Sacred Circle ratifies founding documents of Indigenous church

Donna Bomberry, interim Indigenous Ministries coordinator, signs the Covenant and Our Way of Life. Photo: Brian Bukowski
Published August 31, 2023

Chris Harper installed as national Indigenous Anglican archbishop

The 11th Indigenous Anglican Sacred Circle saw ratification of the Covenant and Our Way of Life, founding documents for the self-determining Indigenous church within the Anglican Church of Canada, along with the installation of Chris Harper as the new national Indigenous Anglican archbishop.

The gathering of Indigenous Anglicans from across Canada took place May 28 to June 2 in Ramara, Ont. Around 110 people registered, including Indigenous Anglican clergy, elders, young adults and members of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP), though not all were able to attend in person.

On May 30, Sacred Circle reached the consensus needed to ratify the Covenant and Our Way of Life—respectively similar to a constitution and canons—following discussions and reports from talking circles.

Harper and ACIP co-chair Canon Murray Still were among the first to sign the Covenant and Our Way of Life. Donna Bomberry, interim coordinator of the Anglican Church of Canada’s Indigenous Ministries department, invited participants to sign their names along with their claimed nations.

With most of Sacred Circle wearing orange shirts that day to honour the memory of children who did not return home from residential schools, a sea of orange flowed toward the stage. The smell of sage, cedar, sweetgrass and tobacco— collectively known as the four sacred medicines—filled the air. Elders and Indigenous bishops, priests, deacons and lay people, as well as Indigenous partners and bishops serving as witnesses, made their way forward to sign. People hugged and sang “Amazing Grace,” “This Little Light of Mine” and other hymns, backed by young Sacred Circle participants on guitar.

Harper called ratification a “historic moment,” which he compared to the birth of a child. “There has been a long wait for this child to be born and having it come now is one of those joyous moments,” he said.

“I feel that we’ve made a great step forward in bringing [Indigenous Anglicans] together,” said Bomberry, who played a pivotal role in creating the documents and also signed the 1994 Covenant—which first called Indigenous Anglicans into a new-self-determining church within The Anglican Church of Canada.

Bomberry said the next task would be to write policies based on the Covenant and Our Way of Life to give communities guidance on national Indigenous ministry and their own roles. She anticipated that would involve forming a new focus group to write the policies.

Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, said in a brief address May 31 that it was “a great honour and a privilege” to be present as Sacred Circle gave its assent to the Covenant and Our Way of Life. She also reaffirmed the interdependence of Sacred Circle and the broader church.

“We need each other … The rest of the church needs you, because you bring something new and different to us and our understanding of the gospel,” the primate said.

In the wake of the discovery of hundreds of possible unmarked burials at residential school sites, Nicholls reiterated that General Synod archivist Laurel Parson is working to find burial records from nearby parishes and make information available. “Our records and archives are completely open for searching,” the primate said. “I also know that other bishops are working within their communities and areas.”

Harper’s installation

On May 29, Harper was installed as national Indigenous archbishop—the first time Sacred Circle has held an installation ceremony for its presiding elder.

In his sermon at the opening Eucharist, Harper called on its members to be “peace bringers,” drawing upon the day’s gospel reading in which the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples and tells them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Sacred Circle, he said, had been given a “glorious opportunity to build up the church and to show the unity of the church” in its Indigenous ministries, as Indigenous Anglicans find their own voice in their own communities.

Harper receives chief status and a Nisga’a name, Kalwilimlhkwhl Laxha, meaning “heavenly servant,” from representatives of the Nisga’a Nation following his installation. Photo: Brian Bukowski

“This world needs peace,” he added. “I pray [that] you, as a representative of the church, from wherever you come from, from all corners … are that message of peace.”

Four new ACIP members elected

On June 1 Sacred Circle elected four new members to ACIP, the secretariat that carries out Sacred Circle’s mandate, while five current members stay on to finish out their terms. Each ACIP member serves two three-year terms for a total of six years.

New members include Ruby Sandy-Robinson for the ecclesiastical province of Canada, the Rev. Rod BrantFrancis for Ontario and Yvonne Gesinghaus and Catherine Martin for B.C. and Yukon. Returning members are the Rev. Gerald Giles for Canada, Sandra Fox for Ontario and the Rev. Martha Kunuk, Canon Murray Still and Rosie Jane Tailfeathers for Rupert’s Land.

