An offhand remark quickly called out as offensive by commissioners marred a virtual United Church General Council session on May 11. The remark, which complained of “pagan worship” and “pagan leaders” in the United Church, came during an information-sharing event about a proposal focused on the restructuring of the Indigenous church.
“Pagan worship appears to be the theological thrust of the conversation,” the person, who was not a commissioner or invited guest, said. “That’s why we are getting pagan leaders from the Caribbean and west Africa.” The comment was made using Zoom’s chat feature.
Rev. Deb Anderson-Pratt, a Cree/Saulteaux minister from Regina Native Outreach Ministry in Regina, condemned the statement. “Our ways were referred to that when colonization came to us — as pagan, as heathen. I thought we were way beyond that kind of conversation within the church,” she said. “That is very offensive to our [Indigenous] people,” she added, “And I think the person who commented needs to pray for herself, and we need to pray for her.
Commissioner and former moderator Very Rev. Jordan Cantwell also unequivocally denounced the comment. “It’s something we need to challenge in ourselves when we hear that in our own hearts,” she said during the session.
Cantwell suggested that the comment reveals why the proposal on the restructuring of the Indigenous church needs to be taken seriously during the decision-making sessions of General Council, to be held from July 21 to 25 via an online platform. The proposal, which the National Indigenous Council brought forward, recommends that the General Secretary “identify and remove all structural barriers” to a self-determining Indigenous church within The United Church of Canada.
“What I hear the Indigenous church asking…is that we allow [Indigenous] folks to be United Church in the way that is authentic for them, and that we embrace one another as relatives in the church,” Cantwell said.
During a presentation on the proposal, Rev. Murray Pruden, executive minister for Indigenous ministries and justice, said that the Indigenous church is currently represented in a regional capacity within the United Church governance model. “But what we are trying to achieve — a nation-to-nation relationship — is different than that. We have had shackles on our wrists as the Indigenous church.”
“How do we clear the way so that the Indigenous part of The United Church of Canada, through the National Indigenous Council, can create that space they wish to create with the system that we’ve got?”
Attendees overwhelmingly expressed support for the proposal. “I don’t think I have a say or an opinion in the Indigenous church journey,” said commissioner Rev. Allan Gairns, minister at Rosetown United in Rosetown, Sask., using the chat function. “I hope that while the Indigenous church is working out their identity and vision they feel welcome to do this within The United Church of Canada.”
Current moderator Rt. Rev. Richard Bott clarified that the proposed changes to create a more equitable church structure will require a remit process — essentially, a motion and vote of approval to make a change to the church constitution as part of the decision-making session.
Another proposal, called Living into Reconciliation, recommends that the General Council approve a remit that would “give pre-emptive approval for what the Indigenous Church determines as its place in the United Church.” This proposed change would prevent the need for the Indigenous church to seek further remit approval — a process that has been criticized for its “colonial feel.”
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“We actually have to follow settler process,” Bott said. “That’s part of the difficulty that we’re struggling with… How do we clear the way so that the Indigenous part of The United Church of Canada, through the National Indigenous Council, can create that space they wish to create with the system that we’ve got?”
While some commissioners interpreted the proposal on the restructuring of the Indigenous church as meaning that it wants to separate from The United Church of Canada, members of the National Indigenous Council reassured them that the Indigenous church would continue to work in partnership with The United Church of Canada.
Commissioners also condemned the comment via the chat function, with some seeing it as a sign of racism in the church. “I found the comment very offensive, but I also know that within me lives much of that same attitude,” said Cantwell. “I want to encourage all of us, when we encounter that in ourselves, to question it, to dig under it and to root it out because it leads to hurt and harm and racism and oppression.”
This is not the first incident of this kind to occur at this year’s unprecedented online Council. On April 6, a commissioner anonymously uttered obscenities after a Jewish interfaith guest had spoken.
Julie McGonegal is an associate editor at Broadview.
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