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Evaluating ‘This Holy Estate’: Sidelining Indigenous voices

Editors’ note: As Zachary Guiliano wrote yesterday, we were horrified to learn of the mass shooting in Florida. Our prayers go out for the American people, the city of Orlando, the repose of the dead, and the comfort of the dying. We condemn homophobic violence in the strongest possible terms, affirming the dignity of every person. As our primates have said, “God’s love for every human being is the same, regardless of their sexuality, and … the church should never by its actions give any other impression.”

We believe this series on ‘This Holy Estate’ should continue and conclude on schedule, however. The discussion in the Anglican Church of Canada goes on, and it did not seem appropriate to push aside its deliberations, especially this essay. Joey Royal notes below that the affairs of Canada’s Indigenous peoples have often been dominated or even wholly determined by those in the south. We must listen to their voices.

By Joey Royal

I am a priest in the Diocese of the Arctic, a predominantly Indigenous diocese. Most of our people are Inuit, with some Dene people in the Western Arctic. There are non-Indigenous folks too, but they are the minority. We are a strong diocese, with a long history of faithfulness to Christ and resilience in the midst of many challenges.

In what follows I want to offer some reflections on ‘This Holy Estate’, and in particular, the way the report fails to engage Indigenous perspectives in any serious way. I speak as someone who has lived in northern Canada for the better part of a decade. Although I have learned much from living and working alongside Dene and Inuit people, I am still an outsider to those cultures. Nevertheless, I feel a kinship with all my Indigenous brothers and sisters in Christ who strive to be faithful to God amid the confusions and contradictions of this present age.

My critiques of the report are directed solely at what is written; I am not judging the hearts of the people who wrote it. I recognize that the commission had a difficult task, with all sorts of limits imposed on it. I hope that nothing I say will be interpreted as hostile to anyone. If we belong to Christ, then we are all part of God’s family. We must never forget that, particularly in times of conflict and controversy. Nevertheless, our Lord tells us he is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6), and we must always be faithful to him above any earthly authority.

The first task given to the marriage commission was to demonstrate “broad consultation” from across the church. It invited individuals and groups to send written submissions during a five-month period in 2014. There were many intelligent and thoughtful submissions representing a spectrum of opinion. Unfortunately, the commission failed to consult the elders of First Nations and Inuit communities. Instead of simply inviting submissions, the commission should have actively sought them. What a gift it would have been if First Nations and Inuit elders were directly consulted and their words transcribed (and translated, if need be) for all to read. Such a process would have taken more time and more resources, to be sure, but the end result would have been instructive and enriched the whole church.

As it stands, the only reference to Indigenous perspectives in the report is a summary of a statement written by Bishop Mark MacDonald, Bishop Lydia Mamakwa, and Bishop Adam Halkett (THE 2.4). The summary is of limited value; it is extremely selective in what it highlights, and can be easily misunderstood. It is better to read the bishops’ statement directly.

In what follows I will draw attention to a few points the bishops make in their statement.

In several places the bishops draw attention to the troubled recent history of Indigenous peoples in Canada. A dark legacy of cultural assimilation and marginalization lurks in the background of our current discussions. Indigenous Canadians are still trying to come to terms with what happened to them. Led by the government and the church, many Inuit and First Nations people were forced to abandon their language, their culture, and their land — key elements of their identity — and replace them with an alien language, an alien culture, and an alien land. These and other ills were brought to light, repudiated, and repented of during the Anglican Church of Canada’s listening process, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which concluded in 2015. But recent events suggest that no lasting change has come. The Indigenous bishops have strong words about this troubling state of affairs:

It is no longer acceptable to impose Western cultural questions and approaches on our societies, as if they were another segment or faction of a Euro-North American whole, either needing to be updated, tolerated, or assimilated in to the larger body. We absolutely reserve the right to make these choices and decisions, now and forever, on our own terms and in our own way. (“Statement of the Anglican Indigenous Bishops,” p. 1)

As the Anglican Church of Canada deliberates about whether to change the marriage canon, we would do well to remember these words. Same-sex marriage is an idea forged by people of European descent, and it has been received as such by the Indigenous Anglicans of Canada. Although its proponents claim to celebrate diversity, it threatens to isolate them from the peoples of the world. It is a particular and idiosyncratic response to a particular set of cultural circumstances. And even within Europe and North America, it continues to be a controversial idea. If the redefinition of marriage is legislated “from the top down,” as ‘This Holy Estate’ proposes, Indigenous Anglicans of Canada will no doubt receive the ruling as yet another episode in the long history of Western cultural imperialism, an imposition on a people who neither asked for it nor were asked about it. The Anglican Church of Canada must proceed with great caution and humility here.

