By Emilie Teresa Smith
The Anglican Church of Canada’s Sacred Circle met again for the first time since 2018, and its first order of business was the installation of the Rt. Rev. Chris Harper as National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop. Sacred Circle 11 met May 28 to June 2 at Fern Resort in Ramara, Ontario.
We gathered in the resort amphitheater, old friends and survivors. There were tears and laughter, and then settling down to hear the welcome by Ted Williams, chief of Chippewas of Rama First Nation. He blessed and encouraged us to continue the journey with faith that the Spirit has called us always to choose what is right, even when things aren’t right.
Then we all turned to the installation of Chris Harper, who was elected in December 2022. Sacred words were read, gifts were given, promises made, and renewed.
“Now watch this,” Archbishop Harper said. “We have grace and we have glory. We have a beautiful thing: our faith, a message that is not ours, but the Lord’s.”
“We are being sent today,” he said. “We are finding our own voice, our own language. This is the Word of God: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ We need peace. We need healing. We need to be messengers of peace.”
He exhorted us all: “We have to laugh. We have cried enough. We have lamented enough.”
Willard Martin, who represents British Columbia and the Yukon on the Anglican Council of Indigenous People, came forward with an elder from his Nisga’a community. They gave Archbishop Harper the hereditary name that has been given to leaders in high esteem: Kalwilimlhkwhl Laxha (Heavenly Servant).
This was a particularly important gathering of the Sacred Circle, which has usually met every three years since 1988. The last in-person Sacred Circle was in Prince George, British Columbia, during a treacherous wildfire summer. It was smoky, many elders recalled, so bad it was hard to breathe.
The next year, at the national General Synod, there was unanimous support for more work toward a fully self-governing Indigenous Anglican Church within the Anglican Church of Canada. As part of this process, the leader’s title was elevated from bishop to to archbishop, reflecting the increasing recognition of the significance and autonomy of the Indigenous Anglican Church.
But in the five years since Prince George, and the four years since General Synod, there have been many losses. Indigenous communities were particularly affected by the pandemic, and at least two Sacred Circle members died of complications from COVID: the Rev. Margaret Waterchief, Sacred Circle founding member, and the Rev. Vivian Seegers, founder of Urban Aboriginal Ministry in Vancouver. Also lost was the Rev. Ginny Doctor, former director of Indigenous Ministries for the Anglican Church of Canada.
Then, in a dispiriting blow, the first National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop, Mark MacDonald, resigned in April 2022, amid allegations of sexual misconduct.
Thus, May 29 marked a new day. Before anything else, the sacred fire had been lit.
“For us the sacred fire is critical,” said Steven Seegers, the new coordinator of the ministry his mother founded. “It is lit as we begin, and it stays lit, night and day, until we close. It is an important cultural symbol for our meeting. It means that the ancestors are with us: observing, supporting, sustaining.”
“The best thing was seeing old faces, friends from past gatherings,” he said. “We are all striving for the same goal, from different places, different ways of being Indigenous. We are working to have the Great Spirit recognized as a legitimate way of being Christian, within the Anglican Church of Canada. God, the Great Spirit, Creator, they are all the same. It is time to mend those hurts from the past and move forward in a good way.”
After the Eucharist, and after the acclamation of Archbishop Harper as Presiding Elder of the Sacred Circle, the business of the gathering began in earnest. Over the next four days the community met in talking circles, entering complex discussions, and forming consensus.
Donna Bomberry, interim coordinator of Indigenous ministries, announced on May 31 that consensus had been reached. The Covenant and Our Way of Life — the founding documents of the self-determining Indigenous Anglican Church, issued in February 2022 — were approved. The gathered community lined up to sign the Covenant (similar to a constitution) and Our Way of Life (a collection of canons).
The Anglican Church of Canada’s General Synod, meeting June 27 to July 2, will now take up the documents for final adoption.
“Now it is time to bring these words into action,” Seegers said. “We have people dying, homeless, addicted, traumatized still from the abuses in Residential Schools. Meeting and talking and documents are good. Now we need to get back to our work and our people.”
The night before the gathering ended, Seegers stood before the community. He spoke of his mother and her tireless work. He spoke of his promise to continue on a good path.
“These documents are living things,” he said, referring to the Covenant and Our Way of Life. “They are fluid. They can be amended and changed. We are a changing people; we are part of a changing church.”
The next morning, the beloved community gathered to extinguish the Sacred Fire, until the next time. Everyone returned from the mountaintop to the work laid out before them.
The Rev. Emilie Teresa Smith is rector of St. Barnabas’ Anglican Church, New Westminster, British Columbia.