If one does justice to the poor and destitute, then it is good; is this not knowing me?—the Word of the Lord. (Jeremiah 22:16)
Since we have lost nine of our elder clergy in the past year, most to COVID-19, we are in a crisis. Before the pandemic, on a good day, we were stretched thin in providing pastoral care to Indigenous communities with the highest rates of poverty, difficult living conditions, and overall stress, whether in urban or reserve settings across Canada. Now we are facing a human need similar to that in a war zone.
We are doing the best we can to mobilize our pastoral resources under the restraints of the pandemic protocols. To respond to this massive human crisis, we are preparing our next generation of faithful leadership for a number of roles, some of them ordained. As we do that, I have heard dozens of voices from across the non-Indigenous Church caution that they must not be ordained for the whole church—meaning that, if they are not thoroughly acquainted with a Western seminary education, they must be restricted in where they may be able to serve. They may serve as local clergy, but not clergy for the whole church.
Now, I should say that these faithful elders, well known to their communities for decades, proven faithful and pastoral in situations that see more trauma in a year than most paid clergy see in a lifetime (I know; I have been in both places), are not looking to flood the suburban churches looking for work. Yes, for us the most important element is a person’s relationship to Jesus as a disciple. But there is so much more. Most of these folks study hard and commit to life-long learning, many of them following a path that leads to academic credentials, but not in the pattern or path of discernment typical of Canadian non-Indigenous urban and suburban society. I have known a thousand of these men and women, and most of them would last longer in an urban or suburban parish than their “ordained-for-the-whole-church” counterparts would last on a reserve.
Canadian old-line churches have come to occupy less and less of the political, social, and geographical space of Canadian life, and the training of our clergy has reflected our declining boundaries. I do understand that some of these matters have been soured by perceptions of doctrinal and political differences, particularly coming out of the last General Synod. It is hard to explain how we could say—no, promise—that these things would look different in the context of human need and human relationship as they exist on the ground. We can only ask you to trust that this is so.
We intend to roll out a number of initiatives to deploy people and ordain them over the next year or so. We expect them to fulfill the highest expectations of all of the church and that they will be, as much as any seminarian, ordained for the whole church. I understand what laudable goals people are searching for when they say we must ordain for the whole church. I will join them in the search for those goals. But under such laudable goals, a lot of mischief may hide. People ordained for the whole church have caused much mayhem on reserve communities throughout Canadian history, but no one is recommending that they be outlawed or restricted. This is a simple request that Indigenous clergy and workers no longer be demeaned.