The Indigenous bishops make a distinction between the view of marriage that is embraced by the dominant Canadian culture and the traditional view held by Indigenous elders. They describe the former in this way:

For the rest of Canadian society, marriage appears to be a contract between two people, who have the right, under law and as a human right, to form their family life in any way they see fit. … In the understanding of the larger society, the focus of marriage is the individual choice, well-being, and happiness of the couple. (Ibid., pp. 1-2)

In much of Canadian society, marriage is understood as a contract centered on the mutual fulfillment of consenting adults (with comparatively little attention paid to either elders or to children). People understand themselves as autonomous agents possessing rights, who are free to do as they please so long as they do not purposely hurt others. This vision of marriage and sexuality fits comfortably into a culture of self-fulfillment and personal autonomy, but it is at odds with biblical, traditional Christian, and traditional Indigenous teaching.

The traditional understanding of marriage as taught by the elders sees people as embodied beings placed into an ordered world by the Creator; as created beings, people are only free insofar as they align their lives with the will of the Creator. The elders describe a traditional marriage ceremony as a communal event whereby “we enact our understanding of Creation and the relationship of God to the universe.” Far from being a mere contract, marriage is, in this understanding, “an act in the spiritual realm, activated by ceremony and the commitment of love of the couples and their families” (ibid., p. 2).

Central to this vision is the created difference of male and female, who in marriage are joined together in unity. The union of male and female at once teaches spiritual truth, acts as a bridge across families and clans, and provides a foundation for future generations. In other words, marriage is not about only two people, but about a community that spans generations, and ultimately about the entire created order. This traditional teaching is in harmony with biblical teaching and Christian tradition, and is a corrective to the revisionism of the report. We desperately need the deeply rooted wisdom of the elders, particularly in our forgetful culture that hates all constraints and chases impatiently after novelty.

Our diocesan synod was held last month in Iqaluit, on Baffin Island, in Nunavut. During our gathering one of the main points of discussion was the vote on changing the marriage canon. Again and again people expressed frustration that neither they nor their elders were consulted in this process, and expressed concern that a change of this magnitude would irreparably damage the fragile unity of the church. The vast majority were opposed to the proposed change; and their opposition arose not from animosity but from their desire to respect their elders and be faithful to God. Many of those present felt shut out of a process that was happening in the south, and knew that the effects of decisions made elsewhere would be felt in their families, in their churches, and in their communities.

The weather on the horizon looks grim. Yet I hold onto my hope for the future of the Church in Canada. I have heard, on several occasions, a prophecy concerning God’s purposes for Indigenous peoples. This prophecy has been spoken all across the north, from Alaska to Baffin Island. It has been repeated for generations, in different languages and in different circumstances.

The prophecy is this: that someday the people of the land (that is, Inuit and First Nations people) will be called upon by God to evangelize the people of the south (non-Indigenous people). Sometimes the image given is one of fire, burning across the Indigenous lands and gradually moving to the cities of southern Canada. That fire is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love and truth, which our Lord left us when he returned to the Father. I believe this prophecy will come to pass, and I hope to live to see it.

God’s Spirit is at work among the people of the land. He has planted his Word in their hearts. Because he has planted his Word in their hearts they have something to say. What remains to be seen is whether the people of the south will be willing to listen and so to begin the long journey of walking together in Christ.

The Rev. Joey Royal is the director of the Arthur Turner Training School, set to reopen at St. Jude’s Cathedral in Iqaluit, Nunavut.

The introduction and links to other essays in Evaluating ‘This Holy Estate’ may be found here

The featured image of Bishop Lydia Mamakwa comes via Anglican Video.


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