CANADA: Mark MacDonald begins ministry as first national indigenous bishop

September 6, 2007

Bishop Mark MacDonald has begun his ministry as the Anglican Church of Canada's first national indigenous bishop after much delay, including leg surgery and moving his family from Alaska to Toronto.

"You know, we're just in the first portion [of] what will be a long and large arc," said 53-year-old MacDonald in a recent interview.

It's an arc that began in the 1960s when the Anglican Church of Canada started to analyze its relationship with aboriginals. Over the next few decades, aboriginal Anglican groups developed a vision for a national indigenous bishop, and in 2005 the Anglican Indigenous Sacred Circle decided to ask then-Primate Archbishop Andrew Hutchison to appoint someone to the position. Last January, Hutchison announced the appointment of MacDonald, who was then Bishop of Alaska and Navajoland with the Episcopal Church.

As well as crossing Canadian diocesan jurisdictions, MacDonald will straddle national and ecclesiastical boundaries as well. Although he has resigned as Bishop of Alaska, he will remain assisting bishop of Navajoland Area Mission with the Episcopal Church.

The bishop will represent Canadian aboriginals in the larger church, and help interpret and navigate church systems to and for them. "I don't think that anybody really has a good handle on what it is exactly, in any kind of organizational way," said MacDonald. "But I think over the long term it's going to be extraordinary."

To discern his direction, MacDonald will spend time talking to aboriginal Anglicans over the next few months. "Simply imposing somebody's great idea will probably be destructive and oppressive," he said. "I'm sure that a combination of my ideas and [the] few thousand people I'll be talking to over the next few years will be where the ideas come from."

In July, MacDonald visited Kingfisher Lake First Nation, north of Kenora, Ontario, in the diocese of Keewatin, where he taught at a summer ministry school, performed his first confirmations as bishop, and played guitar at a gospel jamboree. Moosonee and Rupert's Land are the dioceses he will visit next, and a Council of the North meeting in Edmonton is up for the end of September.

But a full day planner is not what gets MacDonald excited. It's aboriginal Anglicans.

He calls aboriginals an "extraordinary gift" to Anglicanism, and he has seen how both traditions can enhance each other. "It's exciting for people like me, who have been deeply enriched by native communities, traditions, and ways of living, to see the essences of those things merge with the essence of the gospel," he said. "It's a powerful and wonderful thing and makes life worthwhile."

MacDonald is also excited about how a national indigenous bishop could represent a more ecological worldview, and he recently wrote an article on the topic (see links below). He said it's an "extraordinary thought, a bishop who would speak for that living relationship between people and earth."

"We want to go where the gospel takes us," MacDonald added. "To be a gospel-centered, gospel-based, gospel-motivated, and gospel-carried people."

He also offers this vision: "What we're really talking about is the living, loving, powerful, beautiful love of God that gives beauty to the earth and coherence to it, becoming more manifestly, visibly real in native communities, in such a way that the hungry are fed and the oppressed are set free, in such a way that we have an impact on the horrendous statistics that keep coming out of First Nations communities. Our vision, I think, is nothing less than the reality of God becoming more visible and tangible and people's lives being changed and touched."

MacDonald has ministered in many congregations, including in Mississauga, Ontario; Duluth, Minnesota, and Portland, Oregon. He has served on many boards, written numerous books and articles, and is a third order Franciscan. He and his wife, Virginia Sha Lynn, have three children.

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