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Deep faith: A conversation with Bishop Mark MacDonald

This interview took place in a coffee shop in Iqaluit, Nunavut, on October 9. Bishop Mark MacDonald, the National Indigenous Anglican Bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada, was there for a pastoral visit. He led lively services every night at St. Jude’s Cathedral, visited elders in the community, and spent two days teaching theological students at Arthur Turner Training School. The following interview covers a lot of ground, touching on the bishop’s experiences and spiritual formation, the unique character of Indigenous life and faith, as well as pressing issues facing Indigenous Christians such as self-determination, the environmental crisis, sexuality, and marriage.

img_20161006_093646I want to begin by expressing my gratitude for you taking the time to talk with me. I have been blessed by your visit to Iqaluit, and I know many others have as well.

Thank you. I’ve been blessed by it too.

My first question is more personal, specifically related to your formation as a Christian. I wonder if you could tell me about some of the people who have had the greatest influence on your spiritual and intellectual development?

Well, there are various ways in which people impact you. Personally, I can think of a number of clergy. Right off the top of my head I think of George Smith, who was an Ojibwe priest. He was a holy, dedicated, and sacred person. When I think about what I want to be as a priest I think of him a lot. Intellectually, I have been very much influenced by Oliver O’Donovan and by a writer named William Stringfellow. Off the top of my head those are most prominent, and have had the most impact on me.

Can you say a bit more about how O’Donovan and Stringfellow have impacted your intellectual development?

It’s the way they approach Scripture. They take Scripture so seriously, and they both made Scripture come alive and be something that is real and living. I began to see the truth of Hebrew 4:12 — that the Word of God is living and real and a force, not just in our individual lives, but a force in history, and a force in creation.

In your role as National Indigenous Anglican Bishop you spend most of your time traveling around Canada meeting with Indigenous people — Inuit, First Nations, and Métis. Can you describe something you have seen or heard in your travels that fills you with hope?

My travels fill me with hope because I see a depth of faith, and a reality to faith, that is hard to see outside of Indigenous communities. It’s not that it doesn’t exist outside of Indigenous communities, but it’s especially concentrated there. In those communities there are huge problems and huge difficulties, but in the midst of that darkness there shines such a great light. I’m always filled with hope when I spend time with Indigenous Christians in Indigenous communities because in the midst of horrific realities another reality is being born.

Can you say a bit about what is particular to Indigenous people in their approach to Scripture and to faith? What are some distinctively Indigenous ways of thinking about and engaging these things?

Anyone who spends any time with Indigenous people will see that the unseen world is a very real aspect of life in Indigenous Christian faith. Someone who has been strongly influenced by the modern world will find themselves surprised at how much the modern viewpoint has influenced the way modern people look at Scripture. By contrast, when you spend some time with Indigenous people, specifically Indigenous elders, the Scripture begins to make sense in a way that it never has before. I find it helpful to ask myself: “How would an elder look at this passage? How would they understand it? In what way would it impact them? How would they read it?”

Can you say more about the role of elders in Indigenous communities?

Part of it has to do with circumstances of survival. Survival was a big issue, and when you survive for a long time you obviously were doing something right. You had insights into how things worked that are really important. The elders are critical to the identity of the whole community. Now Indigenous culture and identity are trying to go through a renaissance — a kind of recovery and restoration — and the elders are the key to that because they’re the ones who have the wisdom and the values and the perspective. So I see elders as really critical.

Following on that, can you say something about the importance of stories among Indigenous peoples?

Stories are also very important. We could say that stories make us. I heard an elder once say that all the wisdom that you know comes to you in the stories they tell you when you’re a child. I think that story is an approach to truth that is more biblical and more Christian, but different from an academic treatment of doctrine. Stories allow for depths of understanding and layers of meaning. A story might make sense to you and mean a lot to you at one level, only to reveal something deeper later on — an a-ha moment, if you will. Stories function in a similar way to poetry and art. They communicate at a whole bunch of different levels.

One thing I’m seeing now in Canadian culture at large is a realization that harmful ideas have been told about Indigenous people, and that some of these harmful ideas have been believed and internalized by many people. But I’m also seeing a real awareness of that and genuine attempts to unlearn some of these damaging ideas. One of these harmful ideas is the so-called “Doctrine of Discovery,” which is something you have been quite critical of. Can you define what that means and why you think that idea is so destructive?

