The Epistle of Q — Chapter 115

Does the phrase Reformed yet always Reforming really mean what it says?

Disclaimer: If you are not much interested in theological discourses, you may want to skip this one…

Once again my church – The Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC) – has slid sideways in its efforts to provide even useful commentary on national issues, let alone actually demonstrate leadership. (By the way, that phrase above is a recurring mantra within the reformed group of churches in Christendom, of which the PCC is one!)

Let me give some background. A few years ago we had a national magazine (The Record) that in earlier days was a solid literary and helpful newsworthy document with interesting editorial comment. At one point the position of Editor was given to a non-Presbyterian, not in itself necessarily an evil move, but one that took the monthly publication definitely downhill. First by trending into fadism and then taking it, by a blindside move of General Assembly (GA), into an autonomous state and then, after building what I came to call a financial war-chest through appeals to the aforementioned GA, into the edge of bankruptcy and its closure. When challenged as to the ethics of his actions, the editor lividly stated that the staff required proper payouts due to their hard work and that anyone so suggest otherwise was nothing short of immoral. Reminded me of the arguments you hear when a CEO is given bonuses even though the company lost money – well if we didn’t he would have left!

Anyway, the real tragedy was that the PCC couldn’t save its own magazine because it was in the control of an independent board. So sometime later, the PCC decided to print a quarterly newspaper called Presbyterian Connection. It is an okay effort and it does at least try to highlight what is going on within the PCC across the nation. The Spring 2020 issue took as its theme – Ecumenism. I think that was a good idea and there was an interesting column from the current Moderator and another from a former editor of The Record (one of the editors I knew from PYPS – our church’s young people’s organization – days and a fellow I’ve always liked). There also were some discussions on Leadership, Stewardship, Women, Justice, Mission and so on along with many good pictures of groups doing good things across the land. There was also a short open letter on Healing & Reconciliation. This caught my eye because of the recent issues in Northern BC , the letter was written by the Moderator and I myself had spent over fifteen years working directly with Aboriginal peoples in both Saskatchewan and BC . I had not heard that the PCC had issued a Special Statement on illegal blockades and general disruptive behaviour that had transpired. So I thought I would read this letter.

Well I was stunned. It started off: The Presbyterian Church in Canada is deeply concerned with events and news surrounding pipeline construction on Wet’suwet’en territory. Rising tensions and militarization of the situation, including concerns that use of force might be employed on those supporting Wet’suwet’en law arrested again, has led us to issue this statement calling for peace, respect and dialogue. Additionally, we are very concerned that the RCMP has set up an exclusion zone and is keeping food, supplies and the media from entering the area. Such actions contradict the rights to self-determination and free, prior and informed consent outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigeneous Peoples (UNDRIP). The Moderator goes on to say that the PCC supports UNDRIP and has repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery (without ever explaining or referencing what that may actually mean) and calls on people to respect Wet’suwet’en law. She even mentions that things must be resolved through good faith dialogue. There was however no mention that there were many different perspectives on the alleged issues including some uncertainty about what Wet’suwet’en law encompasses, nor that all the elected chiefs actually supported the pipeline, nor that the pipeline would bring countless economic benefits directly to the Wet’suwet’en people and their local governments.

I decided to respond. There are my comments.

Not quite sure what led to the Moderator issuing “an open letter and special statement”. Under what authority and to whom is it directed? It seems rather one-sided and very selective in its choice of perspective:

1) It does not acknowledge that three women Chiefs were stripped of their legitimate hereditary chief positions.

2) It does not acknowledge that all the elected Band Councils actually support the pipeline.

3) It does not address the high-jacking of the conversation by many non-indigenous protesters (a goodly number not even from Canada, let alone northern BC).

4) It talks about violence as if this was something being perpetrated by the state and not by people with tangential relationship to the issue.

5) It talks about UNDRIP as if this was automatically a good thing.

My questions to you (and perhaps to the moderator) :
a) who authorized this letter?
b) was it sent to all churches to be read from the pulpit?
c) did the moderator do any fact-checking on the ground?
d) does the moderator know that the hereditary Chiefs themselves have operated outside their own customs and laws?
e) and how is this letter supposed to promote healing and reconciliation?

It would be nice to get a sense that we as a church actually have a grounded understanding of the indigenous world other than simply a never-ending apolegetic refrain. It might help the real cause if we were to pursue a middle course:
— acknowledging there has been some good in the past (for one thing one of our deceased ministers actually was a product of residential schools),
— undertaking to support the development of Aboriginal Independent Schools across the country (whereby staff, students and curricula would gain provincial recognition and financing from the feds would be automatically received on a tuition fee basis)
— marshaling some of our retired business folk to provide pro bono economic development consultative assistance to bands, tribal councils, as they wish/require
— standing up against bullies who illegally shutdown railways, job sites, ports and other forms of economic endeavour that generate the tax revenues that in turn go to support government funding of Aboriginal endeavours…

This would be a good start and might just get the people in the pews actually behind healing and reconciliation in a meaningful way while showing some leadership that this country sorely lacks.

I’m only sorry GA has been cancelled or I would have challenged the moderator or the principal clerk to a open debate on this entire issue .

