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Church has much to learn from indigenous, says Hiltz

09 December 2016

The Canadian Primate talks to Madeleine Davies


REFLECTING on the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools, a Church-sanctioned attempt to “civilise” indigenous children, the Primate of Canada, the Most Revd Fred Hiltz, said this week that he dared to hope that the Church today was a more tolerant place.

He said that he had observed in his lifetime a “gradual broadening of our horizons”. Where once the Anglican Church, which ran 24 of the schools, had been involved in the destruction of indigenous culture, today it would rather learn from Indigenous Peoples, and “celebrate together the rich diversity that in fact is the kingdom of God”.

“My sense is not that the Church’s vision is any better or clearer than it ever was, but I do think that the Church of today is actually much more aware of and sensitive to diversity,” he said. “It’s much more sensitive to a vision of the Kingdom, not in terms of Empire, hierarchy, but in terms of the way Jesus talks about the Kingdom in terms of its vastness, its inclusiveness.”

The legacy of the schools, and the Church’s moves towards reconciliation with the Indigenous Peoples of Canada, was the subject of the Primate’s inaugural Fellowship of the Maple Leaf lecture this week. More than 150,000 children were placed in such schools, many of whom were abused. More than 3000 died, and were often buried in unmarked graves. The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, gave rise to a nationwide Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and both the Government and the Church have issued formal apologies. The Church has spent $7.5 million on projects dedicated to healing and the recovery of indigenous culture.

Today, Archbishop Hiltz sees signs of hope in the Church’s relationship with the Indigenous Peoples, who have expressed a desire to build a “truly indigenous church” within the Anglican one. The latest challenge to the relationship is the question of same-sex marriage.

After a dramatic vote recount, a motion to enable the Church to solemnise same-sex marriage was passed in July (News, 15 July), but must now be passed again in 2019, before coming into force in 2020. The Church’s three Indigenous bishops voted against changing the canon and have expressed a desire to “proceed towards self-determination with urgency”. A consultation on this is to take place next year.

“There is a sanctity about marriage in indigenous communities that is very, very strong,” the Primate said. The “real crisis” within these communities was not same-sex marriage but the prevalence of domestic violence, and divorce. Violence, addiction, and high suicide rates were part of the legacy of the residential schools, which “tore” children away from their families, he said.

He believes that the wider Church could learn from the approach of the Indigenous Peoples, which often includes extended consultation with elders. This is “healthier” for the Church than the adoption of “very entrenched” positions, he says.

Since the vote, several bishops have said that they will offer “pastoral provisions” for couples seeking same-sex marriages, defying the legal timeline. They were not acting “carelessly”, but were under “significant pressure” in their dioceses, the Primate said. But he understood why conservative bishops felt “frustrated”. Many Canadian Anglicans were happy for same-sex relationships to be blessed, and were not “vindictive or hateful” but “genuinely struggling” with whether to call this marriage.

Although he has always been clear about his personal position — in favour of same-sex marriage — the Primate is keen to emphasise that he has not imposed it on anybody. Yet some bishops do not trust him, and the challenge of being a “focus of unity” was “very costly. It is emotionally draining. It is spiritually draining. And, quite frankly, it can be a very lonely ministry, because you wear it all. You carry it all.”

His advice to people in England preparing for the General Synod debate is to “be patient”, he says, and to enter into it wondering what might be learned from talking to others rather than seeking to convince others that they are wrong. They should also consider the needs and “deep desires” of their neighbours, and how to “respond appropriately”. Even amid “deeply challenging conversations”, Anglicans should be able to “look at one another and say ‘I see in you the Christ who makes us one.’”

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