Primate’s Sermon – Eighth National Sacred Circle

Archbishop Fred Hiltz, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canon, delivers a sermon during the opening Eucharist service of the eighth national Anglican Indigenous Sacred Circle on Aug. 17, 2015. 

A judgement against Israel, a psalm of penitence, and an invitation to a gospel way of living, that’s what we have in the Readings for this opening eucharist of Sacred Circle 2015, gathered under the theme “Lifted on Wings of Faith: Heeding the Indigenous Call”.

In the Reading from the Book of Judges we hear these words, “They turned away from the ways in which their ancestors had walked, who had obeyed the word of the Lord, they did not follow their examples.”  That is as much a judgement on the Church as it is of the ancient people of Israel.  The Church in ever so many ways turned away, knowingly or unknowingly from its original call in Christ to be a community given to serving the world.  It fell into the temptation of accruing unto itself temporal powers, of building bureaucracy centralized in one place or another, of complicity with colonial expansion, and the extension of empire.  It fell into the temptation of accruing into itself such authority unto itself as would become an affront to the gospel of the Servant Lord.

As among the people of Israel, the Lord God raised up judges to lead the people in accord with the Mosaic Law rooted and grounded in nothing but the commandments to love the Lord by God and to love thy neighbour as thyself, so the Lord raised up holy men and women in every age to call the Church to return to its rootedness in the Gospel of Christ.  As with the judges and prophets of old, so with the saints of the Church, the Church at times has embraced their evangelical call, and at other times struggled with it, and sadly, in some times, rejected it for the sake of its own place and power in the society of its day.  The truth is that like the people of Israel we have followed other gods, – the gods of imperialism, the notion of the superiority of some races over others, the institutionalizing of racism, the enacting of policies of assimilation grounded in nothing less than a resolve in cultural genocide.  Like the people of Israel we bowed down before such gods and we failed those whom we thought we were serving, we failed ourselves and have failed the Lord our God.  Like the people of Israel we provoked the Lord’s profound disappointment in our failure.  Dare I say we provoked the Lord’s anger in the manner in which in the name of colonialism, and the spirit of the doctrine of discovery we suppressed Indigenous across Turtle Island and smothered their languages, culture and spirituality.  In many respects, the Lord under whose heaven every family of nations takes its name upon earth, is justly angered – for it is his will that all the peoples of the earth should dwell in peace, one with another.

In Canada, this history and judgment is focussed in the Indian Residential Schools and the long intergenerational impact of the havoc wrought upon the students who survived that experience, their children and their grandchildren.

The findings of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) mandated to hear, record, and archive the stories of the survivors of The Schools has confirmed multiple failures on the part of the Federal Government and the Churches in a flawed policy of assimilation and in countless instances of abuse in The Schools, ranging from neglect, to malnourishment, to explicit emotional physical and sexual abuse.  For those who have ears to hear, a conscience to stir, and a heart to move, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has humbled this nation to confess its sin, and to pray for guidance in walking in a new and different way with the First Peoples of this land.

In the Psalm appointed for this day, we hear the psalmist saying he has come to an awareness, of his transgressions and his sins are ever before him.  He knows them and confesses them before God, and having done so he prays “Create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

In the very spirit of that petition Archbishop Michael Peers made an apology on behalf of our Church in 1993, for all our failures in the Residential Schools and committed our Church to paths of healing reconciliation and new life, however long those paths might be.  All who were present at that Native Convocation in 1993 in Minaki, Ontario and heard the Primate’s words had been hurt and torn by The Schools, as were their families and communities.  They knew in their hearts and understood in their souls that this was an historic moment in the journey of healing for themselves and for their Church.

The Apology said Michael Peers at General Synod 1995 was and is meant to acknowledge our past and to help prepare for the new thing which God is doing amongst us.  It is one step along the way of God’s healing.  The work of healing has hardly begun but it has.  It will be the work of generations to come.  Indeed others have laboured and we have entered into their labours.  Indeed that labour is a part of our work in this Sacred Circle.

