In the Diocese of Brandon, files in the office of Bishop William Cliff dating back to 1965 note discussions and requests for an Indigenous bishop who could provide spiritual leadership for residents of northern Manitoba.
Forty years later at the 2005 Sacred Circle in Pinawa, Man., elders called not only for a National Indigenous Anglican Bishop—a position later filled by Bishop Mark MacDonald—but for 15 Indigenous bishops in areas with significant Indigenous ministries.
That dream of the elders took another stride forward in May 2018, when the Ecclesiastical Province of Rupert’s Land voted at its provincial synod to create two new suffragan bishop positions, one each for northern Manitoba and northern Ontario. The installation of the two new bishops will bring the total number of active Indigenous Anglican bishops to eight.
“I think it shows a lot of faith in our ministry, in that it’s about self-determination, and that we are capable of providing leadership to take care of our own folks in our diocese and to build a ministry that God is calling us to do,” Indigenous Ministries coordinator Ginny Doctor said. “And I think people are finally beginning to realize that we can take it on, so that’s significant.”
“We’ve actually come a long way and [are] beginning to make good progress towards the 15 that the elders called for,” she added. “But I think the elders had the wisdom to see that Indigenous bishops can minister to Indigenous people, and that says a lot, I think, about who we are as a people in our call to self-determination.”
Both suffragan bishops will be considered part of the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweseh. However, the bishop for northern Manitoba will also have responsibilities related to the northern part of the Diocese of Brandon—particularly the Deanery of The Pas—and likely parts of the Diocese of Saskatchewan.
The Diocese of Brandon has committed $56,000 over the next four years to help Mishamikoweesh finance the new bishop position.
“Mishamikoweesh and Brandon share northern Manitoba, but those boundaries are really colonial holdovers,” Bishop Cliff said. “They’re diocesan boundaries from old days, and [for] the folks in the north of Manitoba, especially the Cree folks, those boundaries don’t mean a lot.”
The idea for Indigenous area bishops serving northern Manitoba and Ontario was documented at a gathering of elders near The Pas in 2011, by Anglican Video in the short feature Pitching Our Tents.
Meeting at the Church of the Redeemer in Opaskwayak Cree Nation, the elders resolved to begin the process of selecting and ordaining an area bishop. Momentum slowed in the following years, but gained renewed strength after the 2017 Road to Warm Springs consultation in Pinawa.
Archbishop Greg Kerr-Wilson, Metropolitan of Rupert’s Land, said the recent push to create the two new bishop positions reflected wider changes in the church regarding attitudes towards Indigenous self-determination.
“I think in this case, the right factors came into play, the right people in the right context, and … heightened awareness amongst the broader province of the importance and significance of Indigenous self-determination in the life of the church, and the ability to have a self-determining church within the Anglican Church of Canada,” the archbishop said.
“A big piece of that is to be able to provide that kind of episcopal leadership that can take the actions needed to create leadership in local communities, and to take care of the pastoral concerns that need to be looked after.”
Benefits for Indigenous communities
National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald called the creation of the new bishop positions “a huge shot in the arm, in multiple ways” for Indigenous ministry within the church and self-determination, noting that it would provide Indigenous bishops with a higher profile in the national House of Bishops as well as a stronger voice in the various councils of the church.
One of its most important impacts will be the ability of the Indigenous bishops to communicate in the local language of the people. Bishop MacDonald said that the bishop for northern Manitoba will “undoubtedly” speak one of the region’s three main dialects of Cree, while the bishop for northern Ontario will be able to speak Oji-Cree.
“We still have elders who are are not comfortable speaking in English, and it is also a very important thing to reinforce the language learning of young people,” he said. “This will help a great deal on both of those levels.”
Another benefit of the suffragan bishops will be their ability to provide direct pastoral care to remote communities and to preside over ceremonies such as baptisms, confirmations, and weddings—providing valuable support to area clergy, many of whom are non-stipendiary.
Many congregations in northern communities are growing due to a high birth rate, but available resources for ministry are often stretched thin. A significant number of communities do not have any clergy at all.
“When events come up in communities, either celebrations or tragedies, the presence and involvement of a local bishop is absolutely essential,” Bishop MacDonald said.
He hoped that the new bishops would address the encroaching threat of what he called “a crisis in terms of the development of leadership” by becoming “directly involved with people who are in some stages of leadership development, and who might be encouraged to move forward in the life of the church.”
Doctor, meanwhile, saw potential for a general growth in ministry and in specific areas such as stewardship.
“That’s kind of a hard call right now,” she said. “But just from what I’ve seen in the past happen, in communities that have their own ministers, it’s really had a positive effect on that ministry.”
Praying for the right candidates
Following the provincial synod, a working group met to discuss the details of filling the new bishop positions.
In the case of northern Manitoba, the working group hopes to assemble a group of elders as soon as possible—ideally within the next month— to act as a search committee for finding suitable candidates. A tentative date has been set in early September for the election and consecration of the new bishop, but could change depending on how the process unfolds.
A key concern going forward will be making sure that the new bishops are financially sustainable. Though a budget has been set for the next four years, funding will require an increase in contributions from local congregations. Bishop MacDonald, however, said that “there is quite a bit of confidence that [congregations] will respond generously to the increasing pastoral care that this position will allow.”
Despite all the challenges, Archbishop Kerr-Wilson—who with Bishop MacDonald will be overseeing the election and consecration of the bishops—expressed excitement over the progress being made, and for those who have long championed the cause of installing area bishops in the north.
“I’m very pleased that after all these years they’ve been able to get to this place,” he said. “And I would ask for the church broadly to be praying for the support and the strength of the Spirit as they move forward in this new ministry.”
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