By Jason G. Antonio
The Anglican Planet
Standing in a Prince Albert school gym filled with residential school survivors, the Archbishop of Canterbury apologized for the role the Anglican Church of Canada played in operating the institutions and for the harms they caused.
The Most Rev. Justin Welby, senior bishop in the Church of England and figurehead of the 80 million-strong Anglican Communion, visited the James Smith Cree Nation — 58 kilometers (36 miles) east of Prince Albert — on April 30 and spent several hours listening to survivors’ stories. He then commended the former students for their courage since they had “opened a window into hell.”
“And you’ve called us to look into hell, where you were. And all of us, from time to time, look into such places. But very few of us have to undergo living there,” Welby said, who said he was overwhelmed by what he had heard.
“I think that where John’s gospel says the light has come into the world and the darkness has not overcome, your testimony is of those who were the light. And you have shone the light on others who may have disappeared.”
While the Church built “that hell,” survivors have demonstrated “extraordinary grace” by saying it was not the Church that did that, but it was the people who permitted it, allowed it, and turned a blind eye to what took place — “and still does sometimes,” said Welby.
Welby characterized residential schools and putting Indigenous children in them as a terrible crime, sin and evil. Moreover, he couldn’t understand “the depth of darkness” that would compel certain people to enter the church and act how they did.
“I am more sorry than I could ever, ever begin to express,” he said. “That is both personally and in my role as the Archbishop of Canterbury….I am sorry. I am more sorry than I can say. I am ashamed. I am horrified.
“I ask myself, where does that come from, that evil? It has nothing — nothing — to do with Christ,” he continued. “It is the wickedest, most terrible thing to molest a child while you read them the Bible. How can a human being do that and look themselves in the mirror? I am so, so, so very sorry.”
When it comes to reparative action, Welby said he didn’t want to over-promise and under-deliver but wanted to under-promise and over-deliver. He pledged to speak with Primate Linda Nicholls — senior Anglican archbishop in Canada — and determine what the right action is so survivors feel the apology is valid. He also pledged to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery so it couldn’t be used again.
The crowd applauded this latter comment.
Welby also wanted to ensure that First Nations people around the world — some of whose stories he has also heard — never suffer again either. Furthermore, he wanted to find a way to ensure stories from residential school survivors were not forgotten so that such institutions could never arise again and harm others.
With the Lambeth Conference happening this summer in England — bringing together almost 1,000 Anglican bishops from around the world — Welby thought the event would allow small groups to learn from residential schools, understand the suffering people experienced and ensure such institutions are never formed again.
“… I want to say I will not forget (those stories). I will not put (them) away. I will remember for some reasons particularly,” he said.
Welby recalled growing up in an abusive, violent household where both his parents were alcoholics. While he went to boarding schools as a youth, he recalled the love of his grandmother and mother — the latter gave up alcohol, although his father died from the disease. While he couldn’t understand what residential school survivors went through and didn’t claim to, he understood what it meant to live in a dysfunctional household.
“So I’ve heard your word plunging into my thoughts and memories and heart. I can say sorry and I do mean it from the depths of my heart,” he said. “And I can carry that shame, and the promise that … (it) will not be dropped.
“… Again, I apologize, I’m sorry, I am ashamed.”