Acknowledging the painful errors of our past

“The church has broken technique and must step back and begin the procedure of cleanup and hygiene that will allow it to proceed with its work.” –Mark MacDonald Photo: satyrenko/shutterstock

A few decades ago, I heard a classmate-friend give a comparison and an example that has been clinging to me since. He had been a conscientious objector serving as a medic in Vietnam. Speaking of the intense preparations to be ready for surgeries in the battlefield environment, he described the dismay of what he called “breaking technique.” If someone nicked their surgical gloves with a knife or some other instrument, they would say, “I have broken technique.” Everyone at the table would then have to step back, take off their gloves and go through the process of washing up and preparing again, so that they might preserve hygiene and follow proper technique. The pressure not to admit that you had broken technique, he said, was intense and powerful. If you announced it, your whole team was angry and frustrated. Often, he said, they would throw instruments at the person who broke technique.

He used this illustration to describe the situation of the church in the modern world. The church has broken technique and must step back and begin the procedure of cleanup and hygiene that will allow it to proceed with its work. The pressure to resist this need is intense and almost irresistible. But the church must do it for the good of all.

I have thought about this comparison often over the years, but more than ever over the past few years. The church, and one could also say the churches, has made some deep and painful errors in the past, many of them coming to life now.Never, in my life, has there been so much distrust for the churches, their interests and their integrity. We have participated in a way of life that has obscured the connection of Jesus to our work and efforts. The simple teachings of our saviour often seem far away from the preoccupations of our institutions. In the process, the general feeling is that Christianity tolerates violence, bigotry and hatred. This is a painful and dangerous situation. It is not just that our reputation has taken a hit; it is more awful that we have interfered with people’s perceptions of Jesus.

At a time when so many need faith, we have made it seem illusive, unobtainable and undesirable—we have given the impression that Jesus is hostile to humanity.

We have hurt many people in the process: the victims of clergy abuse, Indigenous Peoples and others who are in marginalized ethnic groups or categories, as well as women and those who are members of sexual minorities—to name just a few. It is clear that we must begin again. Certainly, it is a call to treat “the other” better, but it is also a thoroughgoing call to repentance. This is not just a call to try harder. It is, I think, a call to trust more deeply, listen to the gospel more simply and carefully, and to turn to Jesus with a child-like trust and with admittance of a child-like need.

I expect to get some pushback on this, though I hope not. It is a time to step back from the table of our normal pursuits and to discuss how we will return to the simple purity of our beginnings in the gospel. There is nothing more urgent.

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Mark MacDonald
Archbishop Mark MacDonald is national Indigenous archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada.


  1. Great challenges face us Anglicans. As I prepare a parish council retreat around the theme of “Keeping the ‘Main Thing’ the Main Thing” where the analysis of Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari presented in his latest work, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” will be an important focus as we explore how to ‘keep the main thing the main thing’ in terms of the Gospel, I am grateful for Bishop MacDonald’s words. As a deacon, my passion is connecting the needs and realities of the church with our Gospel message. We must begin by developing a comprehensive awareness of contemporary social, cultural, spiritual and economic trends that are shaping the world around us. If we don’t deal with these, Anglicans will be left behind as we limit the Mission of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit in new and vitals directions

  2. Yuval Noah Harari ? Why would you study a book by an atheist to try to uncover the main thing ,he hasn’t figured it out yet otherwise he would be a Christian now. There are many ,many Christian authors that would be more likely to discover the “main thing” , authors like John Storting,JI Packer ,or even John Polkinghorne.

  3. I am so grateful for your candour and clarity, Bishop MacDonald. This is a prophetic call to our ecclesial leaders to examine the structures and protocols, of our governance, as well traditions and assumptions in the conduct of our liturgies that speak to entitlement rather than engaging one another with reverence, dignity, and respect as bearers of the Image of God. The more we focus on symbolic power over others in our community, the less authentic we become as followers of the teachings of Jesus. The gift of your essay gives credence to my feelings that our Indigenous and colonized sisters and brothers bear gifts of integrity and insight making us more fully human, if only we pause to pay attention to them.
    As for the comments of the above response to Harari, let me remind its author that the glory of God is the human person, fully alive!

  4. I am grateful to Mary Louise Meadow for her comments and analysis in sentences two and three of her comment. I believe that painful as that process may be, the self-examination is necessary if we are to flourish as an Anglican communion. The way I see it there is a confusion between authority and power which leads to a type of dependency in the congregations.

  5. May be we have to read the letter of St

    We have to read the letter of St James to the churches to what is Christianity. It is also about righteous living to love the sinner but not approving his way of life. The Church seems to have mixed up both – CHRIST said to the women caught in adultry to go & sin no more we have to bring them to their sense of sin..

  6. I think your piece is very timely. As a Christian who has been both Catholic and Episcopalian, I see many similarities in both faith groups as to the institutionalization of Jesus’s message. It spreads into many areas of pastoral care.

    One area of which I have become acutely aware is in the area of psychiatric disabilities. I do not know about the Anglican tradition, but I suspect it is the same. There is a policy in both denominations to shunt this population of parishioners to the “professionals.” Of course, clinical care is often needed. But it should only ever be an adjunct, not a substitute for spiritual support. The message is, “you’re crazy, please go.” The institutions cannot seem to wrap their brains around the fact that it is precisely during times of crisis that this group needs spiritual counseling and support from clergy and fellow Christians alike.

    Part of this is the increasing secularization of the calling of the clergy. It seems to be viewed as a job like any other. In fact, for a true disciple, lay or clergy, there is always sacrifice when following Jesus. But the churches continue to error by identifying with the state and the world. Whether it is colonialism, racism, worldly treatment of the poor and other marginalized groups such as those with psychiatric disabilities, they just conform. Jesus identified “the Prince of this world” and when we conform to the world we conform to the Prince of this world. We need to continue to prophetically challenge this.

  7. E toku rangatira – thank you for these salutary and courageous words – you echo my own sentiments so closely, you intuit also my deepest faith based yearnings for our ecclesial household to become that which Jesus modeled in his own ministry. Arohanui – Jenny.


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