"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith, engineering, non-Newtonian frames and Métis goodness.

“Why I walked”

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Writing this to work through my thoughts leading to a letter of resignation.

J.I. Packer wrote an article in Christianity Today about why he walked out of his church’s synod. It’s titled, “Why I Walked: Sometimes Loving a Denomination Requires You to FIght”. The presenting issue at that synod was same-sex marriage but, with due respect to Dr Packer, this title now comes back to me as a sign of the deep issues I have with the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC).

To start, I have deep respect for many members of the ACC who I’ve numbered as colleagues and friends for many years. This should not be construed as a critique of any individual, rather it’s a reflection on the deep systemic issues with the institution. Institutions are made up of people, for sure, and those people chose to endorse and sustain dysfunction, or to renovate and reform. That doesn’t change my love for many individuals.

I’ve been an ordained priest in the ACC since 2004, which makes 6 June the 18th anniversary of my deaconing. Only about 1.5 years of that time were spent in full-time parish ministry, which is another story. I’ve served (or not as volunteers have the option to chose) as an honorary assistant for the bulk of that time. Once did some interim work filling in half-time during sabaticals while working part-time, but mostly maintained secular employment as an engineer.

My experience is mostly in leadership roles. Last big job in the military I supervised 170 technicians and engineers and was responsible for 18 airplanes. Last job as a civilian I had 92 staff and about 15M budget regulating the professions of engineering and geoscience. Lots of experience managing, leading and making tough decisions. I say this to emphasize I’m not a typical clergyperson who enters ordained ministry right after schooling. When I was ordained in 2004 I just retired with 20 years service in uniform.

I’m also Métis, born and raised in the Red River valley.

For a while now I’ve been increasingly frustrated with the ACC’s absolutely inane attempts to engage the issue of reconciliation and Indigenous within the church. I’ve written elsewhere about the symptoms of this: when I was still preaching pre-pandemic I smudged with sage in my car in the parking lot, as I’d had several very negative experiences with church members when I would smudge indoors. A question about doing some children’s talk teaching about Indigenous spirituality was refused on the basis that the community wasn’t ready for that type of knowledge yet. For a church that talks a good talk about making space for Indigenous, the message to me is clear: you can’t be who you are, and your spirituality and ceremony have no place in our community.

We have four Indigenous clergy in our area and have an active Indigenous ministry endorsed by leadership. In my 18 years in the diocese the only time I was contacted about an Indigneous question was after I complained about a poorly structured diversity survey. So a church that “values” Indigenous, has activity focused on my community, but never bothers to reach out to discuss what we could or should be doing as a community of faith. This is not the way that Indigenous live, as our community decision-making is always collective…always collective. My encounter with Indigenous ministry in my church is that it manifests itself identically to the way the church operates: the primary concern always is power and control. I’ll dig into this more in a bit as this is the key thought I’ve wrestled with for years.

One objection I’ve heard – you’re just complaining, you could reach out and offer to help, ask to be included. For sure I could. Except. Reconciliation is the work of Settlers, and it is the work of the Colonial church. It is not my job as Indigenous to drive myself into the colonial structures in an attempt to get them to respond and start reconciling. This is a common issue in marginalized communities – the marginalizer’s first defence is to say, Well, we’re willing, but no one shows up to talk to us. (I’ve talked about this for a decade, preached about it, given presentations and published a chapter in a book about the specific question of Indigenous-Church worldview collision. If I haven’t been able to effect any change from within, it’s maybe time to consider that I’ve fought the good fight to the extent I can and the change imperative no longer rests on my shoulders – not that it ever was my responsibility. Point is, I’ve tried.)

I hear endless stories about screw ups at church events. Some elders are invited using the relationships developed by Indigenous in the church. In spite of helping explain the proper ceremony and way of greeting and recognizing the elders, this is ignored, and an elder says I’m not willing to return if you’re not willing to make the effort. This is another symptom of an organization that is fundamentally certain about its holiness, and in its expectation that people need to come to it. That’s not the way Indigenous live.