Interestingly enough some weeks later I received a reply from the General Secretary, The Life and Mission Agency of PCC. These are his words:
Thank you for being in touch with us about the letter that the Moderator of General Assembly wrote about the issues related to the various blockades in Canada during February and March. I apologize that this response is coming so long after you submitted you questions.

The Moderator of the General Assembly has the responsibility and is expected to write letters on emergent matters between assemblies as matters of national and international interest and concern arise. In writing these letters, moderators work with their advisory committees, denominational committees, ecumenical partners, staff and Presbyterians with expertise and experience in a certain areas, etc. The Social Action Handbook and other documents that we have signed onto or that bind the church are consulted as guides to ensure that the Moderator’s letters and sentiments reflect the decisions, standards, theology and statements of the church.

The letter you are asking about was written by the Moderator at the special request of PCC elders and ministers of Indigenous background and other leaders of ministries with Indigenous peoples within the PCC. A significant amount of research, fact checking, editing and consultation is done before letters are signed by the Moderator. The issues that moderators are asked to write on are often complex and multi-layered. Presbyterians across the country hold a diversity of opinions on all matters, realities that moderators know well and attend to as best as they can.

The Moderator’s letter was not sent to each congregation. Whether the letters were posted on church bulletin boards, read from pulpits etc. would be the decision of the minister and/or the session of each congregation.

The church’s commitment to Healing and Reconciliation takes many forms and it is difficult for us to gage how any single action or initiative contributes to the overall healing of our relationships. In the case of the letter that the Moderator wrote, we heard from a number of Indigenous church leaders indicating how grateful they were to the Moderator for her letter and attention. A few mentioned how moved they were that the church would engage in matters that were so important to them and their people.

I hope that I have addressed the questions you posed in your email. And I hope that you, your family and friends are keeping well during this difficult time.

Happy Easter.

While it seemed like a canned response I did feel I should give the official at least the respect of a thank you, which I did, although I then added the following bearing in mind that I felt that while question (a) was answered and (b) was actually a negative, there was no addressing of c), d) & e):

I can appreciate that these are extra-ordinary times so speed of response can vary greatly. I also very much appreciate your taking time to explain the official church’s process and position. The fact that some Aboriginal elders commended the Moderator for taking a stand…, while interesting, doesn’t address my concern which has been aired to various church leaders since the early sixties when I was a gung-ho student minister sent without any significant understanding of Aboriginal people (other than living beside the Blackfoot Reservation now known as Siksika) to the Birdtail Reserve in Manitoba.

My concern? That we never seem to grasp a middle course. Back then we were too eager to close residential schools and to give responsibility to the province for the kids’ education without any understanding of the overt racism in the neighbouring non-native communities and thus in the public schools. In the eighties we were unwilling, except for a few (including a Secretary for Missions in Saskatchewan) to support people trying to bridge any real or perceived gaps between Aboriginal and mainstream societies. As we approached the new Millennium we switched again to become nothing but apoplectic apologizers for errors mostly untrue or misunderstood…

We keep reshaping our doctrine in response, never as leaders… it’s as if we are reinventing what our God is and therefore what he would like us to do! If I really thought that the church at any level truly understood what the truth is and as a result fully believed in reconciliation I think I could be gung-ho again… but for a church that didn’t support me or its Confessions of Faith in the early sixties, stood silent when it was asked to participate in supporting renewable resources projects in the seventies, didn’t see a role when I tried to close half-a-dozen Residential Schools in the eighties and heeded non-Aboriginal influencers, and in the early 2000’s suddenly saw everything ever done by WASPs as terrible, evil or worse… I’m sorry, I don’t see this Moderator’s letter as helpful to the overall scheme of things

Improving the lives of others is hard work at the best of times but it is harder when “others” are not easily defined, do not necessarily subscribe to the same laws or even social norms (within themselves, let alone with us), and may not even be desirous of our improvements.

Some day I hope and pray we will become a church that leads again. Grounded in its basic Confessions it reaches out to bring people’s together, but not in a faddish way but in The Way… seeking to find that middle course whereby all may find comfort and hope without necessarily rejecting their own individuality.

We are bleeding churches all over the country at a time when one would think people would be looking to faith more and more to explain or at least point to greater purpose. We started to go grey in the eighties perhaps; but we didn’t even think that maybe grey would be a worthwhile demographic then and we sure don’t now. We’ve added smudges and drums and rainbows and whatnot but have we really considered ministering to those we’ve marginalized from within, have we considered what a middle course might even look like? A pandemic has changed people’s behaviour almost overnight… what has our church changed in the last 60’s years? For most people the question is: what has changed the church?

Again thank you for your letter. I shall use this conversation in the next few days on my own Editorialog. When I do I will forward you the link

Stay healthy, keep safe

Now in all fairness, I am not the most saintly member of our denomination. I was elected an Elder for life in the mid-seventies but for many years now have been inactive. On the one hand, I have been disciplined by our church courts; on the other, both before and after such discipline, I have served on numerous occasions either as an interim lay minister or Sunday pulpit supply in seven different Synods across the land (and for a short while in Texas). I also have threatened to take the church to court over slanderous statements issued by one Presbytery (senior PCC officials intervened and the Presbytery did apologize although the damage was done as their letter was distributed far and wide and it is uncertain to this day if the apology received anywhere near the same distribution). So one might quite possibly call me a sinner and decide that whatever I have to say is of no consequence to the on-going survival of the PCC. But as long as I retain my membership in a PCC congregation, I will attempt to influence the church.

