Regaining our soul

Consultation participants take part in “Mapping the Ground We Stand On,” an exercise developed by the Primate's World Relief and Development Fund. Photo: Melanie Delva
Published September 20, 2017

I am one of about 70 Indigenous Anglicans and settler people who have just come, like the two disciples, from a walk on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35)—known as Warm Springs in an Indigenous translation of the biblical passage.

“The Road to Warm Springs” was a National Consultation on Indigenous Self-Determination, held in Pinawa, Man., September 15-17. There, we felt our souls on fire as we encountered Christ—in faces, words, embraces and breaking of bread with our Indigenous sisters and brothers in the Anglican church.

We ended by signing a heartfelt call “to our bishops, clergy and all the baptized to stand in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples in their quest for self-determination.”

What does that mean?

Warm Springs is just the latest step in a centuries-long journey of the Anglican Church with First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. It’s a schizophrenic journey in which the church has alternated between supporting Indigenous Peoples with the gospel and advocacy, and terrible complicity with British and Canadian colonization.

In that journey, say Anglican Indigenous leaders, their people were: “denied our place in God’s Creation; denied our rights as Children of God; treated as less than equal; and subjected to abuse, culturally, physically, emotionally, sexually and spiritually” (preface to A Covenant and our Journey of Spiritual Retreat, 1994).

For the church, the darkest aspects of that relationship centred on our 100-year commitment to residential schools that forced Indigenous children away from family and community into institutions designed to rip from them their cultures, beliefs and values—and which also left them vulnerable to sexual predators.

Even amidst such abuse, Christ sometimes broke through and touched the hearts of scared and lonely children. They encountered Jesus in the gospel stories, in their elders’ faith—perhaps even in some caring teachers who dared to subvert colonial intentions.

Indigenous Anglicans today carry a deep heritage of faith as they continue to seek a way to be, to govern themselves and to flourish within the Anglican family.

The darkest days finally began to change in the late 1960s when the Anglican Church of Canada commissioned a new look at its history through a report by Charles Hendry, then withdrew from the schools. In 1993, after deeply and humbly listening to survivors’ stories, then-Primate Michael Peers offered from the settler church his penitential 1993 apology for the residential schools.

Moved by the apology, Indigenous leaders in 1994 proclaimed their own vision for a New Covenant. They pledged “to do all we can to call our people into unity in a new, self-determining community within the Anglican Church of Canada.”

Meanwhile, aided by the Anglican Healing Fund (and others)—and especially by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—many Indigenous people have found hard-won and ongoing healing from the schools’ legacy of generational abuse and addictions. And we settlers have heard the stories.

There have been other important steps. In 2007, the Anglican Council for Indigenous Peoples chose Mark MacDonald as the first National Indigenous Anglican Bishop.  And in 2010, General Synod passed  the groundbreaking Canon XXII that recognized governance structures for a self-determining Indigenous Anglican Church to emerge and walk in partnership and faith with the rest of us.

The stage seems set. Most impediments to change have been removed. But there remains one elephant in the room. Settler congregations, clergy, and perhaps especially the bishops, still hold the balance of wealth and power, while Indigenous members are mostly left struggling in poverty and crisis—without the needed resources to move forward.

So I ask: Is the church ready—are we ready—and willing to equitably share that which is the Indigenous Peoples’ by right and justice?

Jesus warned: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36).

He’s speaking to us settlers. We gained the world—the land and riches of Canada—but we oppress our brothers and sisters in the process. We lost our souls.

We need the will to change, and with God’s help, we can. We have nothing of worth to lose, and our souls to regain.

John Bird has worked as editor of Anglican Magazine, Special Assistant to the Primate on Residential Schools, and Program Co-ordinator for Aboriginal Justice and Right Relations with the United Church of Canada. He is currently a volunteer member of the Primate’s Commission on Discovery, Reconciliation and Justice.


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