My more recent realization is my presence inside the power structures facilitates those structures in not changing. In my last job my boss frequently talked about what a great place he had created for people to work…but when an Indigenous person pushed back against a huge gaff, he questioned me about why they were so sensitive. As I tried to explain that Indigenous trauma impacts people differently, and it requires care and consideration from Settlers, I could see his conclusion that this was just an unreasonable person. An unreasonable person who is dealing with mass graves of murdered children, and like me, a family legacy of harm done by colonial organizations like the church. Settlers don’t understand it (mostly) because they’re so secure in their place of power.

I’ve also heard that one of the white clergy is providing teachings on Indigenous ceremony. Now, this is certain possible and proper. Our teachings may be gifted to anyone who is prepared and ready to receive them, and once gifted and allowed to be a teacher, those may be passed on to others. But – what message does it send when a non-Indigenous person enters almost 100% Settler churches and provides them with teachings about Indigenous spirituality? This troubles me so much, and the fact that this is openly relied on as a source of teaching is a really clear illustration of how misunderstood the context of colonial genocide and reconciliation is within the church. Let me illustrate. A white clergy person teaches about Indigenous ceremony. This becomes just another ritual of the church, used in colonial spaces, by a colonial voice. It becomes completely appropriated by the same structures that continue to cause harm. It sends a really clear message to church members about who is in control of Indigenous teachings.

So I can’t smudge indoors in my parish, or talk about Métis spirituality as a teaching topic, and have never been engaged by the church on Indigenous spirituality and practices…but white clergy can travel around and teach Settler church members about Indigenous ceremony. Which one of us is the church ‘approved’ source of knowledge? If you don’t get why that it so offensive to me, maybe just take it on faith that Indigenous people are not impressed. My corporate church never engages me to provide such input, but is happy having a Settler clergyperson provide that teaching.

Maybe this would be a good time to bring in actual elders from the local nations to do teaching in our communities, and to build a relationship with real Indigenous people. That is, an opportunity to actually engage in reconciliation rather than appropriation.

Driving home from work when I hear the news about the graves just discovered in Kamloops. I’m sobbing in my car listening to the news. Driving home listening about the Colton Boushie trial outcome, once again sobbing my car as the Settler court frees a murderer on a ludicrous firearms argument (“hangfire”). Settlers still free to murder my relations, today. Now we’re into another murder trial: two trucks of Settlers who chased down two Métis hunters and shot them dead “fearing for their lives” even while neither of the hunters was holding a firearm. Settlers murdering my relations because they thought they were stealing from their property (which isn’t a legal ground for use of deadly force in Canada). All through this my church, which says that reconciliation is critical, never reaches out to ask how I’m doing as I’m dealing with continued genocide. There’s only four of us in our diocese – how hard can it be to drop an email? But Indigenous in Canada are, even in the church, mostly an afterthought (unless we raise a barricade and protest, at which point we get immediate legislation and the RCMP ERT rolled).

Now, we roll forward to present day, and a dear Métis cousin mentions #acctoo in passing. I’d not heard about this yet, so went and did some reading…and then had to “peel myself off the ceiling”. There’s an excellent website with all the details: https://www.acctoo.ca/ (read the letter from the former Anglican Journal editor as he lays everything out). Basically, three survivors of clergy sexual abuse decide to provide input for a story to the Anglican Journal about their horrible experiences with reporting the abuse to three church diocese and a church school. They obtain certain guarantees from the editor and the journalist, pretty typical things for trauma-informed journalism like protection of identities and the chance to review the drafts before publishing. As the story is being worked up, the national church gets wind of it, and through a process of raw power and bullying gets a copy of the draft article (still full of personal identifiers). That draft is then shared with the national church governing body and copies sent to the four organizations involved in the mishandling of the original complaints. An investigation ensures (“independent” by a person who starts the report by noting he is a proud life-long Anglican). While the church governing body is told the report is just about journalism, it turns out it contains personal details about one survivor. The individual who sent copies of the document out apologized, sort of, and the national church marginalized and gaslit the survivors.

