The meaning of self-determination: Indigenous Anglican leaders envision future church

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Sacred Circle as it met in 2018. Photo by Matt Gardner

When members of General Synod gather in Vancouver this July, they will vote on an amendment that could give life to a self-determining Indigenous church within the Anglican Church of Canada. 

The proposed amendment to Canon XXII would allow the National Indigenous Ministry to make changes to matters specified by the canon without consulting General Synod; bestow the title of archbishop upon the National Indigenous Anglican Bishop (NIAB); make the NIAB a voting member of Council of General Synod; and change Canon III to specify that “the Primate is always an invited guest at the Sacred Circle, and has voice but no vote.” 

These are the institutional means that would lay the foundation for a self-determining Indigenous church. But what would self-determination mean for Indigenous Anglicans and the church as a whole? And how might it help the church to move forward in its journey to reconciliation?

“People often misinterpret what we’re doing as an attempt at independence, away from the church,” National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald says. “We really wish to become an Indigenous expression of the church, and we are only asking for the freedom and dignity that other Anglicans already enjoy.” 

As a result of colonization, he suggestsIndigenous people have been denied the ability to receive and live the Word of God, due to the imposition of foreign ways for dealing with the incarnation of the Word. 

Self-determination, MacDonald says, is “not a move away from the church, but a move to become more deeply involved in the church from an Indigenous perspective.” 

The basic tenets for a self-determining Indigenous church are laid out in the document An Indigenous Spiritual Movement: Becoming What God Intends us to be, presented at Sacred Circle 2018. The document presents a vision of a church led by Indigenous people and grounded in gospel-based discipleship, translating the essence of the Christian faith into Indigenous languages and cultural practices. 

Sacred Circle, the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples, and the Office of the NIAB represent the beginnings of the structure for a self-determining Indigenous churchWhile Sacred Circle would have its own constitution and policies, the self-determining church would give priority to the local level, allowing each congregation and community to operate in their own way and in their own time. 

“Right now, we’re trying to develop a ministry basically from the ground up,” Bishop Larry Beardy says. 

“We need clergy on the ground, and we need clergy that are stipendiary clergy. We need to organize at the local level where our people will take over [our] own local ministries. The ministry will address a healing process for our people, from the effects of things like residential schools and abuses within the church.” 

In moving towards self-determination, Indigenous Anglicans in Canada will draw on precedents both internal and external. MacDonald compares the self-determining Indigenous church to the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh (ISMM)albeit “in a broader scope”including the ISMM while expanding its work to other places. 

As leader of the ISMM, Bishop Lydia Mamakwa views the establishment of the first Indigenous diocese in 2014 as one of the earliest expressions of Indigenous self-determination within the Anglican Church of Canada. 

As a bishop, the creation of ISMM was a fulfillment of the elders’ vision, and that was a joy to see that,” she says. “Congregations and communities can speak their own language in conversing with the diocesan office. Having one of their own as bishop on the ground is very sacred for them. This is not to say that they do not welcome their non-Indigenous brothers and sisters in Christ to their midst.” 

Mamakwa says she sees a self-determining Indigenous church as “part of the Communion, but with its own identity as ‘Indigenous’ using its own traditions, structures and governance as handed down by our elders.” 

“Having a self-determining Indigenous church is important for our church to move forward in its journey towards reconciliation because in any reconciliatory work, changes need to take place,” she adds. “What hurt before needs to be removed and not repeated.” 

One precedent outside of the Canadian church for Indigenous self-determination is the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia (ACANZP).

Since 1992, the ACANZP has established a parallel leadership model based on three tikanga or cultural streams—Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia, each with its own primate. The three primates share authority for the ACANZP. The church constitution guarantees “the right of every person to choose any particular cultural expression of their faith.” 

Bishop Kito Pikaahu, general secretary of the Anglican Indigenous Network, says that the revised constitution “gave priority to hearing the voices of all partners equally. That led to the empowerment and advancement of the whole Body of Christ, especially the weak and marginalized, in a spirit of generosity, hospitality, mutuality and reciprocity.” 

The three-tikanga system, Pikaahu says, benefits the area of mission and evangelism. The revised constitution “provided for the election and consecration of Māori to Māori bishoprics with their own episcopal authority, independence and jurisdiction within clearly defined boundaries. This enabled the bishops and their synods to determine their own strategic mission and ministry imperatives.” 

Since the ACANZP established the three tikanga-system, the church has periodically reviewed its constitution. In 2001 and 2010, it reported on progress that had been achieved and areas of concern that still needed to be addressed.

Comparing the ACANZP experience to Indigenous self-determination in the Anglican Church of Canada, Pikaahu believes that Canada has “a far better model for an Indigenous church, noting that while New Zealand has overlapping diocesan boundaries of Pākehā (European-descended settlers in New Zealand) and Māori, Canada largely does not. 

Having attended Sacred Circle in 2018, the bishop recalls respectful listening and conversations that suggested an encouraging level of support for the Indigenous church. The ongoing consecration of Indigenous bishops and the active involvement and participation of non-Indigenous bishops suggest that “the Indigenous bishops and the Indigenous church as a whole earnestly intend to include the whole of the Anglican Church of Canada in this reformation or reforming of the church.” 

MacDonald echoes the assessment of PikaahuDescribing the ACANZP as “inspiration to us in many, many ways,” he stresses that while the church in Aotearoa-New Zealand-Polynesia has a parallel structure, “our hope is wanting us to be more a part of the national church.” 

As an example of what this partnership will look like, Beardy says that as Indigenous suffragan bishop for northern Manitoba, he currently assists both the bishop of the diocese of Brandon and the bishop of Missinipi in Northern Saskatchewan. 

For Beardy, the establishment of a self-determining Indigenous church would mark a watershed moment for Indigenous people and the Anglican Church of Canada. 

“I think once that happens, there’s going to be a lot of joy from the people,” the bishop says. “It’s like  coming into the Promised Land to focus on self-determination. 

“We’re coming off colonization with missionaries coming in our area, and we have to deal with abandonment and we’re starting to be self-determining,” he adds. 

“It’ll be a process. It might take some time. But I think as a people, as a family, we can walk together and othersnot only the Indigenous people, but others in the church alsocan become self-determining themselves and a people that serve God, in faith and in love.”

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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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