Sacred Circle examines key documents for emerging Indigenous church while remembering the lost
The 10th Indigenous Anglican Sacred Circle began with acknowledgement of pain and loss.
At the lighting of the Sacred Fire—livestreamed from Six Nations of the Grand River, Ont., as Sacred Circle was held online for the first time—National Indigenous Archbishop Mark MacDonald drew attention to the destruction of Lytton, B.C. by wildfires. He noted recent revelations about unmarked graves at residential school sites. He highlighted the ongoing struggle of many communities with COVID-19 and an epidemic of suicide, particularly among young people.
In the midst of such catastrophe, the archbishop said, God appears as a reassuring presence. He pointed out that this Sacred Circle began on the feast day of the Algonquin-Mohawk saint Kateri Tekakwitha.
“We have a great task before us, and we have a lot of difficulties in front of us,” MacDonald said. “But today, we can say we have a strong and wonderful and gracious God with us.”
“We live in an extraordinary time,” he added. “A lot of powerful things are happening. The children have spoken from the grave calling this land to justice, calling this land to truth, and it is a very painful time. But it is a time of truth and a time when we are being called back to be what God has meant us to be.”
The Covenant and Our Way of Life
The aim of Indigenous Anglicans to shape their own church within the Anglican Church of Canada took concrete form at the July Sacred Circle, which was based around the theme “Returning Home: Remembering the Lost.”
From July 14 to 17, approximately 80 Indigenous delegates discussed two key documents that will determine what the emerging self-determining Indigenous church looks like. These are the Covenant and Our Way of Life—similar to a constitution and set of canons, respectively.
Each day, delegates began with gospel-based discipleship, studying the day’s gospel passage to help guide their discussion. Breakout sessions followed in which they studied sections of the Covenant or Our Way of Life.
Delegates offered detailed reflections on wording of the documents—some approving, others critical. Overall impressions were positive. One delegate said of the Covenant: “I was amazed at the insight, the wisdom, the knowledge, the careful thought that was put into this document.… It made me feel proud to be an Indigenous woman within the Indigenous Anglican church.”
While this gathering marked the first time Sacred Circle has looked at the Covenant and Our Way of Life, it will not be the last. MacDonald encouraged delegates to bring the documents back to their home communities for reflection before Sacred Circle meets again in the fall.
In his closing message, MacDonald announced he would appoint the Rev. Ray Aldred to a new position—known for now as faith carrier—in the office of the national Indigenous archbishop. Another new position, fire keeper, will involve oversight and development of Indigenous ministry. The archbishop also reiterated calls for the Anglican Church of Canada to share its wealth with Indigenous peoples, by continuing the work of the Jubilee Commission and developing systems of oversight designed by Indigenous people.
Lost but not forgotten
Loss was a frequent theme throughout Sacred Circle: both that of Indigenous children whose unmarked graves continue to be discovered at residential school sites, and of Indigenous Anglicans who had recently died.
Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, in her opening message acknowledged that revelations about unmarked burial sites would not come as a surprise to delegates or anyone who had read the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“The lack of dignity and respect for the lives of children at the schools, and leaving their burial sites unmarked, unrecorded and forgotten, is a stain on the history of Canada and of the churches that must be addressed,” Nicholls said.
Anglican archivists at the national and diocesan levels are ready to assist in searching for any information that could help identify missing children, the primate said. National archivist Laurel Parson is currently working with a committee of Indigenous leaders to determine how best to approach that work.
The church also plans to join in pushing the government to provide sufficient funds and resources for ground searches, Nicholls added. She thanked Indigenous Anglicans for their witness to the gospel in light of so much suffering perpetrated by those who claimed to also be followers of Jesus.
“I know that your faithfulness is costly, as family and community members cannot understand such loyalty to the very institution that caused harm,” the primate said.
“I know that your loyalty, however, is not to the institution. It is to the love of the Creator expressed through Jesus Christ, and equally you challenge the institution to be faithful to its calling by showing the whole church where it has failed to live into the gospel.”
In a video message, Archbishop Don Tamihere, Tikanga Maori primate of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, expressed solidarity and shared grief with Indigenous Anglicans in Canada.
Tamihere described the complicity of the church in atrocities against Indigenous people as “Christianity corrupted; a church that was a tool in the hands of the empire and in the hands of the colonizer”.
“Now we believe more than ever, the Indigenous voice needs to be heard,” he added. Tamihere called on delegates to “become more Indigenous in your faith than you ever have before, to show your people and the world the beauty of the gospel message when it is in Indigenous hands, when it is spoken in Indigenous language and celebrated by Indigenous culture.”
Revelations about unmarked burial sites emerged around the same time as the unexpected death of the Rev. Canon Ginny Doctor, Indigenous Ministries coordinator, on May 26. Delegates and speakers throughout Sacred Circle repeatedly paid tribute to Doctor.
While reviewing the Covenant, one delegate called for a moment of silence “to honour Ginny Doctor, whose influence is all over this document” and to “give thanks for Ginny’s life, for her faith, for her dedication and for all that she has meant for us in this Sacred Circle as she has journeyed with us.”
Bishop Te Kitohi Pikaahu, chair of the Anglican Indigenous Network, praised Doctor for “her example of Christian service and discipleship” and “theological insight, precision and force.”
“In my mind, she is one of the giants that we remember in the Indigenous church around the globe,” Pikaahu said.
A video tribute produced by Anglican Video honoured Indigenous Anglicans who had died. These included Doctor, the Rev. Vivian Seegers, the Rev. Margaret Waterchief, the Rev. Lloyd Young, the Rev. Caroline Chartrand, Canon Angus Sewap, Canon Barry Bear and Archdeacon Eli Morris.
Strong sense of community
Despite challenges, the prevailing mood at Sacred Circle often seemed upbeat as delegates studied the gospel and discussed the Covenant and Our Way of Life. In concluding remarks, Nicholls praised the gathering’s “wonderful sense of community—the laughter, the greetings that are tossed across the screens back and forth, the teasing that happens at different points all the way through the meeting, and of course, the stopping to pray when someone mentions someone who’s ill or in need.”
Continuing a long tradition, Sacred Circle ended with the planting of a tree. MacDonald planted the tree in Six Nations and offered a prayer before extinguishing of the Sacred Fire.
The Sacred Circle had been a “very powerful gathering,” MacDonald said, adding, “God has spoken through the circle once again.”