More native priests needed, says international gathering

By on May 23, 2007

Archdeacon Hone Kaa of New Zealand, one of the delegates at a recent Anglican Indigenous Network meeting in Vancouver, speaks at a gathering in Christ Church Cathedral.

The Anglican Indigenous Network has put itself on a new and firm bureaucratic footing in order to push forward on its number one concern – the faster ordination of more native priests.

At its biennial meeting, held May 17-22 in Vancouver, 25 delegates from five regions around the Pacific chose a five-member executive to back up the long-time secretary-general, Malcolm Naea Chun of Hawaii.

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Representatives from Canada, the United States, Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia and the Torres Straits Islands also promised to fund an annual budget, starting at $20,000 US, the first such budget for the organization begun in 1991.

The question of native ordination dominated the meeting. But the single most worrying situation in the network’s territory – Hawaii, where the Episcopal diocese has only one indigenous priest – was handled with an open-ended motion. It authorized the three native bishops at the meeting – Mark MacDonald of the Canadian church and John Gray and Brown Turei of New Zealand – to follow any route at all to train leaders for and to give pastoral care to indigenous people.

Bishop MacDonald acknowledged a delegate’s plea for native lay training, but pointed out: “We’re in a system that says ordination is everything.”

Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S., spent two days at the meeting. She listened carefully on the opening evening as delegate after delegate talked of the need to train priests in and for native communities, rather than sending them away for education or bringing in outsiders.

Her reply was straightforward. “Continue to challenge your church,” she said.

Two Australian priests at the meeting, Di Langham and Janet Turpie-Johnstone, are ordained to the mainstream priesthood. But, as fair-skinned aboriginals, they described themselves in interviews as both overlooked and overused.

In her day job, Ms. Turpie-Johnstone tends to two Melbourne parishes, with 250 names on the combined rolls. She spends her “spare” time on the boards of various aboriginal organizations, and doing advocacy and pastoral work in the aboriginal community.

Despite that work, she said, her light skin and her education make her church reluctant to see her as an aboriginal priest. “They don’t want to blur the boundaries,” she said. “There’s something wrong if you dress right and talk right. It’s an interesting prejudice.”

Ms. Langham said she can now almost hear the sighs of boredom as she speaks up at clergy conferences as a sole voice for the aboriginal point of view. As well, she said, working conditions in Australia’s Anglican church are so bad that many priests have been successfully poached by the United Church.

Ms. Langham herself has been approached. For now, though, she is hanging in. “I have to be patient enough to know a big ship doesn’t turn right away.”

The Australian church did appoint an aboriginal bishop as early as 1988, but Ms. Langham said the northern-based assistant bishop lacks a national presence, and the bureaucratic nicety of inviting him south first through her own bishop means he hardly ever visits.

She does think Bishop MacDonald’s recent appointment as Canada’s first indigenous bishop may work because of his national mandate and because “Mark is who he is.”

But Bishop MacDonald warned the meeting that his new bishopric may be “a shot in the dark” as he tries to personify the connection between the Gospel, the land and the people.

While Bishop Jefferts Schori emphatically told delegates she wanted to hear more about the importance of land to indigenous people, those who talked to her over two days suggested that they need to keep talking.

“You haven’t recognized native ministry until you’ve recognized the connection to the land,” Bishop MacDonald told the meeting. “It’s not getting across to people who are our friends otherwise.”

An AIN youth summit is set for Hawaii in September, 2008, while the next AIN meeting is slated for 2009 in Hawaii. By then, new members may be joining.

Mr. Chun found interest from groups in the Philippines and South Africa when he attended the recent Towards Effective Anglican Mission meeting in South Africa in March. And Bishop Jefferts Schori reported on interest from a group in Honduras during a recent visit.

Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, the Canadian primate, also attended part of the gathering.

Anne Fletcher is a writer in the diocese of New Westminster.

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