So there’s only one word in my dictionary to describe what was done to survivors of clergy sexual abuse, and that word is evil. You can’t repaint this any other way. For the survivor of a fundamental betrayal (which is what clergy sexual abuse represents) to be betrayed again by a clergy person again is evil. In fact, the transgression of the individual who shared that confidential information is as traumatic for survivors as the original assault. Before you wave hands about this – ask a survivor.

This is the part that required I peel myself off the ceiling. I’ve supervised more people than most clergy will ever encounter in their lives as leaders. I’ve dealt with sensitive information at all sorts of levels from pastoral to NATO Top Secret. If one of my staff had done what this person did they would either be in jail (military) or doing the walk of shame before that day ended. This is so fundamental, and particularly for a person who is ordained, I can’t explain adequately how outraged I am. What it reflects is a church leader who placed the institution’s health and protection above that of three survivors – this is a huge tell about how church leaders think, and how messed up our understanding of church (ecclesiology) has become.

But, this is another symptom of the rot that I see throughout the organizational church. I’ll explain – and I can start with the statement of the governing body of the ACC, because they stated this quite boldly. Read through the #acctoo website for all the details, particularly the timeline that links to all the documents.

Council of General Synod offered a response that includes a few gems:

Management has expressed regret for one of the most egregious errors in this case, namely sharing the text of a story in advance with individuals or institutions in the church that are the subject of that story. A commitment has been made not to do this in the future – a commitment Council expects to be fulfilled.

https://www.anglican.ca/news/cogs-statement/30038789/

“Management has expressed regret…” for re-traumatizing three survivors of clergy sexual abuse, through a priest violating their disclosures. Apart from all the gaslighting in this response and the words of the primate (statements implying different narratives, an unwillingness to meet, incorrect details etc), this is a pretty severe minimization of what happened. And the commitment is, we won’t do it again. Except they did, almost immediately. “CoGS is assured that the written report of the independent investigator deals entirely with journalistic matters, and says absolutely nothing about the circumstances of the original complaints by the individuals.” But it did, and someone lied to COGS, and COGS failed in its due diligence to verify what it was told. The Fraser “independent” report was released without redaction to the Anglican Journal, and contained personal identification of one of the survivors. So as COGS stated “expects to be fulfilled” it literally happened again. Evil, pure and simple.

In the COGS statement came this very telling paragraph:

There are at least three distinct, though related, strands to this issue, which unfortunately have been blurred in some of the public discussion to date.  One is the matter of journalistic policy and practice; in particular, the respective roles of journalists and management when the church is the subject of the story.  A second is the question of how the church does, and should, deal with complaints of sexual misconduct, and give meaningful expression to its “Safe Church” commitments.  A third is the challenge faced by church leadership at all levels, given both the Gospel imperative to care for the powerless and victimized, and their covenanted responsibility to the institution. [emphasis added]

https://www.anglican.ca/news/cogs-statement/30038789/

The telling bit is the last line, “the challenge faced by church leadership…given both the Gospel imperative to care for the powerless and victimized, and their covenanted responsibility to the institution”. This represents the core of my issues with the organizational church, and illustrates how badly understood Anglican ecclesiology has become (or has always been).

Members of legal governing boards of corporations have fiduciary responsibilities to the corporation. I’ve been in that role much of my life, I understand what it means. The church corporate is a legal body that falls under Canadian corporate law, for sure. But, to state so boldly that the challenge of church leaders is to balance between the Gospel and responsibility to the institution completely misunderstands the role of leaders in what is supposed to be a Gospel-centric community. It also reflects what secular organizations do when threatened: it doesn’t matter if harm was done, what matters is the protection of the institution meaning those traumatized will be silenced at all cost.