The Apology was born of a contrite heart on the part of the Primate and the Church on whose behalf he spoke.  It was also borne of a hopeful heart that in our relationships with Indigenous Peoples our Church might be found more compassionate, respectful and committed to the vision of the Psalmist in saying –

“Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.  Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.” (Ps 85: 10-11)

I would venture to say that from a heart full of a similar kind of contrition and hope emerged the time line entitled “Indigenous Peoples and The Anglican Church of Canada: An Evolving Relationship”.  Of its 72 entries one half cover a period of 140 years and the other half the last 25 years.  It records moments of pain and shame, remorse and apology, reconciliation and renewal, healing and hope.  The relationship continues to take shape in the spirit of the biblical text quoted in the last panel.

“But we wait for what God has promised: new heavens and a new earth where righteousness will be at home.”  (2Peter 3:13)

In the Gospel Reading appointed for the day the story of the rich young man who asks Jesus what good deed he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus invites him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor.  “Then come”, he says, “and follow me in a life of solidarity with the poor, in a life so lived that as the psalmist says the hope of the poor will not be forgotten.

Sadly the story ends with the rich young man not having been able to accept Jesus’ invitation.  Thankfully in the history of the Church many have.  It is very much a story about those with many possessions and those with few; it’s about an anxious kind of security and a freedom from the same.  It’s about human need and neighbourly response.  While the rich young man exudes a Pharisaic kind of righteousness according to the law it lacks that charity which is at the heart of the law, – to love God and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. time and again we read in the gospel of people trying to justify their righteousness before God but Jesus cuts through it with hs radical invitation to sell all and provide for the poor.

In this Sacred Circle you will be giving attention to the Indigenous Call: “Where We Are Twenty Years after the Covenant…”.   Having listened to discussion about this Call at a meeting of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP) this spring and a couple of rounds of conversation in the National House of Bishops and the Council of General Synod, I hear a number of questions about the call, most in the spirit of understanding it and enhancing our capacity to embrace it, as fully as possible through whatever structural changes might emerge in the Church.

For my own part I try to temper my thoughts and those of others with a reminder of the context out of which this call on the part of Indigenous Leaders comes from.  That is the crisis in which many Indigenous communities are mired, – poverty, addiction, domestic violence, teen suicide, 1,200 missing and murdered Aboriginal women, and overwhelming anxiety about the future well-being of their communities.

I am continually sobered by the stark reality that 70% of Indigenous Peoples are dependent on social assistance and that one in two Aboriginal children live in poverty.  I am continually sobered by the awful reality that more Indigenous Peoples are living in slum conditions in the downtown core of large cities than in their own communities.

I am continually sobered by the awful reality that Indigenous Peoples in Canada represent the highest group of death by accident or violence of any culture in the world.

Reflecting on their history as Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous leaders who gathered in Winnipeg in April 1994 wrote.

“We have shared a journey of close to three centuries in which we have been:

  • Denied our place in God’s Creation
  • Denied our right as Children of God
  • Treated as less than equal, and
  • Subjected to abuse – culturally, physically, emotionally, sexually, and spiritually.

The result, in our communities, homes, and daily lives, has been and continues to be:

  • Broken homes and lives
  • Sexual and family violence
  • High recidivism and incarceration rates
  • High chemical abuse
  • Loss of spiritual fulfillment
  • Loss of cultures, languages and traditions, and
  • Poor stewardship of Mother Earth”

And they called on the Church at large to help build is truly Indigenous Church in Canada, able in every way to address the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of Indigenous communities.

In September 2011 a group of Indigenous leaders wrote “Seventeen year after the Covenant, our communities are still in crisis and we are convinced that we must act in defense of the people and the land.  Though gathered in a consultation on governance we have realized that our task is more urgent and more extensive.  We believe God has a plan for us in the Gospel and we must claim the freedom to become what God has called us to be.”  Empowered in faith we will live and work to overcome the crisis that brings overwhelming death to the peoples of this land.  We know god is calling our peoples through our Elders’ vision to renewal and restoration”.  (Mississauga Declaration)

While this Mississauga Declaration addressed the needs and hope of Indigenous Peoples it was not widely known or discussed in the Church at large.  So three years later in 2014, ACIP requested the Indigenous House of Bishops Leadership Circle to prepare another statement for consideration through the Church, – entitled “Where We Are Today: Twenty Years after the Covenant, an Indigenous Call to the Wider Church”, it contains a background, a summary of progress and a challenge — Mishamikoweesh in Northern Ontario and Manitoba — Together in the Gospel in Saskatchewan and the continuation of pastoral and sacramental ministries through Church-wide support of the Council of the North.  Referencing the vision of the Elders it moves on to next steps toward self-determination which will be at the heart of your conversation this week.  I am humbled and honoured to be here and to listen to them.

