Waiting for the spirit to speak in Diocese of Keewatin

Published December 1, 1999

IN NORTHERN Ontario, where logging, mining and tourism are the key industries, and there are several linguistic and cultural groups, the Diocese of Keewatin has carved an administrative model unique to most dioceses in the Anglican Church of Canada. The diocese is vast, straddling two civil provinces, Ontario and Manitoba. It is sub-divided into three regions, each with its own archdeacon. In addition, not all clergy are members of synod. Each region holds regional conferences, where 12 priests and 12 laity are elected to represent their region at the diocesan synod. There are more than 100 clergy in Keewatin, but no more than 10 of them are stipendiary ministers. Most lead their parishes on an entirely volunteer basis, said Rev. David Ashdown, executive archdeacon of the diocese. “Our clergy take a variety of forms ? there is a level of creativity to it and we celebrate that. We look at it this way: God created many kinds of birds, with many different colors and many different songs ? the world would be very dull if there was only one kind of bird. “Most northern parishes don’t even make a distinction between the secular and the spiritual. The ministers are considered part of the community, which is very different from most urban parish settings. Here, ministers play a role in the community, in the same way as the chief and the band council.” The diocese’s clerics have the chance to receive additional support and ongoing training at the Big Beaver Biblical Camp, near Kingfisher, Ont. Here, for two weeks in summer and one in winter, people from across the diocese can study the Bible, learn and discuss liturgy, and participate in music programs. Bishop Gordon Beardy of Keewatin is a deeply spiritual man, Mr. Ashdown said. His deep faith and desire to “wait until the spirit speaks” often drives those who are task-oriented to distraction. But, said Mr. Ashdown, having that kind of leadership makes the diocese energetic and open to many possibilities and opportunities. “We are very fortunate to have him,” added Mr. Ashdown. “He is always prepared to hear people’s stories. He will delegate administrative details in order to be able to sit down and talk with people and hear them.” Bishop Beardy made national headlines when he launched a Sacred Walk for Healing in March 1997. The 1997 leg, to a remote Manitoba community, was more than 3,000 kilometres long. The second leg began in August 1998 and ended in Ottawa in early October. Along the way, he heard the stories of hundreds who had suffered abuse of many kinds, both in and out of institutions. He asked for understanding and forgiveness between people, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal. “The point of his sacred walk was to say, ‘Let’s walk together and talk together to bring about healing and reconciliation’. It was very much an Emmaus story, I think. It was such a commonplace thing to do, but very significant in the way it began the work toward healing that continues today,” Mr. Ashdown said. “We must try to reach out to the victims of abuse and show them God’s healing love. This is how we will break the cycles of abuse, by not allowing the past to control us. That is why the bishop is so deeply committed to hearing people’s stories and being able to tell them there is healing for everyone ? both the abused and the abusers. Breaking that cycle is the central part of our ministry here ? it is reconciling all things in our ministry with Christ.” While the diocese is unique in many ways, it shares the concerns of its counterparts throughout the church, Mr. Ashdown said, including how to make resources stretch and work in the most effective ways possible. “Like everyone everywhere, we are searching for ways to make the Gospel message relevant in today’s world, especially for our young people,” he said. “We have had a number of suicides and these can shatter a community. We need to help young people grasp the Gospel more fully for themselves so that they have vision of the future. Among the most pressing need the diocese faces, said Mr. Ashdown, is having resource materials available in the language of the people, especially Oji-Cree. “It is expensive to have resources translated, but, as it stands right now, a number of Oji-Cree can’t read the resource material, so that presents some challenges. There is a lot of energy in the diocese of Keewatin and we are continually being awakened to the potential all around us ? to be open to where the spirit is calling us.” There have been ongoing discussions of creating an aboriginal diocese by shifting the boundaries of Brandon, Rupert’s Land and Keewatin and bringing aboriginal parishes under Bishop Beardy’s leadership. “We’ve been talking about adjusting the boundaries, and there has been an endorsement of the creation of an aboriginal diocese, but the bishop feels the spirit has yet to speak on the issue,” Mr. Ashdown said. “He feels the spirit has not yet indicated to us that we are being called to reorganize the boundaries. There is no need to push the panic button.” In the day-to-day life of the diocese, people are challenged to keep the communication going, Mr. Ashdown said. That isn’t always easy, given its geography and its cultural diversity, but there is a willingness not to allow administrative details to get in the way of ministry ? and having fun. “We focus on keeping the operation moving smoothly, without getting bogged down ? and have fun doing it, too ? and I think we do have fun.” Nancy Devine is a freelance writer and editor living in Aurora, Ont.


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