Each assembly of the World Council of Churches elects up to eight regional presidents. According to the WCC’s constitution, these are “persons whose ecumenical experience and standing is widely recognized by the member churches and among the ecumenical partners of the World Council in their respective regions and ecclesial traditions.”
This WCC assembly chose its eight regional presidents on Monday evening. Bishop Mark MacDonald, the Anglican Church of Canada’s national indigenous bishop, was chosen to serve the next eight years (until the next assembly) as the WCC’s president for North America.
Regional presidents serve as ambassadors for the World Council of Churches in their respective regions, promoting and interpreting the council’s work. They also voice the concerns of the WCC’s member churches in the region to the council’s leadership.
In the context of the WCC, the North American region is composed of only Canada and the United States. (Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean are grouped into a separate region of their own.) Having worked in both the Episcopal Church in the United States and in the Anglican Church of Canada, Bishop Mark knows both countries well. In a sense, he has a foot on both sides of the border, and as an aboriginal person, he has an identity that transcends our political borders.
Bishop Mark is the first indigenous person to serve as the WCC’s North American president. As a result he expects that in addition to bringing North American issues to the WCC leadership table, he’ll also be bringing the concerns of aboriginal peoples from around the world.
“There are a lot of indigenous people who are happy to see me in this position because it gives them a voice that they’ve never had before,” Bishop Mark told me the day after his election. He said he’s already been approached by indigenous people at the assembly from Papua New Guinea, Latin America, and Australia, who have concerns they hope he’ll be able to voice at the highest levels of the WCC.
The WCC’s General Secretary, Olav Fykse Tveit, agrees that Bishop Mark’s election as North American president is significant, not least of all because he will represent a stronger voice for indigenous peoples in the life and work of the council.
“There’s no doubt about that,” the General Secretary told me. “His voice is a very strong one. The role of being president can also be a solid platform to make those perspectives known and also received while in the whole council.”
His presidency also has the potential to further raise the Anglican Church of Canada’s profile within the World Council of Churches. Our church is a charter member of the WCC, and has always made significant contributions to this privileged instrument of the ecumenical movement. Archbishop Ted Scott was a moderator of the WCC’s Central Committee during some of the council’s most energetic years, and two Canadian Anglicans serve as senior WCC staff.
But more than just raise our church’s profile in the WCC, Bishop Mark thinks his time as North American president could also serve to positively change it: “Canadian Anglicanism is a very rich and broad thing. I don’t think that the world always sees us that way. I think that there’s a stereotypical view of who we are. I think that if the Anglican Church of Canada is perceived through the lens of indigenous ministry, it helps people to understand what a diverse and unique ministry we are.”
Bishop Mark isn’t giving up his “day job” to serve as the WCC’s North American president. He’ll continue to serve as the Anglican Church of Canada’s national indigenous bishop. However, he now becomes an ex officio member of the WCC’s Central Committee, which meets every two years. He may also be invited by other WCC member churches in North America to speak to them about the council’s life and work. President for less than a day, he’d already received one such invitation.
But he say she plans to be judicious about how much time he spends away on WCC business. “My main priority, of course, remains to my work and to my family.”