From cults to colonialism: Tri-History Conference explores church role in trauma, survival

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David Neelands speaks during a special joint session of the Trinity Divinity Associates at the 2019 Tri-History Conference, flanked by fellow panelist Victoria Matthews. Photo by Matt Gardner

The death of a young woman in connection with a faith-healing cult based out of an Anglican church was a traumatic moment for the Anglican Church of Canada in the 1960s, sending shockwaves through the diocese of Toronto.  

Led by rector George Moore Smith at St. Matthias Anglican Church in Trinity-Bellwoods, the cultknown as the Ministry of Healingsaw followers speaking in tongues, going into trances, and performing exorcisms. In 1967, a 17-year-old follower of the ministry, Katherine Globe, developed intense head pain and was denied medical treatment by the group, who saw it as evidence of demonic possession. She eventually died in the rectory at St. Matthias. Later, Moore and other members of the Ministry of Healing went to the morgue and attempted to revive her, which led to a public scandal. 

For David Neelands, this traumatic episode had a more personal aspectNow retired after a long tenure as dean of divinity at Trinity College, Neelands was a young theology student at Trinity at the time the cult was flourishing at St. Matthias. Kathy Globe was the sister of his best friend at the time, who had encouraged Neelands to join the cult. 

Speaking about the cult and its aftermath as part of a panel discussion at the 2019 Tri-History Conference in Toronto, Neelands recalled, “The church was traumatized. The local church was traumatized, the diocese was traumatized, and I think all Anglicans were ashamed, because it became fairly public, especially after they tried to resurrect her at the morgue. Then we went to a coroner’s inquest, and that was devastating.”

Stories of trauma and survival were central to the latest meeting of the Tri-History Conference, an international gathering of Anglican and Episcopal historians and archivists that took place from June 18-21 at Trinity College and Wycliffe College. 

Taking place every three years, the Tri-History Conference provides a forum for the discussion of Anglican/Episcopal heritage, archives and history. The conference began in the mid-1980s and is co-sponsored by three historical organizations of the Episcopal Church: the Historical Society of the Episcopal Church, the National Episcopal Historians and Archivists, and the Episcopal Women’s History Project. This year’s conference marked the first time the gathering had been held in Canada since 2001.  

The theme of the 2019 conference was “Trauma and Survival in the Contemporary Church: Historical, Archival, and Missional Responses.” In total, 95 participants registered for the event, which saw additional support from the Canadian Church Historical Society and the Anglican Foundation of Canada. 

“We try to encourage a mix of people,” facilitator and chief organizer Jonathan Lofft said. “So we have professionals and amateurs, clergy and laity [and academics]. But we have other presenters who are professional archivists, and people who are just lovers of Anglican and Episcopal history.” 

Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, served as homilist and National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald as intercessor during the conference’s opening Eucharist, which was held at Trinity Chapel. That day coincided with the commemoration in the liturgical calendar of Bernard Mizeki, an African Anglican missionary and martyr. 

Primate Fred Hiltz delivers his homily at the opening Eucharist of the Tri-History Conference. Photo by Matt Gardner

In his homily, the primate described the life and ministry of Mizeki and the traumatic events that ended his life, and paid tribute to his martyrdom. A catechist and teacher from Zimbabwe, Mizeki was dragged from his home and stabbed in 1896 during the Matabeleland Rebellion against the British South Africa Company. His pregnant wife Mutwa found him alive and sought help, but when she returned his body had disappeared. 

Mizeki’s story, the primate said, “reflects the white supremacy of the times and the servitude endured by so many. It reflects too the amazing resilience of a people whose trust is in God. It reflects such a profound witness to Christ as to be exemplary for us all.” 

No strangers to trauma 

Eric Taylor Woods, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of East London, served as keynote speaker at the conference. His presentation drew upon his book A Cultural Sociology of Anglican Mission and the Indian Residential Schools in Canada: The Long Road to Apology. 

Like other speakers at the conference, Woods is no stranger to trauma. In 2016, his infant child died, followed five weeks later by the death of his wife from complications related to her pregnancy. Shortly thereafter, Woods himself was diagnosed with an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis and lost the use of his legs, being able to walk again only recently. 

In his keynote presentation, Woods offered a conceptual view of trauma from a sociological perspective, specifically cultural trauma and how it relates to the Anglican Church of Canada and the residential school system. 

Eric Taylor Woods discusses cultural trauma in his keynote address. Photo by Matt Gardner

A key aspect of the process of cultural traumaWoods said, is the attribution of responsibility: who or what is the perpetrator of the trauma? Such questions can in turn lead to “perpetrator trauma,” which occurs when persons or collectives feel they have acted in a way contrary to how they perceive their own self-identity. To avoid perpetrator trauma, individuals will either “seek to distance their identities from moral taint” by shifting blame, or “alleviate the taint” by making amends. 

In the view of Woods, the Anglican Church of Canada has undergone its own struggle with perpetrator trauma since its formal role in the residential schools ended in the 1960s. The association of the church’s collective identity with this moral taint has been at the heart of its response.  

