Aboriginal Anglican clergy want the house of bishops to discuss why about 90 per cent of them are unpaid, compared to about 13 per cent of all active clergy.
“I’m proposing it to them. We need to have an honest discussion about how ministry is supported in the dioceses,” said Donna Bomberry, indigenous ministries coordinator with the church’s national office in Toronto.
The issue isn’t new, she said in an interview. “It’s been on our plate for a while. It was first raised at the first sacred circle (national meeting of native Anglicans) in 1988. Over 90 percent of our ordained women and men are not paid by the church as other ordained people are,” she said.
The bishops will meet in Mississauga, Ont., in April .
National church statistics for the year 1999, the most recent year available, list 273 clergy as non-stipendiary (unpaid), or 13 per cent, out of 2,097 active (non-retired) clergy. About 130 active clergy are aboriginal.
It was the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples’ idea to try to put the issue on the bishops’ agenda, said Ms. Bomberry. “We’re talking about a new agape (relationship between native and non-native people) and the work of healing ? We need to talk and learn what’s possible,” she said.
In some dioceses, such as Keewatin, she said, some clergy agree to work unpaid. “Many communities have more than one ordained person and they work as a team,” she said.
Bishop Caleb Lawrence, of the diocese of Moosonee in northern Ontario and Quebec, said he is uncomfortable with the idea of unpaid aboriginal clergy. “I have a lot of sympathy with people who offer their ministry and refuse to accept a stipend. I have a problem with the church demanding it,” he said in an interview.
In his diocese, he said, there are no unpaid indigenous clergy. “That’s our policy – we don’t differentiate between first nations and non-first nations clergy.”
However, financial realities in some dioceses make paying all clergy difficult, he noted. “Some dioceses with large first nations population in small communities are unable to staff with stipendiary clergy. So the system evolved to give training to ‘locally-raised’ people who would be ordained and serve in their own communities. If you’re ordained, you should be on the pension plan, for instance, but some dioceses can’t pay the pension portion,” he said.
Bishop John Clarke, of Athabasca in northern Alberta, cites another issue. “We have not done very well on the stewardship problem. Some of the parishes have to dig deeper. I go to one native parish in Athabasca and I drive a Buick Park Avenue. It’s not the most expensive vehicle in the parking lot. There is an image that the church will always provide. I see it also in rural white parishes. The reality hasn’t sunk in,” he said.
Native Anglican clergy enjoy a long, proud tradition, he said, and he is “very cautious” about making distinctions between native and non-native clergy.
Although education levels vary, there are no classes of ordination, in other words, one ordination is as good as another, and native people see the paid and unpaid issue as a question of justice, Bishop Lawrence noted.
There are some non-stipendiary priests who receive welfare, he said.
The issue has been raised at the Council of the North, a group of northern dioceses that receive financial grants from the national church, but no solutions have been proposed. “We didn’t really get a very open discussion,” said Bishop Lawrence.
One of the problems is that the national church’s grants to Council of the North dioceses have been cut due to the financial difficulties stemming from the residential schools crisis.
The issue is a serious one, Bishop Lawrence said. “It has to do with value. It’s not just an amount written on a cheque. (It means) is my ministry acknowledged in a significant way? If not, do I value it? Am I a servant of the church or am I something else?”