Mark MacDonald is convinced that “it is the time for something great to happen and that the best thing we can do is get up and wait. There is no stopping it.” But the Anglican Church of Canada’s first national indigenous bishop admits that the church has likely stood in the way of God’s work at times and it may need to step aside.
MacDonald, who makes Toronto his home, was invited by Mennonite Church Manitoba and MC Canada as the keynote speaker at the annual Building Bridges event on March 13, 2015, at Winnipeg’s Circle of Life Thunderbird House. (See "Learning from each other.")
Last year’s speaker, Justice Murray Sinclair, left the audience with the challenge, “Is it possible for churches to make a statement acknowledging aboriginal spirituality as valid and as an equal means of worship? Can you do it? If not, the relationship will be as bad as the existing one.”
In Building Bridges’ spirit of learning and building understanding, MacDonald was invited to help the Mennonite community address this question. But he rephrased it and handed it back to this year’s audience.
“The real question,” he said, “is, ‘Can Christian faith survive in North America without indigenous spirituality?’ Christian institutions have a capacity for silliness and sometimes corruption, which is deeply troubling. This idea of the superiority of western culture has infiltrated the church and made it untrue to its true calling and nature.
“Both Peter and Paul claim in the Bible that God has a specific mission to the Jews and a specific mission to the gentiles,” MacDonald told the audience. “There is something that God has created in culture and people that is to be honoured.”
With numerous stories MacDonald illustrated how, in the indigenous communities that he visits, Christian faith is very much alive. “When people express their faith in their own values, on their own terms, in their own way, it is very powerful,” he said, adding, “They hold on to their identity as indigenous Christian commu-nities much more strongly than they hold on to any denominational identity.”
The biblical way of evangelism and mission, he said, is to unveil the presence of God in a particular culture and place, recognizing the right of the people to be who they are. In the 1970s, when missionaries were sent home from Africa and Asia, many believed the church was going to die, but, in fact, it grew more dramatically than at any other time, according to him.
“That has also happened here in those places where we have seen the church pull out,” he said. “Why don’t you know the story of indigenous Christianity? Of hymn singing that has taken off across indigenous communities? It was because gospel jamborees didn’t look like Christianity. Indigenous Christianity is hiding, waiting to come out.”
MacDonald said that many indigenous Christians see beyond the church structures, the imposed western values and residential schools. They recognize the essence of Christianity unconnected to denominational structures, but one that is infused in some of their own culture and understandings. “There is a great spiritual power in the land about to be unleashed in a way that will knock your socks off,” he said. “It may be hard to see, but there have been moments when it has happened.”
“We are learning today that the church, when it comes to a place, it comes to place where God is already present and has already been working, and that despite all the obstacles that have been put in its way, it is ready to flower. The best thing to do is to get out of the way,” MacDonald advised.