Yes, for many people the Doctrine of Discovery is understood to mean that we want people to be politically correct and say that Christopher Columbus did not discover North America. That isn’t what it’s about at all. The Doctrine of Discovery is a cultural, legal, and political idea that affects us at a whole bunch of levels. The basic assumption behind it is that a whole group of people is so primitive that they can be discovered. This approach assumes that if you discover something then you have the right to rule it and the right to exploit it. If you’re the one who discovers it then you have the “right of discovery.” When you apply this to areas where other human beings lived then it’s obviously problematic. You then have to say that these human beings are so primitive that they’re not unlike animals. And this is what the Doctrine of Discovery does, and it’s had a much larger impact on the way people think than we perhaps realize.

In education, for instance, it’s been assumed that Western education is the best way, and that the best thing that you can do is educate Indigenous people in a Western way. Whereas now we’re beginning to understand how radically wrong that is, and how that demonstrably has not worked for hundreds of years. It is not necessarily a matter of what kind of education is better, but rather what kind of education is most culturally appropriate.

You can see harmful attitudes in the way the government interacts with Indigenous communities, often doing so with the assumption that the government knows best — that it has the wisdom and knowledge to organize Indigenous people and to govern their lives. This is clearly not true, and I think most people would have a problem with being managed in this way. This is a particular problem for Indigenous people.

It seems to me that the Doctrine of Discovery also assumes a certain view of land, which is that land is something to be conquered and exploited for human gain. I have heard quite a different understanding of land from many Indigenous people. Can you describe the importance of land for Indigenous people?

In the Indigenous context, land is understood more in the sense of an “eco-sphere.” The focus here is on the way life in a particular area is created by God, and how all of that works together to produce and sustain life. Land is a sacred thing, and is something that should be respected. It is even something that on some levels should be feared because if you start messing around with it you can create problems that you aren’t going to be able to deal with. I would say that the story of climate change is probably going to be seen as one of those stories. It is driven by people who believe a distorted and deformed view of land, influenced too much by money and by the idea of owning land in order to exploit it, and some people even believe they have a duty to do exactly that. I think that’s going to ultimately be seen as a violation of something that is integral to the way life survives, because land has to do with the way that life survives.

This view you just described seems very close to the biblical vision of land as a gift of the Creator and human beings called to be stewards of that gift.

Absolutely, absolutely.

I would like to shift gears now, and talk about the last General Synod. Following the contentious vote on revising Canon XXI to permit same-sex marriage, you and two other Indigenous bishops (Bishop Lydia Mamakwa and Bishop Adam Halkett) released a letter articulating an Indigenous response to the decisions made by General Synod. One of the key phrases in that letter was “self-determination.” Your words were quite strong: “We will proceed toward self-determination with urgency.” Can you define what “self-determination” means as it pertains to Indigenous Anglicans in Canada?

I think of self-determination as simply becoming what God intended for us to be, becoming what God meant for us to be. God has a plan for every people, every culture, every language, and every nation. It is a plan that leads to God, and results in people giving glory to God. So like every other people group or nation, Indigenous peoples have a unique role to play in God’s plan. Self-determination has to do with following God’s plan in a way that is right and specific and unique to Indigenous people. We can see how God has worked among other peoples and nations, and in other times and places, and now we’re looking to see the ways God is working among Indigenous peoples. The seeds of God’s Word were planted into Indigenous cultures at their very beginning, and we’re looking to see how those seeds are now growing and blossoming within the various Indigenous communities.


Following on that, could you describe how you envision this coming about? What will the process of self-determination look like, and what is its end point?

The end point is almost impossible to identify, in part because self-determination means nothing if it doesn’t mean “from the bottom up.” It does no good for one group of people to plan what self-determination is going to look like. Instead we have small groupings and individual congregations working together, and through these local conversations we are beginning to see the shape of an Indigenous style of gathering, an Indigenous way of caring for one another, of providing pastoral care, and so on. This is really what self-determination is about, and we will try to provide a national and regional capacity to allow that to flourish on the local level.