Thus as part of this particular conversation I decided to share my exchange with both an Indigenous leader and a former moderator of our church. Here are their reflections:

I’m glad you at least received the courtesy of a response, even if it was in large part a form letter. Keep agitating! If you annoy people enough, you never know what can happen!
I am stunned that they refused to address even one of your many valid and documented concerns based on knowledge and experience.
You are correct! Those of us who have some knowledge and experience must speak up!!! Otherwise the ignorant and the mischievous carry the day ….

So what is my central point? I would like to see the PCC take on a leadership role that no one seems willing to accept. That would be to advocate for a middle course – one that actually works very hard are bringing people together towards a conversation not necessarily seeking unanimity but one that builds respect, acceptance and collaboration towards a common beneficence.

Let’s take the idea of truth & reconciliation which should be something that a Christian denomination ought to have some understanding of – theologically it is fundamental to comprehending our relationship with God. But has the PCC pursued a middle course in this conversation? Not at all. In fact, that open letter and special statement by the moderator does anything but. Let me pose an alternate perspective that could have been presented in a letter to the House of Commons and Senate and perhaps every provincial legislature as well as being sent to every congregation to be read from the pulpit or at least posted on bulletin boards that are read.

Such a letter would have framed the issue as follows:
• acknowledges there are competing claims to the various traditional lands in various parts of BC not currently under treaty and that these be publically explained and articulated
• requests a speeding-up in the land claims negotiations including
• a request for an accounting on who has been involved as mediators,
• how much time and expense has been incurred, and
• what progress does each think they have made
• acknowledges that within the Wet’suwet’en Territory there is no single governing body nor a unified position on pipelines or economic development in general but that the elected leaders are all in favour and that there are real economic benefits guaranteed to the people both in jobs and monies for local governments
• states that until there is a consensus on development, any illegal or quasi-legal protests or blockades should not occur, in fact should not even be condoned by any and all parties and as necessary the laws of the country should be enforced
• requests a comprehensive conversation on UNDRIP including whether:
• it will require the abolition of the Indian Act,
• it will ensure that in every Aboriginal community women will be considered as equals in all respects including access to any settlement monies and return of official Aboriginal status should such have been taken away or denied
• it will establish a formula that relates economic activity (including development) to the amount of monies any government is required to provide to specific Aboriginal communities and interests
• it will clarify the expected relationships between public services currently provided by federal & provincial governments such as medical, educational, judicial (including police), and social (including welfare) and the concept of sovereignty (i.e. if the land is claimed as sovereign does this mean that the police should NOT respond to domestic abuse cases, EMT’s should not respond to calls for medical emergencies, educational services will only be provided by elders?)
• it will indicate the bounds of cultural appropriation and spirituality including any reciprocity that should no longer be tolerated let alone accepted
• and offers to provide mediative and support services in whatever fashion might be helpful including on a pro bono basis, retired professionals of many vocational persuasions (including former CEO’s, financial advisers, public servants, medical & educational plus legal & social experts)

This could kick-start a real conversation. It could challenge congregations to look within to see where they could be of service as well as how they could support local communications and discussions. There could be a real emphasis on research and sharing informed data to raise the knowledge and understanding of the surrounding community. It could also challenge congregations to become more ecumenical in efforts to bring people together, acknowledging that the past while perhaps flawed was not without merit. That apologies may in fact beget the growth of victimization by making people feel less capable of building new bridges let alone not wanting such to be built. Moreover, perhaps congregations could also undertake to relay the research and informed data through various media to bring balance and more clarity to the world as it is being lived in this millennium. Moreover at the Presbytery or maybe even better the Synod level round-table conversations could be sponsored that would bring leaders from the Aboriginal, corporate, public sectors and not-for-profits, together to establish innovative approaches to collaboration and long-term planning.

It won’t be easy. It will require a monumental shift in the PCC itself back towards its theological roots. It will require some serious reining in of the clergy, especially those in leadership positions. It will even require a re-awakening of the role of elder and governance functioning of Kirk Sessions at the congregational level, along with Presbyteries and General Assemblies. What could be most amazing, it could revitalize the role of Synods and make them the new energy leaders in the conversation whereby the laity are invited to play a reasoned and forward looking collaborative role. This court of the PCC might even become known as the purveyor of the flame of truth that does lead to real reconciliation.

And this interest in changing the approach to Aboriginal issues is simply a start. We also need to examine questions associated with environment vs. economy, climate vs. astro-physics, astronomy vs astrology, the collective vs the individual, denomination vs Christendom (i.e. unity vs. distinctiveness) and there are doubtless other themes too. But these all will have to wait a moment. We have to start turning this ship one degree at a time and it seems the moderator needs us as well as herself to start with the Aboriginal scene.