Making ministry Indigenous

Circles of ministry place the gospel in the centre of the sacred circle of their work, local community and the land on which they live and pray. Photo: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Since the missionaries arrived, there has been a disciplined and dedicated attempt to make Indigenous churches look, act and feel like their non-Indigenous counterparts. We can say, once and for all, it was a failure. It isn’t that Indigenous congregations don’t have the means or capacity to mimic their counterparts. From the beginning and for the most part, Indigenous Christians realized that to be faithful to God and serve their communities they had to allow the Word to become flesh in their midst in an Indigenous way and to make a culturally relevant and community-based witness to the eternal truth of the gospel.

Today, one of the important ways that people may witness Indigenous self-determination is in the growing enthusiasm among Indigenous Christians to see the gospel firmly planted in their own culture and context. You will witness this most powerfully by considering the practice of ministry among the ordained and non-ordained.

The colonial church presented one model of ministry as an unyielding norm: a fully paid individual priest, trained in the philosophy and practice of the Euro-Canadian ministry, placed over a congregation with a variety of Euro-Canadian-styled programs of ministry and fellowship. Culturally inappropriate, this model of ministry has been financially unsustainable, in most places, for several decades.

An alternative has emerged: multiple clergy, elders and lay ministers form a community of disciples. Acting as a council of elders, they provide spiritual leadership and pastoral care in some of the most demanding and stressful situations of ministry on this continent. These circles of ministry practice what we call “Gospel Based Discipleship” and place the gospel in the centre of the sacred circle of their work, local community and the land on which they live and pray. Where this model has been allowed, it has been quite successful, especially when compared with the former model.

Providing equivalent levels of funding for ministry between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities is an important item of the agenda of justice and reconciliation. It is important, however, to be clear on the type of ministry that is being supported. We do not seek to fund a sinking ship. We desire to finance a noble tomorrow, full of truth, love and compassionate service.

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


  1. I would like to comment on this post and a previous one from November 23, 2018—‘Primate calls for church to show ‘humble humanity.’ In that article the Primate says he feels that people “are a little less harsh” recently in regard to the marriage canon and other topics. My experiences suggest he is right and that his own patient example helps explain part of this positive change. Thank you.
    I think that another statement—often repeated—may need urgent consideration. When our Primate says, “There is, in truth, a continuing place for everyone in this church” he is expressing the hope of our own congregation, too. However much we say we have “open doors, open hearts, open minds” and that we are a “big-tent” church, in my opinion there is still a matter that is a larger elephant in the closet than the marriage canon and that is, I maintain, the way in which the church structure leaves out the laity. Often the Anglican news services contain almost entirely clergy-related items. When people say or act as if “the bishop is the diocese” or the “bishops are the church”, a large part of the Anglican church is marginalized. Until there are what the Americans would call a system of “checks and balances” in relation to the exercise of episcopal authorities, laity is reduced to a “poor third.” When will be open to learning about the near-universal indigenous structures of councils of elders.
    I understand that these comments may cause extreme discomfort or even anger because it seems to be in the marrow of the bones of many/most Anglicans that episcopal structure may only be imagined as functioning in the way it presently does. I have to try to express these ideas here, because there are few if any forums in which to do so: synods have their agendas largely determined by bishops and some congregations experience clergy-determined agendas, too. The one “doctrine” that should unite us all is the person of Jesus Christ, whose authority was that of service.

  2. Thank you Dear Brother Mark. There needs to be more leaving the “comfort of the pew” and getting immersed in the culture and traditions of Indigenous people; Non-natives who cannot imagine themselves as being long displaced indigenous people have not given up the “old ways” of seeing.

  3. All over the world Anglicans of different backgrounds are expressing their culture through either the BCP or an alternate Anglican Liturgy. I quickly think of Anglicans in New Zealand and Africa where people of various backgrounds are using the same Anglican authorized liturgy while interjecting their own cultural expression within that liturgy all the while being under one National Church. It is amazing when you think about it! The gospel firmly planted in their cultures and context, all the while being unified in prayer and in worship under an Anglican approved liturgy.
    But when we look at our own Anglican Church of Canada. What is different? What is it about the BCP or BAS that is not working for the Indigenous in our church? The fact is there is ample room in both our liturgies to express the culture of the community of faith. When you think about it, even Anglican Parishes found in one city who use either the BCP or BAS don’t express worship exactly the same. They interject their culture into the worship.
    It saddens me that the Indigenous want their own individual church. And it saddens me even more that the powers that be in our National Church, want them to have their own church. It is almost as if unity in our differences is not a priority within the Anglican Church of Canada. Is that what we are called to do?
    St Paul had a different view. He ministered in a place where there were multiple cultures and people coming from different religions to Christ. He knows about diversity and division! Thus he dealt with divisions and wrote to the church in Corinth about the danger of division by using the image of the Body of Christ-one part can’t work alone, we need each other. In Christ we are one! (1Cor 12:12-31) By separating, the community loses it’s Christ given richness, and the gifts each member has. Christ’s Body is therefore broken. We, as the Body of Christ, are stronger together-not apart. We are called to be unified first in Christ, culture second. (1 Cor 1:10-13)

  4. Once again I am grateful for the clarity with which Bishop Mark addresses us. Personally, I find our Anglican liturgical conventions (BCP and BAS) inadequate to express the work of God in my life and in the communities in which God moves, works and lives among us. I am grateful to the few indigenous colleagues I have in ministry for opening me to experience the wisdom and beauty of practices through which I have gained much insight and, yes, grace.


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