National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald receives a blessing from Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.
Anglican Journal staff writer Marites N. Sison talked to the National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald about the 6th Indigenous Sacred Circle held Aug. 9 to 15 in Port Elgin, Ont. The event brought together more than 200 First Nations, Metis and Inuit Anglicans as well as the primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, and eight bishops from Council of the North dioceses. Here’s what Bishop MacDonald had to say about the Sacred Circle’s significance in the life of indigenous Anglicans and in the Anglican Church of Canada.
Q: What were the major themes at the Sacred Circle?
A: We took a major step both as indigenous churches within the Anglican Church of Canada but also [within] the Anglican Church of Canada. We really took a major step towards owning the indigenous ministries. There was excitement that we can really make a positive contribution to the church and to our various indigenous communities. It was the moment when people recognized that, ‘We have begun to be what we hoped to be.’ We’re on a trajectory towards becoming a vital, vibrant set of churches and ministries.
Q: How would you describe the mood of this gathering compared to previous ones?
A: Before, we dipped our feet in the water; this time we jumped in. Everybody was completely immersed. The sense was that we really have become an indigenous family of churches within the Anglican Church of Canada. We’re not just preparing to do it, we’re not just thinking about doing it, we’re not just planning to do it, we have become it. There was a lot of hope and expectation. At the same time, there was tremendous joy recognizing what the elders predicted long ago: that as indigenous churches self-differentiate and move forward, we’ll be closer to the Anglican Church of Canada not farther away. There was a sense of finally being able to walk together.
Q: What’s your reaction to the invitation made by Council of the North bishops for bishops who may be elected in new indigenous area ministries or dioceses to join their grouping?
A: I think it’s very significant, although it didn’t surprise me. I think that it is an extension of what has begun to build between Council of the North and ACIP (Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples). I think that what they’re saying is, first off, the Council of the North has not always been supportive of self-determination. I think they were not against the Covenant but hesitated about it, [were] unsure of what it meant, and as shepherds of the flock, rightly so. I think they have a better feel now for what’s coming and they want to demonstrate that they, too, are walking together with the rest of the churches, with the Sacred Circle and with ACIP. I think that they wanted to signal their support and that’s very, very critical.
They also recognize that these things call for change in their own dioceses and in their own ministries, and they are ready to be supportive as that change comes. I think that’s really significant. You might even call it a matter of courage. They don’t know exactly what the future will bring, no one does. But, they’re ready to embrace it. That’s going to be very important because we’re talking about sweeping changes in the Anglican Church and we’re also talking about indigenous churches really mapping their own way ahead.
Q: The issue of non-stipendiary (unpaid) priests stood out and statements were made by the primate and the Council of the North bishops. Do they amount to a change in the way this long-standing issue has been regarded?
A: Yes. From my point of view, the non-stipendiary issue has been the ultimate hot potato in the Anglican Church of Canada. And it is a difficult situation and really at a stalemate because it was considered the responsibility of two groups primarily – ACIP and Council of the North. Those two groups are huge stakeholders. But they’re not the only stakeholders. What I think happened at this meeting is people were able to say, ‘Yes, this is one of our most important issues, not just in Council of the North dioceses but for the whole Anglican Church of Canada.’ The primate said that clearly, the Council of the North said that clearly, ACIP said that clearly, the Sacred Circle said that clearly. In recognizing the whole church has a stake in this, I think we’ve made a very important leap that will help us come to practical solutions. If we’re going to solve the non-stipendiary issue, it’s going to involve faith, imagination, planning, innovation and a whole lot of things. And it’s going to bring us to answers that will help us develop ministries in marginal areas all over the church, including in urban and suburban areas, with people we have been under-serving for a long time. To me it’s offensive that the Gospel of Jesus Christ should only work among people who aren’t poor, that the full witness and ministries of the church are only available to those who can afford it. That just seems wrong. What we’re talking about really is not just a solution for First Nations communities although I think that’s the most urgent. What we’re talking about is how the church serves people who are on the margins. The answers will be very important because right now the finances are kind of bottlenecked [and] we can only deliver ministry to certain people. This Sacred Circle, I think, will be [remembered as] one of those key moments when the church recognized, ‘We have a problem and it’s a problem for the whole church, and everybody has a role to play as a small part of the answer.’ Until this time it’s always been, ‘Who’s going to fall on the sword?’
