Early in June, Archbishop and Primate Linda Nicholls described the COVID-19 pandemic as a “changed circumstance”: the latest in a long series of changes throughout the history of the Anglican Church of Canada that have periodically compelled the church to examine its past assumptions and “ways of being and doing.”
The primate’s statement was one of a series of open letters released by church leaders in recent months, which collectively spoke to a great deal of changed circumstances. In these letters, Anglican leaders spoke out against anti-Black racism; re-affirmed their commitment to reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples; opposed the Israeli government’s plans to annex Palestinian territories; and called on the Government of Canada to institute guaranteed basic income (GBI) for all.
Reflecting on these statements, Archbishop Nicholls sees a direct link between the COVID-19 pandemic and increased attention to issues of social justice.
“When something like the George Floyd incident happens, all of a sudden, it coalesces things that have been there under the surface for a long, long, long time,” the primate says.
“None of this is new. We’ve known this for a long, long time. But all of a sudden, people have the time to say, ‘That’s it. It’s enough. We have to do something.’ And they have some energy and time to give to it, frankly, because COVID-19 has given us that space.”
“I think a pandemic shows the cracks in our social structures and our fabric of life, because as long as everything’s chugging along normally and nobody calls us to pay attention, we just get on with our day. We get on with our lives. A pandemic just puts everybody in full-stop mode. Perspectives shift, and values shift, and you pay attention in a different way.”
COVID-19, Nicholls suggests, has laid bare existing inequalities through its more severe impact on marginalized and oppressed communities.
“People of colour have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, either because they’re frontline workers in essential services like grocery stores, support workers in hospitals … or because of poverty, or because of housing, or because of lots of other reasons why the pandemic makes a bigger impact on communities where there are other issues at play,” the primate says.
Even before the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in the United States sparked renewed global attention to anti-Black racism, the primate in March signed a joint letter with leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) and United Church of Canada recognizing the International Decade for People of African Descent from 2015 to 2024.
The letter, released on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, commits the churches to do more to address anti-Black racism, and to share resources to promote a deeper understanding of human rights with a goal towards the eradication of racism.
“We’re late to the party a bit,” Ryan Weston, lead animator of Public Witness for Social and Ecological Justice, says of the churches’ official recognition. “But just in terms of discussion with the United Church and the ELCIC, there was shared interest around endorsing that together.”
On May 3, a public letter signed by 41 Anglican and ELCIC bishops urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Finance Minister Bill Morneau to implement GBI.
In their letter, the bishops praised federal government programs responding to the economic downturn sparked by the pandemic, such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). But given “specific inclusion and exclusion criteria”, they noted, many people can fall through the gaps.
“We recommend GBI, not just as an astute financial policy, but also because it marks our identity as a country who cares for one another; it is a policy that enshrines this value in law,” the bishops wrote.
“GBI would be a new social contract, defining a new relationship amongst Canadians…. With GBI we state clearly and definitively that no one will be failed by the system so catastrophically that they cannot feed and house themselves and their families; that no one is left so alone and so far behind that they cannot find a path out of precarity.”
On May 15, leaders of churches and ecumenical organizations, including Nicholls, signed a letter to Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne criticizing Canada for its silence regarding a proposed vote by the coalition government in Israel to annex a major part of the occupied Palestinian territories. Though the vote was originally set to take place in the Knesset in early July, representatives of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later suggested a formal announcement had been delayed.
Signatories to the letter called on the Government of Canada to publicly condemn the Israeli government’s annexation plans and the U.S. government plan in support of it; “to work with the European Union and like-minded allies to take all diplomatic and political actions available to hold the government of Israel accountable for violations of international law” and enforce the rule of law without exception; and to protect the human rights of Palestinians, including their right to self-determination.
On June 2, following protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, Nicholls, ELCIC National Bishop Susan Johnson and United Church of Canada Moderator Richard Bott released a joint letter. They asked members of their churches to show solidarity with the struggle against anti-Black racism through education, prayer, and reaching out to friends of African descent.
On June 8, many bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada followed with their own statement, in which they expressed their horror at the public killing of Floyd and acknowledged the existence of systemic racism “in every part of Canada.” The letter recognized the church’s own complicity in injustice and recommitted it to confront racism and to pursue reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
“As teachers of the gospel, we remind the world that Christ himself was crucified in part because of the threat he represented in standing with those who were marginalized,” the bishops wrote. “We re-commit ourselves and our Dioceses to confront the sin of racism in all its forms and the patterns of silence and self-congratulation, which have silenced the experiences of people of colour, First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples of this land.”
On the National Indigenous Day of Prayer on June 21, Nicholls, Johnson and National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop Mark MacDonald released an open letter further re-affirming the Anglican and Lutheran churches’ commitment to ending racism and discrimination in all its forms, and to promoting reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
With the Council of General Synod (CoGS) scheduled to meet on July 25 at the time this article was written, Anglican leaders planned to bring forward a motion to re-mandate a CoGS working group on dismantling racism.
This task force would likely examine initiatives such as anti-racism training for CoGS and in dioceses and undertake a review of the 2007 Charter for Racial Justice. The goal would be for the working group to bring forward any recommendations to General Synod in 2022.
The House of Bishops, Nicholls says, also needs to have a conversation about anti-racism training, perhaps by making such training a mandatory requirement for ordination. Racism, she says, “exists in our clergy. It exists in our parishes, and we have to start by making sure the leadership is trained to recognize it in themselves, in their parish, and in their community, and then work on it.”
In the face of so many pressing social issues, all of which the primate describes as important, she cautions Anglicans to avoid burnout. With people exhausted from dealing with COVID-19—rearranging their lives, working from home, caring for their children, figuring out new ways to handle basic tasks such as buying groceries—Anglicans, she says, will have to “triage our energy levels”: setting some goals, consistently working at them, and then setting new goals afterward.
“This is a long haul,” Nicholls says. “This is not ‘we’re going to fix racism overnight.’ This is generational work. So I hope people will be encouraged to engage in it; not be discouraged by the slowness of progress; and be gentle with themselves around the physical, emotional, spiritual, mental toll that all of the change we are experiencing is putting everyone under.
“Be gracious with one another. Be invitational in our desire to see change.”