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Christian Discipleship in Northern Canada

By Joey Royal

For the past two years I have been running a small theological college in the Canadian Arctic, the Arthur Turner Training School in Iqaluit. Its purpose is to train northern Indigenous people to minister in churches across the Diocese of the Arctic, a vast land that spans 1.5 million square miles. I have done the bulk of teaching for my five Inuit students. The experience, which I am still processing, was both rewarding and demanding. It changed me in ways that I have yet to fully comprehend. In what follows I want to reflect on the experience and what I have learned from it. The risk of speaking so personally is that it applies to no one but yourself. Nonetheless, I hope something here is of help to someone.

In an address to his clergy in Madras, India, Bishop Lesslie Newbigin once said: “If your people have learned to trust you as a pastor, you can handle the most controversial issues in the pulpit without fear. If they recognize the voice as that of the Good Shepherd, they will follow” (The Good Shepherd, p. 16). This neatly encapsulates one of the most important lessons I learned — to value relationship more than expertise. Very quickly I came to realize that my students were more open to what I had to say once they knew that I loved them. Once they knew I loved them and was seeking their good, they trusted me and could better receive what I offered.

I suspect this is true of ministry in general, but it’s particularly significant when historic abuse and generational pain have sowed seeds of distrust or uncertainty (which can be the case in northern Canada, where Indigenous people are still coming to grips with cultural dislocation, for which the Church bears some responsibility). In saying this I am not disparaging expertise — God knows what a disaster Anglicanism is in because of anemic and shallow theology — but I want to gloss what St. Paul says: Without love all the good theology in the world is but a “noisy gong” (1 Cor. 13:1).

I also learned to adjust the way I taught. Rather than lecture-based teaching, I found that dialogue worked best. This allowed me to teach the course content while also honouring the wisdom and experience of my students. Gentle questions that invited personal reflection often led to startling links between the students’ lives and the classroom material. Pointed questions that required the “right” answer shut them down and were generally met with silence. The classes took on a life of their own — a reading of the Joseph story led to personal narratives of pain and forgiveness, lectures on Benedict’s Rule morphed into conversations about self-knowledge and church leadership, and attempts to comprehend the doctrine of the Trinity resulted in ever-deepening experiences of God’s love. The line between academic theology and spiritual formation was porous indeed, and often nonexistent.

Through this dialogical form of Christian teaching, I became increasingly aware of the blind spots that my Western theological education had bestowed to me, however good and valuable it was. For example, typical Protestant methods of biblical interpretation rest on some very rationalistic assumptions, assuming that a text can only mean now what it meant then, and that only at the most literal level. My students, by contrast, intuitively operated with a richer, more allegorical approach to the Bible. They were able to see links between texts that I had never seen before and were excited about parts of the Bible that I tended to skip over.

Recent work on figural reading, by Ephraim Radner and others, provided me with a theological rationale for this more-than-literal approach. As we studied Scripture together, we discovered anew that the Bible, as the inspired Word of God, is indeed about everything. One of my students wrote this line from St. Augustine’s Confessions on the inside cover of her Bible: “The Bible was composed in such a way that as beginners mature, its meaning grows with them.”

It would seem that an over-emphasis on rationalism in biblical interpretation has also led to a neglect of large swathes of Christian experience. For instance, given the prevalence of miracles, healings, and exorcisms in the New Testament, why are these things largely missing from the experience of many Christians in the West? For my students, the world is full of spiritual beings, both evil and good. They see a causal link between fervent prayer and healing, and the power of the Holy Spirit is felt and not only talked about. Here a priest or lay leader is frequently called upon to bless a house and cast out an evil presence that has been tormenting those who live there. In the West these realities feature prominently in Pentecostal and charismatic churches but seldom among Anglicans. Why the disconnect? Have we become too accustomed to separating Christian thinking from Christian experience? In saying this I rebuke myself as much as anyone.

Another area in which Western perspectives often prevail is pastoral psychology and pastoral care. Some of the psychological tools I have learned have served me well in ministry, like asserting myself appropriately and avoiding burnout. But some psychological wisdom does not work as well in every culture. For instance, my students found the idea of setting boundaries complicated. Given the emphasis on family and kinship in Inuit culture, as well as the nomadic life they lived until the last few generations, saying No to people could be a matter of life and death. Furthermore, the idea of personal autonomy that is promoted by much psychology clashes with the sense of self-in-community that is instinctively true to many Indigenous peoples. My students did not seem to think of themselves as autonomous but as embedded within complex networks of family, kinship, and community. This is why Inuit persons will often introduce themselves by stating where they’re from and who they’re related to. Perhaps this is why the sexual revisionism that has so gripped the West seems unintelligible to many Indigenous Christians.

Throughout the program I endeavoured to bring together the various parts — academic, spiritual, and practical — into discipleship, that is learning from Jesus Christ how to live in the kingdom of God. I determined at the outset that Christian teaching (including the most difficult theology) must have concrete purchase on the lives of Christian people. For example, if Christology has nothing to do with how we spend our money, who we have sex with, how we use drugs and alcohol, who we welcome into our home, how we express anger, and so on, then what are these doctrines for?

I tried to speak clearly and plainly, which I found difficult (“Study to make yourself simple,” Michael Ramsey once said). I find that a lot of theology and a lot of preaching (including mine) seems designed to be vague and evasive, and intentionally avoids speaking directly about issues that matter to people’s lives. In my case this often has to do with fear and self-preservation, but I believe Christ both calls Christians to more, and shows us how to do it. The Sermon on the Mount is a master class on how to teach succinctly and effectively.

These are just a few things I have learned in the past two years. The experience has changed me, hopefully for the better (I’ve leave that to the judgement of God). This ministry has both built me up and broken me down, and for that I am grateful.



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