As church struggles with pandemic, primate sees modified agenda for CoGS

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As church struggles with pandemic, primate sees modified agenda for CoGS
CoGS met by videoconference again in March—and was told it may meet in person in September. Photo: Matt Gardner

A pandemic that has brought death, illness and disruption will likely also prevent the Council of General Synod (CoGS) from completing its goals for the triennium— but the church can still accomplish good as long as it entrusts itself to God, Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, told CoGS March 13.

In remarks opening a half-day online session, Nicholls noted the previous week had marked one year since the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of COVID-19 to be a pandemic. Many people have suffered loss after two waves of the virus and serious lockdown measures in the past year, she said—and a third wave hovers on the horizon. One bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada is on leave due to long-term lingering symptoms from COVID-19, she added, and nine older Indigenous clergy have died.

Michael Hawkins, bishop of Saskatchewan, contracted the disease in November and continues to experience health problems. In July, Blackfoot elder the Rev. Margaret Waterchief died of complications from COVID-19. In December, Cree priest Canon Angus Sewap also died from COVID-19 complications.

“My prayer for all of us is for continued, deepening resilience as we pay attention to those who find continued strain almost unbearable,” Nicholls told CoGS.

She said she hoped and prayed people had discovered that “God is with us in the midst of each day and is patient with us,” and that there’s a need for patience with the work of the church.

“We will not accomplish everything we hoped to at the beginning of this triennium,” the primate said. “But we will have accomplished different things and learned different things. I know God will be able to take whatever we can offer and weave it together for good, for in God we find all that is needed for whatever lies ahead.”

The Anglican Church of Canada is actively working—as part of coalitions such as the Canadian Council of Churches, and with its full communion partners in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC)—to speak out on issues and legislation, Nicholls said.

“One of the things that’s quite heartening in this time has been the willingness of government to listen to faith leaders … to hear what we have to say about some of the significant issues happening around us,” the primate said. She noted two important bills coming forward in Parliament—one related to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the other to medical assistance in dying—and hoped the church would be part of conversations on those topics.

A worldwide concern for the church in the months ahead, Nicholls said, is vaccine equity: making sure that COVID-19 vaccines are available globally, not just in countries with enough money and access to procure them.

Meanwhile, the primate said, the church continues its work in other areas—planning General Synod 2022, which will be part of the Assembly with the ELCIC. Both the Assembly and the Lambeth Conference are still planning for in-person gatherings, she said, though plans may change as the situation evolves.

Judith Moses, chair of the Strategic Planning Working Group (SPWG), recapped takeaways from the CoGS small group discussions in February on strategic planning. CoGS members had reported being inspired by what they had accomplished so far as a council team. Among other things, they reported a sense of being a “bridge” between CoGS and their dioceses, helping spread dialogue and ideas across the country and helping keep Anglicans at the local level informed about the national church.

Reconciliation Animator Melanie Delva directed CoGS members to an excerpt from the executive summary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report focusing on treaty-making and ways of resolving conflict and misunderstanding. The TRC, she said, stressed that Indigenous ways of doing these things must be central to reconciliation.

When talking about making treaties and agreements in Canada, Delva said, government and church officials typically viewed treaties as legal mechanisms and as transactional—that Indigenous peoples were giving something up and receiving something in return. In contrast, elders and knowledge keepers suggest, Indigenous peoples approached treaty-making as a sacred obligation—one that committed both parties to respectful relationships and to share and care for the resources of creation equitably.

However, Delva added, Canada did not consistently uphold any of the treaties, greatly damaging that relationship, and the TRC has called for a “reset.”

The report’s 46th call to action, she said, exhorts parties to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement—which include the Anglican Church of Canada—to “develop and sign a Covenant of Reconciliation that would identify principles for working collaboratively to advance reconciliation in Canadian society.” This covenant of reconciliation, Delva noted, would be open to anyone: governments, civic groups and other organizations as well as individuals. The Anglican Church of Canada, she said, is looking at signing it once it is drawn up.

Archdeacon Alan Perry, general secretary of General Synod, said signing the covenant of reconciliation would build on steps already taken by General Synod, reiterating its ongoing commitment to reconciliation. In 2010, he said, General Synod had repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery and endorsed UNDRIP. The question the church now faces, Perry added, “is how are we living into those actions?”

The Doctrine of Discovery is a legal principle used to justify the colonization of the Americas, based on the idea that these lands had been discovered by Europeans.

National Indigenous Archbishop Mark MacDonald said the covenant of reconciliation “is not meant to replace the treaties. It is meant to clarify, enhance, extend and repair the damage to the treaties.” The churches, he added, were “at the very least morally responsible, if not legally responsible in the treaties. First Nations would not have signed the treaties without the churches’ role.” Signing the TRC covenant would clarify the role of the church at an “implicit moral level,” MacDonald said.

The churches’ failures in the treaties “raise the most serious questions we face as a church body, looking back at what happened historically,” MacDonald said.

Our baptism in Jesus, MacDonald suggested, points us to renew our humanity in reconciliation with all of creation and with each other. He described the main source of the early church’s appeal to outsiders as the love that Christians showed to each other and to others who were outside their social or cultural group.

“Their baptismal covenant was very clear, and I believe that’s what at stake in this covenant for us,” MacDonald said.

The primate said she hoped the covenant would be drawn up soon.

In separate remarks, Perry said CoGS would meet in person “God and vaccine willing” in November.

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