"God has a plan for us": Declaration captures urgency behind Indigenous governance work

Finding new, Indigenous models of governance is emotionally charged work in the Anglican Church of Canada. That’s why members of the Council of General Synod (COGS) will be receiving the Mississauga Declaration, a cry for self-determination, alongside other governance updates at its meeting Nov. 18 to 20.

New Indigenous governance structures are gradually emerging in the Anglican Church of Canada.  PHOTO BY STEYS ON FLICKR
New Indigenous governance structures are gradually emerging in the Anglican Church of Canada. PHOTO BY STEYS ON FLICKR

“We affirm that God has a plan for us in the Gospel and that we must claim the freedom to become what God has called us to be,” reads the 388-word declaration, penned by 32 Indigenous Anglican representatives at a September 2011 meeting in Mississauga, Ont.

“Our communities are still in crisis and we must act in defense of the people and the land.”

The Rev. Amos Winter of Kingfisher Lake, Ont. said the Mississauga Declaration was the highlight of the meeting. Like many who attended, his community is in crisis, suffering from poverty, substance abuse, and family violence. The declaration captures the urgent need for pastoral response and a way forward-through a self-determining church.

“It expresses who we are,” he said. “It expresses where we want to go. It also expresses that we need partners. We need…the whole Anglican Communion to assist us with addressing the whole crisis in our communities.”

The Indigenous Ministries department of General Synod will share the declaration with COGS for information, along with specific recommendations for new Indigenous governance structures. The declaration acts as the emotional propeller behind the recommendations, and together, both pieces advance the overall goal of a self-determining Indigenous church, first articulated in the 1994 Covenant.

New Indigenous structures emerging
The September meeting made progress in further establishing new Indigenous structures. Representatives proposed rules and regulations for selecting the National Indigenous Anglican Bishop, the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP), and the Sacred Circle national gathering. All three bodies were given official constitutional recognition at General Synod 2010.

The group also laid the groundwork for a fifth, Indigenous ecclesiastical province in the Anglican Church of Canada. Three self-supporting Indigenous dioceses are required to form this province, which would then need affirmation by resolutions from the dioceses involved and by the General Synod.

Already four areas are exploring and establishing new Indigenous structures: northern Ontario, northern Manitoba, northern Saskatchewan, and the Diocese of Moosonee. Each region is developing Indigenous leadership differently, and some area missions may work with their current bishops and synods to evolve into dioceses. Others, like the Diocese of Saskatchewan, are committed to remaining in one diocese together.

These recommendations from the September meeting will form the backbone of a full proposal for a self-governing Indigenous church that will be refined at the spring COGS meeting and presented to General Synod 2013.

Meanwhile, Indigenous Ministries and General Synod’s Governing Working Group continue to hold consultations across Canada to hear from Indigenous Anglicans about what kind of structures and practices best reflect their values.

There are still many major obstacles to overcome. These regions, often covering financially strained communities, have a long way to go before they are self-sustaining. New structures will have to negotiate boundaries and responsibilities with existing structures, including dioceses that have existed for decades. A self-governing Indigenous Anglican church would transform the whole Anglican Church of Canada, so inevitably, there are conflicts along the way.

Drawing on the past for the future
Yet Indigenous Ministries is convinced this work must continue. The ongoing problem is that current western church structures do not work well in communities that are defined by a spiritual connection to the land and close familial ties.

For example, in Indigenous communities, an elder can interrupt a meeting to speak on any topic for any length of time-a practice that doesn’t jibe well with Robert’s Rules of Order.

Or, in some languages there are no words for Anglican buildings and roles. In Oji-Cree, “warden” is often translated as “church police.”

Indigenous leaders are now responding creatively and planning their own ways of doing church at national, diocesan, and parish levels.

Even the September meeting was an example of honouring Indigenous culture. Participants spent the majority of their meeting sharing stories and worshipping together in a sacred circle before tackling the nuts and bolts of the recommendations.

At the local level, priests like the Rev. Norm Casey, ACIP co-chair, are experimenting with bringing traditional culture back into church services. His parish in Six Nations, Ont. has started to use water drum music and incorporated Mohawk language into the doxology.

“It’s important work because it’s the future of this community,” he said in an interview at the September meeting. “If we’re going to survive as First Nations people, people of the land, we need to remember who we were, because who we were is who we are today. We bring all that history with us. We need to revive our customs and traditions and honour our ancestors.”

Dorothy Monkman of Brokenhead Ojibway Nation, Man., another representative, compared the process to the journey of an adopted child who seeks her original family.

“We’re looking for ourselves and [wondering,] how do we incorporate those two things: our traditions and our Christianity?” she said.

“I think it’s a long time coming. Our history is that our customs and our ceremonies they were illegal and you could be jailed if you did ceremonies. So there’s a healing from all of that, and a reclaiming….It’s a very liberating time.”


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