Outgoing members from the last council are Caroline Chum and Dorothy Patterson for Ontario; Mabel Brown, Theresa Halkett, Freda Lepine, Sheba McKay and the Rev. Manasee Ulayuk for Rupert’s Land; and John Haugen, Ingrid Johnson and Willard Martin for B.C. and Yukon.

Each ecclesiastical province is represented on ACIP by two Sacred Circle delegates—except Rupert’s Land, which now has three.

That change in ACIP representation followed a debate over the election process that occurred after Sacred Circle participants had broken into talking circles to elect new ACIP members for their respective ecclesiastical provinces. Rupert’s Land delegates then said they felt it necessary to choose six delegates as ACIP members rather than their allotted two—citing the great size and diversity of their province, which encompasses the Prairies and most of northern Canada.

In response, Harper said he would give up one of his three appointed positions to Rupert’s Land to ensure Arctic representation. (The national Indigenous archbishop can appoint three additional members to ACIP: a youth delegate, a member-at-large and an elder.)

Still and Tailfeathers were subsequently elected as co-chairs of the new ACIP. Still said its first formal in-person meeting would likely take place in the fall. He confirmed a major item of discussion would be the issue of representation.

“The province of Rupert’s Land has a lot of the population, so the ability to get proper representation is important for us,” Still said.

Addressing the crises in Indigenous communities

The meeting also included sessions on addressing the crises in Indigenous communities that face high rates of poverty, food insecurity, homelessness and suicide. Speakers often linked these issues to intergenerational trauma from the effects of colonialism, institutional racism and the residential school system.

On May 29, Sacred Circle heard a presentation on Pitching Our Tent, an appeal to support the Northern Manitoba Area Mission in the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh. The appeal includes partnering with organizations such as the Great Sky Sovereign Trust, a company which describes itself as promoting economic self-determination in Indigenous communities.

A May 31 session detailed some of the suicide prevention work of Indigenous Ministries. Yolanda Bird, a suicide prevention worker for the Anglican Church of Canada in Alberta and Saskatchewan, spoke of the loss that suicide causes to both families and communities. A 2019 Statistics Canada report found that First Nations people in Canada die by suicide at three times the rate of non-Indigenous Canadians. Meanwhile, suicide rates are twice as high among Métis and nine times as high among Inuit as for non-Indigenous Canadians.

Suicide prevention ministry has included participation in the pilot project “From Trauma to New Life,” which involves teaching suicide intervention skills for Northern communities in partnership with the Crisis and Trauma Response Institute; organizing a language and culture camp for families at Six Nations of the Grand River, Canada’s largest First Nations reserve; and offering Indigenous language classes for adults.

Also on May 31, Anglican Church of Canada reconciliation animator Dawn Maracle provided an update on the Covenant of Reconciliation—a response to Call to Action 46 from the Truth and Reconciliation of Canada, which called for parties to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement to develop a covenant “to identify principles for working collaboratively to advance reconciliation in Canadian society.” These parties, including the Anglican Church of Canada, had each prepared respective drafts of the Covenant of Reconciliation and were set to combine them into a “master draft,” Maracle said.

Sacred Circle hears letter from former national Indigenous archbishop

A letter written by former national Indigenous archbishop Mark MacDonald, who resigned in April 2021 following what Nicholls in a pastoral letter referred to as “acknowledged sexual misconduct,” was read out June 1. In his letter, MacDonald said he had been invited to attend Sacred Circle but chose not to.

“Experience shows that I should not be welcomed by any group without some protest,” MacDonald wrote. “May there not be any more pain than has already come through me.”

In an open letter this March, a person claiming to be the complainant said they had suffered greatly, not just from MacDonald’s actions but from the church’s handling of their complaint. Nicholls said the church would take their comments and concerns into account as it reviews its sexual misconduct policy.

Still told the Anglican Journal that inviting MacDonald to Sacred Circle was an ACIP decision. Harper said the letter represented MacDonald’s “goodbye to Sacred Circle” and that it was a subject of great debate among ACIP, which had received MacDonald’s letter shortly beforehand.


  • Matthew Puddister

    Matthew Puddister is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He also supports General Synod's corporate communications.

    [email protected]

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