The 50th Session of Synod of the Ecclesiastical Province of Rupert’s Land convened on Thursday evening, April 28, when delegates from the 10 dioceses gathered for opening worship at St. Alban’s Cathedral in Prince Albert. Beginning with Indigenous drumming and song, followed by a sermon from the Rt. Rev. Sidney Black, the tone was set for the gathering, which had as its theme, ‘Truth and Reconciliation: Our Journey Toward Freedom in Christ.’
In his message, Black, who is the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) interim national Indigenous bishop, said he senses that something is about to happen. There are “exciting days ahead.” He warned, however, against changes in the church that are merely “cosmetic.”
“What is needed in our times,” he said, “is authenticity; not just numerical growth, but growth in spiritual depth… Let us re-imagine social, political and religious structures so they may generate relationships.”
Following the service, the first order of business was to elect the Metropolitan from among the bishops of the province. Several bishops, including Diocese of Edmonton Bishop Stephen London, declined to stand in the election. The Most Rev. Greg Kerr-Wilson of Calgary diocese was re-elected for another six-year term.
ACC Primate Linda Nicholls spoke to delegates on Friday afternoon, acknowledging “the deep sadness in the room” over the resignation of Mark MacDonald, former Indigenous National Anglican Archbishop. MacDonald stepped down due to acknowledged sexual misconduct, effective April 20. Nicholls acknowledged the pain of the complainant, that of the Anglican Council of Indigenous People and Sacred Circle who had worked closely with MacDonald, and that of MacDonald himself and his family. Encouraging those present she said, “I ask only that you support one another.”
She was then joined by other members of the Strategic Plan Working Group, engaging delegates in an ongoing discussion taking place at the national level, seeking direction for the Anglican Church of Canada.
Saturday morning brought an unexpected twist to the synod. Delegates began their second full day with the Metropolitan joining by Zoom, as he had tested positive for COVID-19. Nevertheless, the business session proceeded with a full agenda of elections, listening, proposing, voting on resolutions, and discussing matters of importance to the province.
Among these discussions was the consideration of a name change. The current name, The Ecclesiastical Province of Rupert’s Land, has strong colonial overtones. Prince Rupert was first-cousin to King Charles II of England and backed the first trading venture into what is now the Hudson Bay area. Many Indigenous delegates find the name a “disturbing” reminder of the ways in which pain and harm came to their people through colonization.
Two ideas for a new name were: the Ecclesiastical Province of the Northern Lights or the Ecclesiastical Province of Aurora Borealis. Delegates voted overwhelmingly to move forward with the research needed to make a name-change official, taking into consideration that documents may have to be changed not only with the Anglican Church of Canada, but also with the Government of Canada. In the meantime, the discussion regarding a new name will continue.
Saturday afternoon, delegates wrapped up their business and prepared for an evening banquet with the guest of honour, the Most. Rev. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Introducing Welby, Primate Linda Nicholls said it had struck her as a “God-incidence” when, having invited Welby to visit Canada with the work of reconciliation in mind, it turned out that his availability coincided with the provincial synod where most, if not all, Indigenous bishops would be present, along with other representatives from dioceses with a high or majority Indigenous population. It presented an opportunity for the head of the Church of England to connect personally with the issues of reconciliation in Canada and within the Anglican Church of Canada.
After the meal, Welby was presented with so many gifts from Indigenous leaders in the church that he quipped, “It’s just like Christmas!” Yet there was great solemnity in the occasion as well. Having spent the day at James Smith Cree Nation where he heard the stories of Residential School survivors, and offered an apology on behalf of the Church of England, Welby said, “Today will be burned in my memory.”
“What cuts my soul most is that the church has sinned multiple times. Those in the church who ran the schools sinned in not recognising the danger of the residential situation [that those who would use power to abuse the vulnerable would be drawn to such places]; they sinned in not controlling what went on, and they sinned over so many decades not to admit it.”
Given these truths, Welby was overwhelmed by the graciousness of the people he had met that day at James Smith. “It was more than one could ever expect,” he said. “Their graciousness is a gift to the Church. It is grace upon grace; the very nature of Christ. What this says for the Anglican Communion is that the First Nations, Inuit, and Mètis have a great lesson to teach: how to be Christ when one has suffered appalling injustices.”
For many, Welby’s visit presented a significant moment in the journey of reconciliation and healing. The Rt. Rev. Chris Harper, Bishop of Saskatoon, said it was “important that both those who have been hurt, as well as those who acknowledge that hurt, are able to meet in person; to look each other in the eye. That is where relationship begins.”
Welby also preached on Sunday morning, as the 50th session of the provincial synod culminated with a worship service, once again at St. Alban’s Cathedral. The next provincial synod will be held in the spring of 2024, in Yellowknife NWT.
The Province of Rupert’s Land is geographically the largest of the four ecclesiastical provinces in the Anglican Church of Canada, stretched over nearly 6.5 million square kilometres of land. It includes 10 dioceses: Athabasca, Edmonton and Calgary (in Alberta), Qu’Appelle, Saskatoon and Saskatchewan (in Saskatchewan), Brandon, and the diocese of Rupert’s Land (in Manitoba), the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh (in northwestern Ontario and northern Manitoba), and the diocese of the Arctic (Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Nunavik in northern Quebec).