Q: What is your sense of how the Sacred Circle received the Governance Working Group report?
A: I felt the report was very positively received and people saw the vision behind it. What’s most important is the elders unanimously said, ‘We understand the report and we don’t have any questions.’ This is my interpretation; we’ll have to see how it plays out over time.
Everyone seems to be calling for a translation of these ideas and concepts into a language of the peoples. The Governance Working Group was a great Western expression of ideas but how do we translate this into our context, our values, our ideals, our ways of doing things? It’s an idea people support and want to see fleshed out more in their terms than in terms of the political and legislative process of the Anglican church. That in itself is very important, very significant. People are saying the most critical thing is to nurture, support and extend this spiritual movement that allows us to see God working in our midst. It’s as if they’re saying, we don’t want the spiritual movement to be overcome by legislative things and we don’t want the spiritual movement to lose any of its force by becoming institutionalized.
Q: What are the next steps?
A: First and foremost to build on the many advances of this gathering and some of them are new. We’re waking up in a world that’s quite different from the one we woke up in a week ago. So [we will be] extending those things, understanding them, thinking about them, praying about them. One of the things that we learned is that dwelling on the Gospel is an important part of our future. Becoming a community of spiritual and moral discernment is very important to us and [we want to] make sure that all the meetings that we have, all the things that we do carry that heart of the Gospel. Translating these things into the language, values and personality of the indigenous peoples is now vital. I think that the people are saying to ACIP and to any other group that wants to be a part of this journey that, ‘Now we want to see this in our language and our thought process,’ and that’s something that we’ll certainly carry forward.
There are a lot of things that are going happen, things that are not necessarily directly related to Sacred Circle. These include development in northern Ontario and northern Manitoba of area missions, one of them heading towards becoming a diocese, the other remaining a part of these two constituent dioceses. There are going to be a lot of people looking at those models and wondering what to do. We’ll be responding to them. Indigenous churches will become a community of spiritual discernment: ‘What is God saying to us? How do we move forward with integrity and faithfulness to the Gospel? How do we better serve our communities? How do we reach our young people with a message of hope and meaning?’ These are the kinds of questions we’re asking. These are the things that really matter and these are the things that are hopeful to us at this point.
I think Sacred Circle calls us to focus on the matters of the heart, the essential matters, and not to lose sight of those as we move forward on other aspects of the work.
Q: The youth delegates came out strongly in the gathering. Can you share some thoughts about the meeting you had with them.
A: The youth presence was very encouraging, very exciting. We have some really amazing young people – vibrant, vital, intelligent and deeply Christian. There have been a number of us who’ve been saying the youth aren’t our problem, they’re our solution. Indigenous youth are often described in such grim terms in the media and not just in the media. When you listen to the elders speak, they’re described with such pain, seeing the kind of confusion that so many youth have. What we saw here is another aspect of the way in which there’s no spiritual renewal without youth. We saw our youth not only rise to the challenge of being a full part of Sacred Circle but to rise to the challenge that we have – being faithful to the Gospel, being faithful to Christ, being faithful to our traditions, being faithful to our communities and doing it in a way that helps. The young people are clearly demonstrating their ideas and commitment towards continuing this work in the future. They’re talking about youth rallies in the north, planning a Facebook and e-mail group and I plan to fully participate in that. They are a community and they intend to support each other as a community and to make a difference. I think they’re committed, excited, challenged and ready to challenge others.