Anglicans in different times and places, he said, have responded in a variety of ways: denial (suggesting abuses were untrue, arguing that “we were helping”), shifting blame (seeing abuses as the result of a “few bad apples” rather than the system as a whole), focusing on the future (“let’s build a better future together rather than focus on the past”), and seeking to make amends (“we were responsible and we offer redress”). 

The church’s ongoing response to the trauma of the residential schools, Wood indicated, will help define a new postcolonial Anglicanism.” During a subsequent discussion period, the primate and national Indigenous Anglican bishop discussed how the upcoming General Synod vote on a self-determining Indigenous church as part of the Anglican Church of Canada reflects that response from the church. 

The residential school system may be the most well-known historical trauma that called for a response from the church. But in his account of the cult at St. Matthias, Neelands described how the diocese of Toronto struggled to respond to the institutional trauma that followed Kathy Globe’s death. 

Then-bishop George Snell was reluctant to move against an inducted incumbent, Neelands said. It took some time before the diocese intervened in the form of a bishop’s commission, which produced an investigation and report. Eventually, St. Matthias began a new ministry and survived, with Neelands later becoming interim priest-in-charge for the congregation. 

Reflecting today on how the church responded to this trauma, Neelands said, “I think that people moved on in a way that amounted to denial.”  

“Once the cult was gone and the priest was gone, the congregation could just settle down, and frankly they had never been very implicated in it anyway,” he added. “The rest of us would say, ‘Oh, blame the bishop who did that, blame the clergy who were crazies.’ So I think that the rest of us would try and work through it by blaming, I’m afraidand then just [through the passage of] time.” 

On a personal level, the experience of the Ministry of Healing and the response of the Anglican Church of Canada caused Neelands to come into his adult experience of Christianity “with a healthy view that a church community can be wrong.” 

It also had an impact on his relationship with his friend, who Neelands said “apparently did not blame the group and refused to discuss these matters, since I was an outsider and potentially an enemy. Although we have spoken since, there has never been the warmth that existed before, and I do not know what his reflections on the history are.”  

Many other forms of trauma, and the ways that people dealt or continue to deal with them, were presented and discussed at the Tri-History Conference. Neelands’ presentation on the St. Matthias cult was part of a special joint session at the conference featuring members of the Trinity Divinity Associates, the alumni association at the Faculty of Divinity. 

Another speaker at that session was Bishop Victoria Matthews, who formerly served as suffragan bishop for the Anglican diocese of Toronto, bishop of Edmonton, and bishop of Christchurch in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia from 2008 until 2018. During her time as bishop of Christchurch, Matthews bore witness to the 2011 Christchurch earthquake that killed 185 people, injured thousands of others, and severely damaged the ChristChurch Cathedral in the centre of the city.  

At this joint session, Matthews spoke about her experience of the earthquake and its aftermath, which saw prolonged controversy after the church decided to demolish the cathedral and build a new, safer buildinga decision that was eventually reversed at its 2017 diocesan synod. The church’s original decision, Matthews said, flowed from questions about how best to develop resilience in the face of trauma.  

Worship and scholarship 

Throughout the conference, participants heard an extensive range of papers and presentations on Anglican and Episcopal history and attended various workshops and panels. 

An archives workshop included presentations from General Synod archivist Laurel Parson as well as Trinity College archivist Sylvia Lassam and West Texas diocesan archivist David Allen White. Parson spoke about the response of the Anglican Church of Canada to causing trauma in the residential schools, but also to positive responses to trauma such as helping care for Irish immigrants who suffered a typhoid fever outbreak in 1847.  

General Synod archivist Laurel Parson (right) gives a presentation at the archives workshop as fellow speaker Sylvia Lassam, Rolph-Bell archivist of Trinity College, listens. Photo by Matt Gardner

More recently, she saidthe national church’s archives have played a constructive role in the healing process for residential school survivors and their families. 

“We’ve been able to help a lot of families find missing people [or] photographs about their relatives,” Parson said. “They may never have seen photos of their grandparents, or their parents even, as children.  

“We had photos from the schools, and going around the regional and national [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] events provided opportunities to share those photos, and it was very popular when we were at the national events. They would come back over and over again and bring more people with them, just for them to see, and they were able to get copies as well.  

“It proved that having those archives helped those people, and to get closure on people who had died at the schools, but [relatives] may not have gotten all the details, or where they were buried. If we’re able to find that in our records, then that helps them [find] some closure. We’re able to do that because of the archives and history.”   

Along with workshops and presentations, the Tri-History Conference included an evening concert at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene celebrating the music of Anglican organist and composer Healey Willan. On the final day of the event, participants travelled to Six Nations to visit the Mohawk Institute, the Chapel Royal of the Mohawks and the Woodlands Cultural Centre.  

Lofft describes fellowship and worship as some of the main goals of the conference, in addition to helping participants find opportunities for publication.  

“It’s always a great opportunity to reach across the border and interact with our Episcopal brethren. But I think we also want to encourage serious scholarship into Anglican and Episcopal history.” 

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Matt Gardner
Matt Gardner is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Gardner worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Gardner has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He will continue to support corporate communications efforts during his time at the Journal.

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