Part One: The Birth of the Covenant
In the book of Genesis, we read of a covenant between God and God’s people: “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you” (Genesis 9:9).
A covenant is a sacred agreement between two parties; in this case, God and God’s people. Covenants have been important through the ages as they have a way of cementing relationships, giving each side an understanding of how to be in relationship.
Back in 1987, the Anglican Church if Canada held its first sacred Indigenous gathering at Fort Qu’Appelle. Other than the Primate, Michael Peers, everyone in attendance was Indigenous. They came from across Canada and for some it was the very first time they had left the reserve. For others, it was the first time they had seen an Indigenous clergy person.
That sacred gathering in the Diocese of Qu’Apppelle became the model for other sacred gatherings that eventually became known as the Sacred Circle. Over the years, the Sacred Circle has welcomed non Indigenous partners and the Primate’s role has remained the same: to listen, to celebrate Communion, and bring reflection at the end.
In essence, the Sacred Circle was a truly Indigenous program, planned by Indigenous people, and representative of Indigenous beliefs, culture and spirituality. I have attended all but the first Sacred Circle. Last year, we celebrated 20 years since the Primate apologized on behalf of the Church to Indigenous Anglicans for the way they were treated in church-run residential schools. Many of us who were there 20 years ago returned for the celebration in Toronto.
The Sacred Circle is an empowering place where we are constantly reminded of our unity as a people and our connectedness to each other. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the National Native Covenant. I was one of six who wrote the covenant and, today, there are only two of us remaining.
The covenant’s roots are anchored to a planning and visioning process the Anglican Church of Canada engages every once in a while. In the spring of 1994, such a process was underway across Canada. A number of us who had been involved in Indigenous ministry were invited to meet at St. Benedict’s Retreat Centre in Winnipeg. We were provided with a listing of various Church committees and their work and invited to discuss the direction for the Church.
Our leader for the process was Laverne Jacobs. After a lot of discussion with our elders, the decision was made to abandon our Church process and to simply share our story and our hopes for our community. This meeting came one year after the apology, so that was fresh on everyone’s minds and hearts.
There was much to say, and as we are a spiritual people, we held a lot of worship and prayers. Our international guest was Bishop Steven Charleston, himself an Indigenous bishop. After some discussion, the entire group decided we would ask six people to retreat to a separate room and come up with a statement for the Church. The team of six was supported by the laying on of hands and prayer. Once inside a room not far from our gathering space, the rest of the members of the Indigenous community prayed, and sang hymns.
The six people tasked with the writing included three elders and three clergy. I recall we began by revisiting the Sacred Circle and the emotions of the people who had told their stories of residential schools. We discussed the pain of the loss of language and our despair over the number of Indigenous people who were in jails or who turned to drugs or alcohol to fill the hole left by loss of language, culture, spirituality, and family. We discussed the long journey of healing that would be needed. For many, this journey had only just started.
We felt a bit of nervousness returning to the plenary session, but we led the gathered the words and phrases that would become for us a covenant between ourselves, the Indigenous Anglicans, and the Anglican Church of Canada. The covenant included a rationale that set out the reason for the covenant. One by one, in a sharing circle, we heard from everyone about what had been presented. The covenant was passed unanimously.
Before we left St. Benedict’s, at the closing Eucharist we all signed the covenant. That covenant would become a working document for future Sacred Circles and would help shape the vision of a truly self determined Indigenous Anglican Church.
The National Native Covenant
We, representatives of the Indigenous people of the Anglican Church of Canada, meeting in Winnipeg from the 23 to 26 of April, 1994, pledge ourselves to this covenant for the sake of our people and in trust of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ:
Under the guidance of God’s spirit we agree to do all we can to call our people into unity in a new, self-determining community within The Anglican Church of Canada.
To this end, we extend the hand of partnership to all those who will help us build a truly Anglican Indigenous Church in Canada.
May God bless this new vision and give us grace to accomplish it. Amen.
The National Native Covenant was eventually ratified by the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada and has resulted in a vision that has provided a governance structure that includes a National Indigenous Bishop, the Sacred Circle, the Council of Indigenous People.
Part Two: Living into the Covenant
A lot has happened since the covenant was ratified by General Synod. Once the covenant was approved in Winnipeg, it faced its first challenge in Lethbridge, Alberta at the next Sacred Circle July 1-7, 1997. The theme was “Our Journey of Spiritual Renewal.”
A good part of that circle was organized around the covenant, as this was the first opportunity for Indigenous Anglicans to hear about it and give their consent. As is our custom, we held many sharing circles in small groups. The covenant opened many doors to conversations around the rationale to the covenant itself that states:
“We have shared a journey of close to three centuries in which we have been: denied our place in God’s creation, denied our rights as a Children of God, treated as less than equal and subjected to abuse, culturally, physically, emotionally, sexually and spiritually.”
Circle group after circle group entered the discussion and shared painful stories of negative Church experience. Most agreed with the rationale that states that as a result of the losses faced by Indigenous Anglicans, there “has been and continues to be: broken homes and lives, sexual and family violence, high recidivism and incarceration rates, high chemical abuse, loss of spiritual fulfillment, loss of cultures, languages and traditions and poor stewardship of Mother Earth.”
The Sacred Circle was not unanimous in its acceptance of the covenant. The Rt. Rev. Gordon Beardy, Bishop of Keewatin, would not agree to sign the covenant and that action was supported by his members from Keewatin. He noted it would be important to consult with the elders at home prior to giving consent. The bishop was clear, however, that he personally favored the covenant. The bishop was true to his word and the Diocese of Keewatin signed on to the covenant a year later as a part of their walk for healing in the diocese.
Each Sacred Circle is representative of Indigenous Anglicans from coast to coast to coast. Each Sacred Circle is compromised of worship, Bible Study and sharing circles. Each diocese represented is asked to organize a piece of the worship and the hosting diocese welcomes the gathered. In Lethbridge, I will never forget the hospitality of the Diocese of Calgary and their Indigenous community, especially the involvement of the family of the Rev. Mervin Wolfleg. The Sacred Circles also welcomed the presence of Anglican Video, who captured the essence of the gathering in a video story. Anglican Video has been important and honored guests at all of the Sacred Circles.
I have had the privilege of acting as the Memory Keeper for many of the gatherings. This task kept me up late at night, as after each day’s program was complete, I would meet with a designated number of “Memory Keepers” from Sacred Circle. I would collect their stories and compile a news sheet for all delegates to read the next morning. That information sheet was a valuable resource to take home to the local communities. I recall one night working next to an outdoor window and listening to the call of the loons. Late nights were a necessity.
A key moment for me at that Sacred Circle was the signing of the covenant by all in attendance, except of course of those from Keewatin. At the closing outdoor Eucharist presided by our Primate, Michael Peers, an eagle, a sacred bird in Indigenous culture, soared above the water in front of us.
As a gathered people, we were reminded by the Primate that the community we built and lived with in residence is a supportive one and we can take that home with us. We needed to remember that support. These words were essential, especially to those who were returning to communities that do not favour Indigenous rituals or culture.
At home in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land, the Rupert’s Land Indigenous Circle has hosted its own Sacred Circles based on the national gatherings. Normally, they focus on healing and reconciliation issues and area usually one day events.
Murray Still is priest at St. James’, Winnipeg, and St. Stephen & St. Bede, Winnipeg