MacDonald calls for discipleship as heart of future Indigenous church

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“To have a church is to have two or three people gathering together in the name of Jesus. And that’s all you need,” National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, left, told the Sacred Circle August 8. Also pictured is Sidney Black, Indigenous Bishop for Treaty 7 territory in the diocese of Calgary, and co-chair of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples. Photo: Tali Folkins

Prince George, B.C.

If an Indigenous expression of the Anglican Church of Canada is to be effective, it will be by putting Jesus at the centre of everything it does, and creating disciples rather than mere church members, National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald told the ninth Indigenous Anglican Sacred Circle Wednesday, August 8.

“We beseech you in the name of our living God, in the power of his word made flesh, in the power of the Holy Spirit, that you give your minds and hearts to discipleship, and that you follow him as a disciple,” MacDonald told the gathering, which is meeting in Prince George this week, August 6-11. “This is, I think, the way that we begin to make a difference in our communities.”

MacDonald was giving an address on how he and other Indigenous Anglican leaders, both in Canada and the United States, had come to embrace the “revolutionary” concept of discipleship as the hope of an Indigenous church. Discipleship, he pointed out, is the theme of this year’s Sacred Circle (“Making and Strengthening Disciples: Reborn by Water and Spirit”). Gospel-based discipleship also figures prominently in a draft statement, presented by MacDonald to the Sacred Circle August 7, on the guiding principles of the future Canadian Indigenous Anglican church.

MacDonald said his journey toward embracing discipleship spanned his years both as National Indigenous Anglican Bishop in Canada and as an Episcopalian priest and bishop in the U.S. (MacDonald served as bishop of Alaska for a decade before taking up his current role in 2007.) For him and the other Indigenous Anglican leaders who reached similar conclusions, this journey began partly with a dissatisfying sense that as Anglicans, they had merely become members of an institution.

“We felt there was something more—we were hungrier…we were hungry for something spiritual that would bring us together,” he said.

They were also greatly concerned, he said, by the diminished presence of an increasingly cash-strapped church in many Indigenous communities.

“We were seeing so many communities that were facing such difficult problems and…there wasn’t anybody there to speak a word of hope, a word of peace, a word of justice—the gospel of God. And we were frustrated,” he said.

Many of these communities were facing a dire shortage of clergy, partly because of the reluctance of church authorities to accept Indigenous candidates for ministry because they lacked a traditional seminary education.

As they spoke with Indigenous elders and pondered the problem, MacDonald said, they began to gravitate toward the idea of discipleship as a means to reclaim many Indigenous people who had drifted away from a church that had failed to spiritually nourish them.

“We know that because of our falling down on the job, a lot of other things— spiritual things, good and bad—have replaced the church in our people’s lives,” he said. “When we looked at what we needed, it wasn’t a bunch of cash to throw at a problem.”

To be a disciple is to be a kind of student who lives with his or her teacher, MacDonald said; and as he and other Indigenous spiritual leaders pondered the gospel, they realized that it promises a number of ways in which Jesus’ modern-day disciples can live with him.

“This is what we discovered that I think is revolutionary for us…that Jesus is throughout the world,” he said. “As the living word of God, he has framed all of creation,” and has also promised his presence whenever even a small number of disciples gather in his name, as is written in Matthew 18:20, MacDonald said.

“We began to understand that the authority of the church rests not in canons and rules of men and women, but that it rests in the living power of God being present wherever two or three are gathered together,” he said. “We had always looked at the church as the authority from far away. We had never looked at the authority as being Jesus in our presence.”

This concept of discipleship, as he and other Episcopalian leaders began implementing it in Alaska, Macdonald said, overturned conventional ideas about doing church.

“We always used to think in this way: if you’re going to have a church, you need a building and you need a minister,” he said. “We began to think in a different way, and that is, to have a church is to have two or three people gathering together in the name of Jesus. And that’s all you need.”

They discovered, he said, that even such a small nucleus of disciples could make a considerable difference to Indigenous communities by providing hope and help. This is why discipleship figures so prominently in the document on Indigenous self-determination he presented to Sacred Circle, he added.

“That’s all you need, because the power of God is present and will do something powerful through you,” he said. “We pray that everyone will nurture their spiritual lives by asking Jesus into their hearts and lives and follow in that way. This is what we are committed to, and in a way, this is the most important step—as we said in the paper—the most important step toward self-determination.”

MacDonald said he was confident that an Indigenous church, built on the principle of a “circle of discipleship” in each community, would flourish in a way that it did not in the past, when the church could afford more fully-paid priests.

“I absolutely declare…that just two or three people committed to discipleship will multiply and grow, and the church will be stronger in that case than they were when we had fully stipended ministers,” he said. “We are not nostalgic about the past. We are looking forward to a movement that can spread in our urban areas and in our remote areas…because this embryo, the birth of a church, is in discipleship.”

The Sacred Circle, the decision-making body of Canada’s Indigenous Anglicans, is expected to consider this week, among other items, a resolution creating a self-determining Indigenous church within the Anglican Church of Canada. Indigenous leaders hope to present the resolution to the meeting of the General Synod in July 2019.

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

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