That’s the way it happened in Mishamikoweesh. Local people began to say “this is where we want to go.” They began to speak to their neighbors, and to local congregations, and then people got together in a general assembly and decided, “Yeah, this is where we want to go. This is how we want to do things.” Then they elected a working group that went around and listened to people in the different communities about their interests and hopes. Then on that basis they began to draw plans, but always checking back with the local communities and saying, “Okay, do we hear you right?”

So that’s how we imagine self-determination. That’s why we have used the word “confederacy” to talk about it because we want local communities to maintain their own integrity and personality and their own way of doing things. You could say it’s freedom within a larger container of support and friendship and fellowship and discipleship.

What we’re finding is that even though there are great differences between the various Indigenous communities — west and east, north and south — nevertheless there are family resemblances among Indigenous peoples living on Turtle Island (North America). So we can support and help one another, and our experiences can be instructive to one another. When we get together to talk about our experiences and to share worship, we can often relate to the experiences of others. This helps us feel less alone and isolated.

The Anglican Church very often operates according to a legislative, top-down, bureaucratic model. What you’re describing seems to be a more relational, more grassroots, process.

Yes, exactly, exactly.

Many people who attended the last General Synod described the experience as difficult and painful, and I have heard many Indigenous delegates describe their experience that way. Can you describe what you observed at General Synod, particularly the way you think it impacted many of the Indigenous people who were there?

Well, I think that the politics of it was difficult. It’s not that Indigenous people aren’t political, but it’s a different kind of political. Our gatherings tend to be on the basis of consensus, and the idea that you could on the basis of a vote or two votes make a major change in something you’re doing just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The frantic way in which the votes were counted, and recorded, and responded to — this was a difficult thing. We’re used to honoring elders and listening to them carefully. This operated with a different set of priorities.

The letter I referred to earlier that you and +Lydia and +Adam wrote affirmed quite clearly that the majority of Indigenous Anglicans in Canada wished to preserve the understanding of marriage as one man and one woman.


I have heard some people counter what you’ve written by pointing to an acceptance of sexual diversity within Indigenous communities. I have heard people refer to the idea that some people are “two spirited,” and others have suggested that some Indigenous communities have historically honored and welcomed same-sex attracted people. Can you offer something by way of response to this?

Sure, I think it seems clear that Indigenous communities — not all of them, but many of them — had a way of recognizing human sexuality in general, and also sexual minorities in a different kind of way. In terms of homosexuality, there was in many communities no sense of negatively separating people from the rest of the community. Despite some instances where that isn’t true — there are some places where I believe homosexual persons have been persecuted in Indigenous communities — by and large you will find that in many communities the presence of homosexual people is accepted and part of the way things are done.

The big difference, of course, has to do with marriage. There is very little evidence — at least, I have not seen any — that these ways of recognizing homosexuality were seen as somehow parallel to marriage, or as providing a lifestyle similar to marriage. This is the basis upon which we are proceeding. Marriage is a huge issue. The male and female that is spoken of in marriage is not just about a ceremony or a particular way of life. It’s a larger issue in terms of the community, and has to do with a worldview in which creation itself is viewed as male and female. This view doesn’t necessarily lead to persecution or demonization of sexual minorities or homosexuals.

This view of marriage is quite different from the view that marriage is gender free or gender neutral. Most of our communities, particularly reserves, look at marriage in this traditional way. Of course, there are people in urban areas that look at it differently. However, I wouldn’t say that everyone in the urban community are in favor of same-sex marriage, and I wouldn’t say that everyone in reserve communities are against it. We’re speaking in generalities.

I think the way the three of you put it in your letter is that you’re not speaking for Indigenous people in general, and yet you have consulted broadly across the communities and are bringing their wishes forward.

Yes, that’s absolutely true.

One last question, if I could. People are becoming increasingly interested in Indigenous issues in Canada, and I wonder if you could recommend any books or resources that can help people think through some of these issues and engage them?

Well, there are a few that I would recommend. I would have to say at the outset that there aren’t a whole lot around that are really good for the purposes that you describe. There’s one book that I found very, very good as an introduction to the whole field of Indigenous spirituality in the Americas, and that is a book called The Sacred by Anna Lee Walters. It’s out of print so it’s hard to get ahold of, but every once in a while you see it on Amazon. There’s a book that has recently come out called Coming Full Circle: Constructing Native Christian Theology. It’s edited by Steven Charleston with a lot of different writers. I think that it’s an excellent introduction to mainstream Indigenous theology.

