology from the primate. “I’d like to hear him apologize with others,” she said. “I know he’s a loving man, but in that instant of time, I felt that he didn’t follow the love that he talks about. “As Aboriginal people, I know we’re not always listened to. We’re still struggling. We’re still not able to put our two cents in anything,” she said.

In an interview, Hiltz said he was not aware at the time of the hurt he had caused in asking Spence not to speak. He said he heard only later, for example, that some Indigenous members of synod had gathered shortly after the incident to talk, cry and pray about it. “I didn’t know any of that, partly because I was busy with the closing Eucharist and the banquet…and I felt bad about it,” he said. While his apology “doesn’t wipe away the hurt, and it doesn’t wipe away the feeling that some people have of being offended,” Hiltz said, “at least they know that I’m not just thinking about it, I’ve actually acted on it.”

The Canadian Charter of Rights, the statment continued, guarantees the church’s right to “complete its pastoral work in marriages,” and also that the country’s Indigenous peoples are “self-determining with regard to basic cultural and social matters.” This guarantee, the statement said, is “fundamental to the Nation-to-Nation relationship which is at the base of Indigenous Rights, reconciliation and a promising future for all of Canada.” These rights, they said, are also affirmed by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Given this, the bishops said, “we are deeply disturbed and disappointed that so little attention was paid to our pastoral and social self-determination and the right to free, prior and informed consent.”

That Indigenous people must give “free, prior and informed consent” to what is done on their territory is one of the principles of UNDRIP.

Indigenous Anglican elders, the bishops said, should have been “actively involved” with discussions to change the marriage canon. But neither discussion of the matter nor This Holy Estate-the report of the Commission on the Marriage Canon-were translated into Indigenous languages, they said.

The bishops said they voted against changing the marriage canon not as a statement against anyone, but as an expression of their own understanding of marriage-an understanding they said is closely tied to their concept of creation itself.

“It is our understanding that, while homosexual persons have always had a place in our societies, same-sex marriage, itself, has not,” the bishops said. “We find in both our reading of Creation and Scripture the unique relationship of Man and Woman. The difference between the two, coming together in the miracle of a unique spiritual communion, is essential to the way we understand marriage-but not only marriage, it is the way we understand the Land, the way we understand Creation.”

The change to the canon, the bishops acknowledged, includes an “opt-in” clause, so that same-sex marriages would be permitted in a diocese only if authorized by the bishop. But they objected to the changes made in the definition of marriage.

“Although the canon does not force anyone to do anything, the language of the revised canon changes the fundamental meaning of marriage to make it gender neutral,” the statement read. “This is both a significant and unacceptable change to our communities, who still find male and female as essential to their understanding of the marriage ceremony.”

The statement, a little more than two pages long, concluded with the bishops’ expressions of regret for the discord they see the issue as having caused, at a time when they hoped for reconciliation.

“We are deeply sad that, at a time in which the Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples of the Anglican Church of Canada warmly embraced each other and a new future…we came to such divisiveness,” the bishops said. “We are deeply sorry for any ways that our actions-words and acts of sin by doing and/or not-doing-contributed to this outcome and will seek to do our very best in the future to embody the reconciliation that we see in Jesus. We believe that Christ is present among us, by His own power and promise, and we will look for Him to guide us into a better future.

“We, finally, pledge our very best attempts to remain brothers and sisters to all Anglicans, living out our baptismal covenant in the bonds of affection and mutual faithfulness.”

– With additional reporting by André Forget.




  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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