We see this come across in many rationalizations that impact survivors like these three. “Don’t they see how much good the organization is doing?” “We need to protect all the other people we’re helping.” “The church does much more good than harm.” And the institution works to marginalize and silence those who present a challenge to its existance. The institution protects a priest who has violated moral and ethical boundaries around that Gospel imperative, and leaves him in a position of great responsibility and authority. The institution gaslights and undercuts the survivors, and when they refuse to meet on its terms, say, “Well, we’re here waiting, when you’re ready to talk to us.”

Which loops right back to the beginning with my experience of church/indigenous reconciliation. “We’re here waiting. Not our fault if we finally (after 18 years) offer and you decline.”

I’m convinced one reason this is happening is our bishops are in the regular habit of deferring to legal advice. Recently in a pandemic comment our diocese lawyer stated that there was no doctrinal precedent in Anglican tradition for vaccine exemptions. Hmm, a lawyer making a definitive statement about church doctrine…something that is a matter for the office which is sworn as the keeper of tradition, the bishop. At a minimum it is a matter for theological discourse, and far outside the competence and expertise of lawyers to opine on. That statement from COGS was reviewed by legal counsel – it has all the hallmarks of a legal mind editting (this too I’ve been intimately involved in for most of the past 20 years). That we allow lawyers to influence matters of church doctrine also illustrates how badly our ecclesiology is twisted.

This is in fact, the subordination of the Gospel to the common law, the same theme as protection of the institution. We need to pay attention and comply with the law, for sure, but we are called to conform to the Gospel and to be apart from the world, rather than a part of the world. “Let the dead bury the dead.” (Matthew 8:22)

The Gospel message (and the Old Testament for that matter) send a unitary message when encountering the victim, the survivor and the marginalized: they are the Kingdom of Heaven. If the institution stands in the way of caring for them, there is only one Gospel response. Burn the institution to the ground, and care for the victim.

As it stands today, the survivors in the #acctoo group still haven’t seen the investigation report. The priest who violated their personal information continues in his senior position. The senior bishop stated she would not be responding to the survivor’s letter. Caring for the least of those among you…

This brings me to the point of this. Sometimes you have to walk. I cannot remain in an organization that allows people like the General Secretary to remain in his role after deliberately causing such harm to the survivors (deliberate…he took the materials, he released them…if he reviewed them it should have been clear that they should not have been released). I’m also tired of being one of those Indigenous clergy in an organization that has not demonstrated any real effort toward reconciliation.

It’s also apparent to me that remaining under license facilitates the maintenance of the institution. Perhaps relinquishing that license will be a more prophetic act that continuing to rail from within?

After 18 years licensed to minister in the ACC, I’ll be resigning that license after drafting a letter to my bishop.


As a footnote, there are lots of amazing caring clergy in the ACC, a number I’m happy to call friends. Several have been immensely important to me at really tough times (after my father-in-law was killed in a bear attack for example). But, my beef is with the institution and the organization that continues to behave so reprehensibly and those who allow that to happen without demanding change.

Question for reflection: I reviewed the #acctoo open letter signatories tonight. Over 400, lots of clergy on the list, but only one bishop (without cross-referencing all the names). Why is there only one “Right Reverend” signature on such an important letter? There have only been two pastoral letters issued by Canadian bishops (about 6 signatories in total) talking about the open letter and what happened at the House of Bishop’s meeting in March. Why all the silence from the vast majority of bishops?

On the JI Packer opening – this was part of the movement that spawned a spin-off independent church that was called the Network (I haven’t been following church politics for several years so don’t know where this is). The part of the split that amazed me…there was lots of good critique about the ACC’s use of power and authority (and legal principles) to force marriage issues. I’d add to that a lack of sincere community engagement with the questions. The amazing part was that the Network recreated the ACC ecclesiology in an independent body. So the form that led to JI Packer walking, is duplicated with the expectation of a different outcome?

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Written by sameo416

May 28, 2022 at 8:57 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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