There’s also Richard Twiss’s book Rescuing Jesus from the Cowboys, which is an excellent introduction to these issues from a more evangelical perspective. There are also some collections of writing by a man named James Treat. If you Google his name, you can see what he’s written. His stuff is very, very good. I recommend it highly.

One book that I think is very helpful, although people might not think so at first glance, is a book called The Heavens Are Changing by Susan Neylan. In that book she talks about how catechists were the space in which West Coast Indigenous groups were able to rethink their ways of thinking and living in light of the Christian faith. What’s really good about this — and it comes highly recommended by Martin Brokenleg — is that it shows Indigenous people as agents of their lives and not the helpless, hapless victims of other people’s plans and designs.

Another book that I think is really good, which also at first glance may not look like it, is a book called The Ojibwe Singers by Michael McNally. It’s a really good book and quite startling in that it talks about how hymn singing was used by the Ojibwe people as a way to resist colonization and to think through how to live in this new world that is unfolding before us. It’s a good book.

You’ve given me a few new ones to add to my Amazon wishlist. Well, that’s all the questions I have for you. Thank you once again for your time, and God bless you as you continue to encourage Indigenous folks in their life with Jesus while preserving and honoring their unique culture and heritage.

Thank you. My pleasure.


From the website of the Anglican Church of Canada

The Right Rev. Mark L. MacDonald became the Anglican Church of Canada’s first National Indigenous Anglican Bishop in 2007, after serving as bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Diocese of Alaska for 10 years.

This was a home-coming of sorts for Bishop MacDonald, who had attended Wycliffe College in Toronto and served as a priest in Mississauga, Ontario.

Bishop MacDonald was born on Jan. 15, 1954, the son of Blake and Sue Nell MacDonald. He holds a B.A. in religious studies and psychology from the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota, an M.A. in divinity from Wycliffe College, and did post-graduate work at Luther-Northwestern Theological Seminary in Minneapolis.

He has had a long and varied ministry, holding positions in Mississauga, Ontario, Duluth, Minnesota, Tomah, Wisconsin, Mauston, Wisconsin, Portland, Oregon, and the southeast regional mission of the Diocese of Navajoland. Immediately prior to his ordination to the episcopate, Bishop MacDonald was canon missioner for training in the Diocese of Minnesota and vicar of St. Antipas’ Church, Redby, Minnesota., and St. John-in-the-Wilderness Church, Red Lake, Red Lake Nation, Minnesota.

He is the board chair for Church Innovations, Inc., and a third order Franciscan.

Among Bishop MacDonald’s published works are:

  • “Native American Youth Ministries,” co-authored with Dr. Carol Hampton and published in Resource Book for Ministries with Youth and Young Adults, the Episcopal Church Center (New York, NY, 1995)
  • “It’s in the Font: Sacramental connections between faith and environment,” Soundings 16:5 (July 6, 1994)
  • A Strategy for Growth for the Episcopal Church: Joining Multiculturalism and Evangelism, Inter-Cultural Ministry Development (San José, California, 1994).

Bishop MacDonald has co-edited The Chant of Life: Inculturation and the People of the Land (Liturgical Studies IV), Church Publishing Company, 2003.

He has also contributed to the following publications:

  • Holy Ground: A Gathering of Voices on Caring for Creation, ed. Lyndsay Moseley (Sierra Club Books, 2008)
  • Edinburgh 2010: Mission Today and Tomorrow, ed. K. Kim and A. Anderson (Regnum Books, 2011)
  • Life-Widening Mission: Global Anglican Perspectives, ed. Cathy Ross (Regnum Books, 2012)
  • The Gospel after Christendom: New Voices, New Cultures, New Expressions, ed. Ryan Bolger (Baker, 2012)
  • Green Shoots out of Dry Ground: Growing a New Future for the Church in Canada, ed. John Bowen (Wipf and Stock, 2013).

Bishop MacDonald and his wife, Virginia, have three children.


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