Covenant and Our Way of Life define outlook, structure of emerging church
The founding documents for Sacred Circle, the self-determining Indigenous church within the Anglican Church of Canada, have been revealed to the world.
On Feb. 27, Transfiguration Sunday, The Covenant and Our Way of Life were publicly released. Both documents had been distributed earlier to participants of the last two Sacred Circle gatherings, as well as to Anglican Indigenous networks and the Anglican Church of Canada’s House of Bishops.
Indigenous Anglican leaders have previously compared The Covenant and Our Way of Life to the Anglican Church of Canada’s constitution and canons, respectively. But National Indigenous Archbishop Mark MacDonald says the Sacred Circle documents are “quite different, both in terms of how [they do] things, but also what [they aim] to do.”
MacDonald describes the documents as seeking to develop relations based on an Indigenous understanding of law, governance and ethics. And rather than defining every aspect of local congregations, they aim to serve as an example and encouragement for them.
“The relational aspect is primary [in The Covenant and Our Way of Life], so that relation precedes organization,” MacDonald says.
“Certainly it’s an oversimplification, but much of the Western way of doing things is ‘organization precedes relationship.’ What we’re aiming at here is a way of being Indigenous, of being self-determining, of acting in an Indigenous way that will allow us to remain active and vital parts of the rest of the Anglican Church.”
Donna Bomberry, co-chair of the focus group tasked with developing the Indigenous church, says The Covenant and Our Way of Life put into words “our own sense of the journey of self-determination as Anglicans, as Indigenous people.”
In light of the history of colonialism, the Anglican Church of Canada’s constitution and canons have not served Indigenous people well, Bomberry says.
“We needed to express our own spiritual renewal as Anglicans, and this is what Our Way of Life is about… This is a healing journey for ourselves, our communities, our families. It’s about renewing our relationship with one another.”
Our Way of Life defines the Indigenous church as a “full, equal but separate, self-governing partner” with the Anglican Church of Canada.
MacDonald compares this relationship with those between other church jurisdictions. That of the ecclesiastical province of Rupert’s Land to the Anglican Church of Canada, for example, could also be called “equal but separate” and based upon mutual agreements.
“What we’re saying is, we value deeply the Anglican Church of Canada despite what it has done to Indigenous people as an institution,” MacDonald says.
“We honour and respect the traditions and values of the people who are part of it. When we say we are equal but separate, we are saying that Indigenous values and approaches should be honoured on a par with the Anglican Church of Canada’s way of doing things.”
That focus on Indigenous values, he says, is reflected in the structures of the Indigenous church. Our Way of Life strongly emphasizes the role of elders; MacDonald points out that his own position of national Indigenous Anglican archbishop is described as “presiding elder” in the document.
Elders are members of Indigenous communities identified by fellow elders on the basis of experience, knowledge and providing counselling and guidance to others. For many Indigenous people who lost connection with their communities when removed to residential schools, Bomberry says, elders can provide that connection. In an Anglican context, sometimes they are elder ordained members of the community.
“It’s important to have their experience and knowledge of the generations before us to bring to the conversation, and [to the] guidance of our lives,” Bomberry says.
Another thread that runs through the documents is their focus on gospel-based discipleship, which The Covenant calls “a foundational and on-going guide to the Sacred Circle.” For MacDonald, this reflects parallels between values central to the gospel and traditional Indigenous values.
A section on conflict resolution in Our Way of Life emphasizes harmony, consensus, and reconciliation. The national Indigenous archbishop contrasts the present criminal justice system in Canada to the “non-adversarial” approach found in corresponding Indigenous institutions as well as Matthew 18, in which Jesus speaks about the importance of forgiveness.
A section in Our Way of Life dealing with boundaries touches on another aspect of the relationship between Sacred Circle and the Anglican Church of Canada. According to the document, “the Sacred Circle transcends the boundaries designated by the church within its institutional structures and practices.”
While Indigenous people live within dioceses as part of the Anglican Church of Canada, Bomberry says, they also live on traditional lands that cross those boundaries.
In the “old ways” of the Anglican Church, she notes, Indigenous Anglicans could never or rarely call upon spiritual leaders from another diocese to visit and lead worship and prayer without the approval of the local bishop.
“That used to bother us, that we needed to seek approval … We see these individuals as our relatives,” she said. “They are kin … We’re of the same linguistic group.”
MacDonald says the lack of a more precise definition in the documents of how Indigenous boundaries will operate reflects their accommodation of the “traditional boundaries of the colonial church.”
“We’re not saying that we will ignore these boundaries,” he adds. “What we’re asking for is that the colonial church would make some gospel accommodation to the Indigenous understanding of boundaries.”
While The Covenant and Our Way of Life have been released to the public, Indigenous Anglican leaders still plan to enact them at the next in-person Sacred Circle.
The date for that is uncertain due to travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, MacDonald says. But Indigenous Anglicans, he adds, believe the documents “cannot be fulfilled or become fully operational until we meet face to face and receive [them] in the context of the Eucharist. We believe [they need] to have a spiritual sanctification that can only happen in person.”
Copies of The Covenant and Our Way of Life can be found at anglican.ca/im/sacredcircle.
Download the Sacred Circle documents in PDF format.