As I do, I am ever mindful of the pastoral context out of which every concern and question, dream and hope emerges.  I am mindful of the concern of elders, and youth, and the demands on clergy where ministry is marked by a sacrificial generosity without which so many could not cope with the memories they carry, the burdens they bear, and the grief they endure.

Much of what tempers my thoughts and I hope my influence in the thoughts of others, is also shaped by the findings of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its 94 Calls to Action.  Some devoted to All Parties to the Settlement Agreement, some specifically to the Government, some specifically to the Churches.   I refer to the call to the Churches to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery that drove the policy of assimilation in the establishing of the Indian Residential Schools, to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and implement a plan for acting on them, and to work with others in the creation of a National Covenant of Reconciliation.  I also refer to the call to reduce the number of Aboriginal children in care, – now apparently there are as many children in care as ever there were in the height of the Residential Schools era.

I refer to the call to reduce the number of children in care, – to ensure adequate financial and human resources and support services through child welfare organizations to keep Aboriginal families together where it is safe to do so, and to keep children in culturally appropriate environments, regardless of where they reside development of culturally appropriate parenting programs.

A call for Annual Reports regarding the number of children in Canada in care compared with Aboriginal children that would be in conjunction with the Prime Minister’s Annual Report on the Statutes of Peoples in Canada.

Call to Action, – to address educational and employment opportunity gaps between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children.

  • To eliminate the discrepancy in funding for First Nations Children educated on and off reserve.
  • To address backlog of First Nations students seeking post secondary education.
  • To secure more funding for youth based programs for North American Indigenous Games.

Calls to Action with respect to alarmingly high representation of Aboriginal you who are incarcerated.  Call for a 10 year window of opportunity to reverse the trend.

Call to Action in addressing the particular needs of offenders suffering with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

Call to Action to reduce the rate of criminal victimization of young girls and women.

Call for an Enquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls.

I reference these calls to action in this opening address out of an awareness and deep respect for those of you who know the realities these calls speak to and seek with compassion and courage to address them, and out of a hope that our Church will turn these Calls to Action into priorities in our ministry among and with Indigenous Peoples.  If we are true to an abiding commitment to an evolving relationship one with another the Church can do no less for the love of Jesus compels us.

In the Call to the Church Indigenous leaders say, “We wish to be responsive first and foremost to the Living Word of God.  The Good News offers us health, help, and freedom as individuals but it also gives us a good way of life as families, communities, and nations.”  I need to hear that not just with my ears but my heart and I need to see it in the continued extending of that hand first extended by Indigenous leaders in 1994 calling us into partnership in the ministry of healing and hope, for a brighter future for their children and grandchildren.

A judgement against Israel, a psalm of penitence, and a gospel of invitation to a new way of living, that’s what we have in the Readings for this opening eucharist.  This Sacred Circle like all others before, is about healing, reconciliation and new life.  It’s about renewing commitments to ministry.  It’s about the nurturing of a friendship in the spirit of Jesus’ teaching.  It’s about rebuilding trust, nurturing mutual respect, restoring harmony and looking expectantly to a new day, new joys, new possibilities in this Church of ours and in this country.  One of the contributors to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation publication, “Response, Responsibility and Renewal” wrote “Reconciliation is a dangerous opportunity to unsettle ourselves.” and I would add to settle ourselves anew in the ways of the Creator.  Another contributor spoke of reconciliation as “a kindling of hope that a just and honourable relationship with the First Nations Peoples and Métis and Inuit will be achieved within this generation.”

I am convinced that one of the most important elements in a reconciled relationship with Indigenous Peoples is in the Church’s absolute and unwavering commitment to addressing the many injustices they continue to bear.  I pray that as a Church we will rise up to this challenge, join hands with Indigenous Peoples, walk with you and with you speak truth to power.   Some of this will happen in the course of a Federal Election Campaign, some in our response to the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and some in our heeding of the Indigenous Call.

May the Spirit of the Creator give us such wisdom, strength, and steadfastness that in all things we be found faithful to the Lord and the Gospel of life with which his own dear heart beats for one and all.  Amen

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