Anglican Church of Canada names first bishop representing aboriginals

Toronto, Canada - The Anglican Church of Canada marked what it called a "historic moment" in its history Thursday as it introduced Mark MacDonald as its first bishop representing aboriginals in an effort to heal a long-standing rift with the country's First Nations.

MacDonald, originally from Duluth, Minn., assumes the office of national indigenous bishop March 1, after serving about 10 years as bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Diocese of Alaska.

MacDonald will have pastoral oversight over indigenous Anglicans throughout Canada.

His appointment is the result of an international search, which also included candidates from the church's First Nation community.

The church decided to establish the new role following a petition submitted in 2005 by the Sacred Circle, a national convocation of the church's aboriginal people in Pinawa, Man.

MacDonald's new role is intended to give aboriginals in the church a figure of central leadership, said Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.

"For several years, our church has been on a journey, taking the lead from our indigenous members, seeking a greater self-determination within the life of the Anglican Church of Canada," Hutchison told a news conference.

"There are many indigenous populations throughout the country, and even indigenous members of the house of bishops, but the need for a central leadership in that enterprise moving towards self-determination has been seen as important."

Retired archbishop Terry Finlay, the primate's special representative on residential schools, says the church hopes MacDonald can help in the task of healing and reconciliation as Ottawa seeks to compensate aboriginals who suffered abuse at residential schools.

"We face a critical time here in the country of Canada with the hope for affirmation of our agreement with the federal government, and then moving on to the much more challenging task, in many ways, of healing and reconciliation," Finlay said.

"(MacDonald's) wisdom and insight and experience is going to help us for what I think is going to be the healing of the nation."

More than 13,000 plaintiffs have sued the federal government and the Anglican, Catholic, United and Presbysterian churches that once ran residential schools after Ottawa admitted in 1998 that abuse was rampant in the schools, meant to educate and "Christianize" aboriginal children.

A class-action settlement approved last month will compensate thousands of former aboriginal students who were abused at residential school.

MacDonald said he was not in a position to discuss the issue of compensation. But in a phone interview Thursday with The Canadian Press, he described the issue as "a gross tragedy of systemic evil."

"It was the fruit of a system that treated people in a subhuman fashion."

MacDonald said he has been involved in discussions the Canadian church has had asking that it repudiate the doctrine of discovery, based on an idea that language, culture and pattern of life of First Nations people was not civilized.

He hopes to help aboriginal Anglicans take on a more significant role not just within their own churches but by giving expression to the way they function in business, administration and celebration of ceremonies.

"The Bible talks about the word (of God) becoming flesh, which really means that the idea that Jesus becomes living and real in a community and in their life," he said.

"It's kind of crude, but basically what we've had so far is the word (of God) freeze-dried someplace else and brought here and then add baptismal water and out comes a European - at least that was the goal or the thought."

"I think that what we're looking for is to see Jesus and the word of God and this faith that we live . . . the essence of it becoming living and real in aboriginal communities."

MacDonald said those critical of the advent of an indigenous bishop within the church should see it not just as a political agenda, but a spiritual and holistic agenda for aboriginal people.

"We're really about being respectful of aboriginal authority, meaning that we're not imposing something on people," he said.

"What we're about is to deepen the communion that we have with the entire Canadian church and others as well, and the only way that we can do that is what you might call self-determination or self-differentiation."

MacDonald and his family will move to Toronto when he takes on his new post, but he will continue to be pastoral bishop to the Navajo reservation in the Four Corners area of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

MacDonald attended Wycliffe College in Toronto, earning a masters in divinity, and served as a priest in Mississauga, Ont., west of Toronto.