The 42nd meeting of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada has been an historic one, so far, with the election of a new primate and several high-profile resolutions coming to the floor.
However, among this busy schedule is an event characterized by spontaneity and connection to the Holy Spirit, according to Canon Virginia “Ginny” Doctor, Indigenous ministries coordinator for the Anglican Church of Canada: a gospel jamboree.
“I just think it’s a real nice time for folks to relax—relax and be with the Spirit and not have to worry about resolutions and such,” says Doctor.
A gospel jamboree—or gospel jam—is “a time to get together for prayer, for singing, for testimony,” says Doctor. “Just a real spiritual time amongst many of our people.”
The jam will take place at General Synod on the evening of Sunday, July 14.
The event is a tradition among some Indigenous Anglicans. “Anytime we have Sacred Circle, or anytime we gather, there’s always a gospel jamboree in the evening,” says Doctor. At General Synod in 2016, this was the case as well. “I think people liked it—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
“People are invited up—it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from—people are invited up to share a song or to share a testimony, or just whatever.”
Typically, an emcee will sign up those who want to participate and call them up as time permits, she says, adding with a laugh, “Usually they go on quite late at night, but this one will go on until 10 o’clock.”
Gospel jams are a tradition not just specific to Canadian Indigenous Christians.
“This comes out of a hymn-singing tradition that has been very much a part of Indigenous life both inside and outside of the church for centuries now,” says Archbishop Mark MacDonald, national Indigenous Anglican archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada.
Singing and music have always been integral to Indigenous spirituality, says MacDonald. “Indigenous people, if you will, did a lot of what we would call theology in song. A lot of the teachings, ideals and traditions were embodied musically in Indigenous tradition.”
Indigenous spiritual traditions and expressions were outlawed by the government until the 1960s, MacDonald explains. “The church didn’t replace those traditions directly, but what it did do was [give] this well-received, well-liked experience of singing hymns…. A lot of the ideals, traditions and spirituality of Indigenous life went underground into this hymn singing tradition.”
Indigenous people began to gather together in the evening to sing hymns, usually until daybreak, he says. This tradition spread likely from the East Coast of the United States across all of North America.
“It spread rapidly, even more quickly than the missionaries,” says MacDonald. “So missionaries oftentimes would come to communities and find that it was already being practiced.”
The music played at jamborees has changed over the years, Doctor says. While traditionally Indigenous Anglicans would have gathered to sing a cappella (without musical accompaniment), now often someone will bring a guitar. Sometimes drummers, tambourine players or piano players will join the fray. Some groups, especially in Northern Ontario, incorporate the influence of country-western music, says MacDonald.
“It has to evolve” to include everyone’s musical skill, says Doctor. “I think that’s another part of the gospel jam, is that it honours the people that have the skills to make music, to use their gifts and to share them with others.”
However, a jamboree is about more than singing songs. “It’s a real special kind of ministry, the way I see it. It’s not just, ‘Let’s get together and sing,’” says Doctor. It’s also about healing—sharing suffering and requesting prayer—and offering testimony.
Some people come forward to share a personal story, she says. “Most times they’re very powerful and very moving.
“You know, we’ve had people tell of how they were abused in residential schools, and how they found healing through Jesus, through the gospel. So that’s all very powerful to hear—not so much the abuse, but the way they’ve been able to heal from it, is very powerful.”
Jamborees are extremely popular throughout northern Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, says MacDonald. While often those jamboree events are sponsored by Anglican churches, “they’re very ecumenical, very broadly ecumenical in their involvement. Even people who have no church affiliation get involved.”
Music “transcends all cultures,” Doctor adds. “Anytime you hear music, people are just drawn to it.”
Those attending General Synod should come on Sunday night “ready to relax and enjoy themselves,” says MacDonald.
General Synod’s worship committee, chaired by the Rev. Peter Elliott, planned the jamboree. MacDonald will emcee, and Vancouver-based musician and musical director Lonnie Delisle—plenary hall musical director designate for General Synod—will provide accompaniment.
Those who have never experienced a gospel jamboree before should “expect the Holy Spirit to be present, in different forms than perhaps they’ve seen before,” says Doctor. Her advice? “Just be open to that, and…not be afraid of it.”
The event is “a little different than just sitting there in the pew,” she says.