Time to face facts

Published June 1, 2000

IT’S NOW ABSOLUTELY CLEAR that the church’s national corporate structure, the General Synod, is going to radically change over the next year or two. The general secretary and the treasurer have shown the church’s books to Ottawa in the hope that politicians will be persuaded to come up with a solution, such as capping the church’s liability, by summer or early fall. Failing that, the most likely scenario it seems is that the church will seek protection in the courts from creditors. Far from shunning its responsibility, such a move by the church would (at least theoretically) let it continue fulfilling its mission at the national level, while also trying to settle suits with plaintiffs.

And there’s the rub. The church sees its primary mission as “healing and reconciliation.” But if it appears that those abstract concepts are just a way to avoid the concrete reality of bankruptcy, it won’t fly with the public or government.

As much as anything, the church faces an immense public relations campaign, both outside and inside the church.

Along with the Roman Catholics and Presbyterians, the church commissioned the Angus Reid group to poll Canadians on the residential schools issue. The results indicate people expect the church to shoulder the burden of paying victims but don’t necessarily want to see the churches go bankrupt.

Callers to a Toronto radio talk-show were even clearer. They vented their spleen at the suggestion the federal government “bail out” the churches. If church workers committed abuse, the church should pay, is how they saw it.

Outside the church then, the problem is twofold. First, the church wants to emphasize the work it has done and is continuing to do on healing and reconciliation. But what exactly does healing and reconciliation mean and why does it appear to be a concern only recently? It wasn’t even clear to Natives attending the Council of General Synod, what that really means.

In part, the church points to the work done through its healing fund. The fund supports projects chosen by native communities that they have identified as helpful to healing. The work is excellent, but what about the wider goal of eliminating racism and building understanding between Native and non-Native culture? How is that to be accomplished?

Secondly, church leaders have been complaining publicly and privately that the media are focusing on bankruptcy, rather than healing and reconciliation. That is partly true but also understandable.

Journalists, like everyone else, understand that a bankrupt church can’t do good works. What most people don’t understand is why an institution that appears to be rich needs extra help all of sudden from taxpayers. Admittedly, it’s an oversimplification, but they point to the vast property owned or controlled by the church and they note that the church enjoys a tax-free status in society and that most clergy get a special income tax housing deduction. They don’t understand the corporate legal distinctions between the General Synod and a diocese or even a parish, nor do they care. The Anglican Church is the Anglican Church. And people want to see the church pay ’til it hurts.

Internally, the church also faces major educational public relations challenges. Too many Anglicans seem not to have come to grips with the systemic abuse non-Native society perpetrated on Natives over the centuries. More worrisome is whether the prejudice behind those abuses has been sufficiently challenged and eliminated.

Canadian society is becoming more ethnically diverse, but is that reflected in church leadership? We have four aboriginal bishops in Canada yet none serves in a major city where many aboriginal people live. And what percentage of the more than $200 million Anglicans give each year goes to helping the least in society and how much to maintaining buildings?

Most non-Native Anglicans live quite comfortably. Most Native people do not.

Most non-Native Anglicans have never abused a Native person, but we are connected somehow to those who did abuse and, as Canadians, we are (recent immigrants excepted) connected to a society that was unhelpful at best and abusive and lying at worst.

It is true, as Doug Cuthand says in a piece on the facing page, that money is not the solution to society’s ills, including aboriginal society. He can say that because he is aboriginal. But, paradoxically, non-aboriginals are curiously able to avoid facing wrong until it costs them money.

What does the future hold? Whether the General Synod survives intact or changed or disappears is not ultimately the issue. What is primarily important is that Anglicans in every part of the country, irrespective of whether their diocese had a residential school, begin to wrestle with the substantive issue of how we as a church and as Canadians are going to deal with this legacy. We study the past so we can avoid repeating mistakes as we move forward in justice.

The Primate has apologized for the church’s involvement in specific and systemic wrongs. But that was just the beginning of a renewed relationship. We need to talk to our Native brothers and sisters, we need to talk to each other, we need to pray.


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