Traditional seminary training has often left Indigenous theology students in a state of “befuddlement”-but a new program at the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College may help break that pattern, the Anglican church’s national Indigenous bishop says.
Nearly two dozen Indigenous spiritual leaders from across Canada gathered at Wycliffe College this fall for a special one-week training session-the first of what organizers hope will be an annual event. From August 31 to September 4, 22 people-18 as official students and four as observers-took part in Wycliffe’s new Indigenous Leadership Development Program, a pilot project aimed at giving Indigenous spiritual leaders a taste of seminary life, while using what organizers say is an Indigenous approach to teaching.
National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, who helped teach the program, says he hopes it will help those who took part to better appreciate their own spiritual gifts.
“My hope, above all, is that they will have a sense of confidence in their own learning and ministry,” he says. “That hasn’t always been the case. Many of our clergy who have gone to seminary come away with a kind of befuddlement, in the sense that what they learn is oftentimes so focused on what might be called a suburban or urban approach that it’s completely irrelevant to where they live and operate.”
The cultural differences are “very, very broad and deep,” he says. “A typical Indigenous priest will go through more in a year than the average Anglican clergy person would go through in decades…in terms of the tragedies that they encounter, dealing with people in bone-crushing poverty and often in great, I guess what you’d call, societal despair.” Indigenous clergy also “have to deal with death on a level that is really quite astonishing,” he says. (Aboriginal youth commit suicide five to six times more often than non-Aboriginal youth, according to Health Canada. Forty per cent of status First Nations children live in poverty, according to a 2013 study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Save the Children Canada.)
A different learning style
As well, MacDonald says, the traditional teaching style in seminaries has also been a poor match for the way Indigenous people are used to learning.
“Seminaries tend to be Western-style places of learning-with a vengeance, really,” he says. “I think our folks, particularly in what you might call a sacred context, learn in a very different way and view things from a very different cosmology…what we’re trying to do is merge the two together.”
In the Indigenous learning style, he says, “there’s a sense in which everyone has this knowledge planted at birth, really, and that it’s more a matter of drawing it out rather than putting information in.”
Indigenous leaders, MacDonald says, while perhaps less familiar with some of the more speculative theories they encounter at seminaries, often have an above-average knowledge of spiritual matters in other respects. This often includes a strong knowledge of Scripture, he says, plus “a fairly sophisticated spiritual knowledge and approach to the dynamics of how prayer works, of how God interacts with our lives, of how the spirit moves in various ways.”
One goal of the program is to make the leaders better aware of these strengths, so that “they begin to see…that they’re involved in vital ministry, that they have vital experience and that that really matters.” Another goal, he says, is to help them recognize gaps in their knowledge.
The program stems from Wycliffe’s experience sending teachers to and designing courses for Indigenous people in various northern reserves, says the Rev. Julie Golding Page, program director.
“Basically, it came out of a conversation between some of our Indigenous bishops and Wycliffe folks and faculty,” Golding Page says. “It was decided that Wycliffe was in a good position to actually offer something to folks across Canada-not just to go to reserves, but to give folks on reserve a chance to come here and have a little bit of a seminary experience that wouldn’t normally be possible year-round.”
The project, which had been in discussion for some years, was given a serious financial boost last summer when a pair of donors, Mr. & Mrs. Jim and Edna Claydon of Toronto, came forward with an offer to fund it as a pilot project for three years.
“They were willing to put forward the money for everyone’s travel, accommodations, food, course fees, field trips-everything basically,” Golding Page says-a sum that will total about $100,000 for this year’s session alone. This meant that the course was free for participants; to partner in the program and cover additional costs, their diocese or in some cases, parish, provided $500.
‘We were all teachers together’
A key goal was to give participants a chance to learn from Wycliffe faculty and Indigenous teachers including MacDonald (a Wycliffe alumnus); organizers also hoped, however, that it would provide a valuable learning experience for the teachers as well, and that the students would learn much from each other. In the end, Golding Page says, this hope was realized.
“In reality, all 22 and the rest of us…we were all students together and we were all teachers together,” she says.
The theme of this fall’s session was baptism-“how it affects our everyday life, what difference does it make to us if we’re baptized and really what does that do on our spiritual journey, how can we own that more and live it out?” Golding Page says.
The program attracted a diverse group of people, from the Arctic to Newfoundland to British Columbia: ordained deacons and priests, ordinands and lay people taking leadership roles in their congregations or preparing to do so, Golding Page says. It included both First Nations and Inuit people, young and old.
“We had one fellow who had just graduated from high school, and we had a few people who were grandmothers and great-grandmothers in their 70s,” she says. “The range of cultures that was represented was huge, and yet there was such a sense of unity in the group.”
One of the students, the Rev. Aigah Attagutsiak, an Inuit woman, was a deacon during the course but became an ordained priest shortly after, on Sept. 21. A highlight of the course, Attagutsiak says, was being able to speak her native language again. Originally from Arctic Bay, Nunavut, on the northern coast of Baffin Island, Attagutsiak has lived in Ottawa for the last 17 years.
“There were a few Inuit people there that I could talk to in my own language,” she says. “In the evening, we’d usually sit down and just talk about things at the end, which was really good.”
Attagutsiak says she felt very shy growing up, but that courses like this one have helped her overcome her shyness-and other people have noticed it, too.
“One of the persons from the congregation told me that I seemed to be more confident after coming back from that course, which was really good,” she says. “When she told me that, I was really surprised.”
Attagutsiak says she came away from the course with lots to think about.
“We’d pray a lot in the mornings…and that really helped, and discussed the Bible reading after that,” she says. “I learned a lot…about baptism.”
Wycliffe foresees the pilot project extending into the next two years, and is already starting to organize for next year’s session, Golding Page says.
This story has been updated since it first appeared.