Canadian Indigenous Church Charts Its Own Path

By Mark Michael

Continuing a decades-long movement toward greater self-determination, Indigenous leaders have introduced a set of foundational texts for Canada’s Indigenous Anglican Church. The texts, which have been compared to constitutions and canons, describe the Indigenous church as “a full, equal but separate, self-governing partner” of the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC).

The Sacred Circle: The Covenant and Our Way of Life reflects an Indigenous understanding of law, governance, and community life. Canada’s Indigenous Archbishop, the Most Rev. Mark McDonald, told The Anglican Journal: “Certainly it’s an oversimplification, but much of the Western way of doing things is ‘organization precedes relationship.’ What we’re aiming at here is a way of being Indigenous, of being self-determining, of acting in an Indigenous way that will allow us to remain active and vital parts of the rest of the Anglican Church.”

Archbishop Mark McDonald, right, with members of a previous Sacred Circle | Photo: Anglican Journal

The Covenant, a shorter constitutional document, incorporates a text adopted by a 1994 churchwide Indigenous convocation that specifies ongoing challenges faced by Indigenous communities and commits to “call our people into unity in a new, self-determining community within The Anglican Church of Canada.” Our Way of Life sets out norms and practices for churchwide gatherings and leaders.

The texts were issued February 27, Transfiguration Sunday, by the church’s Council of Indigenous Ministries. They are to be presented for approval at the next in-person Sacred Circle gathering, which had been scheduled for May 2022, although the timing is uncertain because of the pandemic. In February, the church’s triennial General Synod was postponed from July until at least 2023.

The documents describe the Indigenous church as “a Sacred Circle with the Gospel and Baptismal Covenant in the Center.” The term “Sacred Circle” has been used for the churchwide gatherings of Indigenous Anglicans held about every three years since 2002. It denotes the practical form of the gatherings, which have usually been held outside around a campfire, but also gestures at the aim of a common life “focused on justice, fairness and equality” that stands in contrast to colonial models.

“In the past, we were told that spiritual authority came from somewhere else, from across the waters. We were told that we must become like someone else to have that authority,” says The Covenant. “Today, we know that authority comes from the presence of the Risen Christ (Matthew 18:20), wherever two or three are gathered in his Name. Upon this power and authority, the Sacred Circle is founded.”

Gospel Based Discipleship, an applied form of the monastic tradition lectio divina, or “divine reading,” is repeatedly described as a core practice, “a constantly renewed, locally rediscovered, and sacred revealing practice of those who follow the good walk.” Gospel Based Discipleship begins all common councils, is used to facilitate reconciliation between individuals or groups who are at variance, and plays a primary role in discerning calls to ordained ministry.

The texts also frequently emphasize that all Christians are “relatives,” bound to one another and to Christ in baptism, and called to a life of reconciliation and mutual respect. “All members of Sacred Circle are one in Christ and are equal members without hierarchy,” says Our Way of Life. The Sacred Circle “uses a consensus model of unanimous decision-making derived from our experience through story, requiring great patience and respect.”

The documents also reflect Indigenous Anglicans’ “journey to decolonize euro-centric Anglicanism.” It lifts up the spiritual wisdom of pre-Christian native traditions, noting in the Way of Life that “We all agree that, by and large, there is a strong correspondence between our traditional spiritualities and biblical theology, with our Creator being the God and Living Christ of the Bible.”

Our Way of Life points out that the Anglican offices of Morning and Evening Prayer correspond to earlier Indigenous practices, and affirms the valued place of community elders in decision making. They “are respected and trusted as wisdom keepers, language and tradition keepers, cultural guides, knowledge carriers, teachers, advisors and spiritual leaders in our communities.”

Elders are to be consulted in matters of common deliberation and discernment for ordained ministry, and are called to intervene when reconciliation is needed. Notably, in Our Way of Life, the role of elders is outlined before bishops, and the Indigenous archbishop is described in the texts only as “the presiding elder.”

The texts acknowledge “our historical trauma that stems from Canadian colonization and oppression,” and the complicity of the Anglican Church in this, especially in the painful legacy of the residential school system, which was marked by widespread abuse and sought to stamp out Indigenous traditions.

However, they also distinguish authentic Christianity from forms associated with oppression, and look back with awe to their ancestors’ initial encounter with the Gospel in the eighteenth century, at a time when colonial authorities exercised relatively little social control over Canada’s widely dispersed Indigenous population. Anglican mission work among Indigenous people began with the ministry of the Rev. Thomas Wood in 1753, among the Mi’kmaq people of the Maritime Provinces north and east of Maine.

The practices of gathering and faith sharing in Our Way of Life, they say, “summarizes our holy journey to re-experience Christ as our ancestors did in the early days of Christianity in North America when our traditional beliefs, culture, and spirituality and economic systems were strong and many of our ancestors initially welcomed Christ into their lives in that context.”

Our Way of Life also charts the relationship between the Indigenous church and the wider Anglican Church of Canada. “In walking alongside the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC), the Indigenous church is a full, equal but separate, self-governing partner,” it states. Indigenous Anglicans commit to sharing their gifts and experiences, and to working for the unity.

At the same time, the Indigenous church’s ministry “transcends the boundaries designated by the church within its institutional structures and practices,” an assertion of the freedom of Indigenous bishops to minister across diocesan lines, which often do not correspond to tribal territories. One Indigenous bishop, the Rt. Rev. Larry Beardy, is officially a suffragan of three dioceses, Brandon, Mishamikoweesh, and Saskatchewan.

The Sacred Circle also claims a degree of autonomy in matters of faith and practice, noting that “our work “will respect Indigenous traditional teaching, traditional ways and cultures, and law, traditional territories and treaties, and places where Indigenous people gather; it will also accord with Scripture and the traditions and pre-colonial teachings of the Early Church.” Indigenous Anglicans have been among the most vocal defenders of traditional marriage in the Canadian church, and the provision would preserve space to maintain this should the churchwide teaching change at a future General Synod.

Our Way of Life specifies that “every Indigenous church, congregation, fellowship, ministry, and person in the Anglican Church of Canada is a part of the Sacred Circle,” and provides guidelines for recognizing members and determining representation to churchwide gatherings. Non-Indigenous churches and ministries, it notes, may request to be received as “partners, allies, companions, or guests of the Indigenous Sacred Circle,” but a process for this has not yet been developed, “recognizing the need for Indigenous People to self-govern and to firstly recover from centuries of colonial domination.”

The Covenant and Our Way of Life have emerged from decades of struggle for self-determination for Indigenous Anglicans, who make up about 4 percent of Canadian Anglicans, according to a 2017 Canadian Broadcasting Company report. The report estimated that about 225 of the church’s 2,500 congregations have all or nearly all Indigenous membership.

They are served by about 130 Indigenous clergy, who belong to one of Canada’s three Indigenous groups: First Nations, Inuk, or Metis. While most of Canada’s Indigenous people live in the rural North, there are also significant numbers in urban centers across the country.

In 1969, the Anglican Church in Canada ended a century of operating residential schools, and formally committed to a new relationship with Indigenous people based on “solidarity, equality, and mutual respect.”  The first churchwide gathering of Indigenous Anglicans was held in 1988, and one year later, church elected its first Indigenous bishop, Charles Arthurson.

Archbishop McDonald began his ministry as the church’s first national Indigenous bishop in 2007, following ten years of ministry as the VII Bishop of Alaska. He became one of the Anglican Church of Canada’s five archbishops in 2019.  The indigenous community has strong representation in the senior leadership of the Anglican Church of Canada, as 11 of the 39 bishops in active ministry are Indigenous.

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