‘I think ultimately what we’re trying to do is give birth to an aboriginal church,” said Bishop Mark McDonald, the Anglican Church of Canada’s first indigenous bishop.
“And I’m kind of like a midwife.”
McDonald was in Whitehorse at the Christ Church Cathedral Thursday to discuss the Gwich’in people’s faith with officials from the Anglican Diocese of the Yukon.
The Anglican Church, in its quest to support and unite Canadian aboriginal people, would like to treat the Gwich’in people of Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories as one mission area.
“We keep talking of a church without borders or a church without walls,” said McDonald, who hales from northern Minnesota but attended seminary in Toronto.
McDonald has some revolutionary ideas for the Anglican Church, its treatment of First Nations people and its place within their communities.
These ideas are born of his past experience ministering on Navaho reservations in the US.
There, he said, he met Jesus again.
“It will be the first time that the church has recognized that aboriginal communities are developing on their own,” said McDonald.
“The church has always said, ‘You come and be a part of us, you become like us, you do what we say,’ that sort of thing.
“This is the first real big recognition on the part of the church that aboriginal life is different, with its own genius, its own beauty, its own power.”
The pews, the books and the altar are all fluff added on by humans, said McDonald, motioning from the back of the cathedral.
“The essence that created these things is a spirit and it’s not contained in these things,” he said.
“What’s happened that is dangerous, is that people have said this is what it’s about — the fluff — the fluff is what it’s about.”
He imagines a church where places of worship are closely tied to family events, like births and deaths.
And worship does not necessarily have to happen within the four walls of the traditional church, he said.
A church could have aboriginal leaders preaching and helping their own people.
“The churches have not really been good at recognizing aboriginal identity, aboriginal authority; and, at times, the churches, along with other institutions in society, have actually worked against that identity and authority,” said McDonald.
“This is really an effort of aboriginal Anglicans and (all) Christians themselves to both serve Christ, serve the community, but also to honour aboriginal authority and identity in a way that the church has never done before.”
McDonald talked about making up for past injustices.
The Anglican Church was a big part of Canada’s residential school program, which spanned most of the last century and saw thousands of aboriginal children taken away from their homes and families and put in Anglican schools to be taught the ways of the dominant society.
Ottawa is only now providing restitution to the residential school survivors. The Anglican Church is following suit by restructuring its churches in aboriginal communities across Canada.
“We believe that the self-determination and self-development of aboriginal communities will strengthen all of Canada and we already see that, as aboriginal churches take their place — their unique and only place in church society — that the whole church is strengthened,” said McDonald.
“We might even say that the whole church is transformed.”
Canada tends to look at aboriginal people and communities as problems to be solved, he said.
He sees them as a voice to be heard.
“A voice that will be challenging, transforming and healing for all of Canada,” said McDonald.
“We know that many, many leaders are being raised up and the church just hasn’t had the eyes, the heart, the time and the insight to see those people.
“A lot of that has to do with cultural prejudice.
“A lot of that has to do with the fact that what works in a suburb of Vancouver isn’t going to work in a rural community, aboriginal or not aboriginal.
“We hope to be able to have the insight, the capacity to recognize the leaders who are there.”
Recently, an Anglican education was only available in southern urban areas.
Under McDonald, the Anglican Church is striving to provide education and training to people in their home communities.
“Somebody with a master’s degree from a university in Toronto or Montreal — it doesn’t have that much authority in a native community,” said McDonald.
“Too many people have seen people from the church and other institutions just kind of come in and stupidly stumble because, for some reason or other, when they get in an aboriginal community they don’t take the time or have the respect to learn from the people about what’s right for them.
“We hope to make big strides in that sense and we’re starting with that as our basic premise.”
After what history has shown them, aboriginal people have to learn to trust the church, said McDonald.
But it won’t be a church that is recognizable to many.
It won’t function like the churches do in Vancouver.
“We’re not just saying, ‘This is the Anglican Church and it’s got this Indian part of it,’ what we’re saying is that in aboriginal life, in aboriginal land, among the people, the church has to develop in an aboriginal way,” said McDonald.
“We’re really not just trying to make a bad thing palatable; we’re trying to become a new thing all together.”