This Is a Spiritual Crisis

by Martha Tatarnic

A few years ago, I was part of a delegation of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Anglican leaders who made their way to Pinawa, Manitoba for a multi-day conference. 

We were considering next steps in making concrete our shared desire for Indigenous self-determination in the Anglican Church of Canada. Our time together began with a great deal of listening. Indigenous leaders serving (mostly remote) communities across our country shared their heartbreaking stories of pastoring their people through addiction, mental illness and lack of access to basic resources like housing and clean water, and especially their caring for people through the grief of youth suicides in their community. Most of these leaders were serving their church and their communities in a non-stipendary capacity.

Archbishop (then Bishop) Mark MacDonald, National Indigenous Bishop in the ACC, shared this insight and this plea with the group. “This is a spiritual crisis,” he said. He went on to note that these many and various crises Indigenous people were facing across our country all have a spiritual core. “People have been disconnected from their language and their teachings.” What’s more, he noted that where they were experiencing real health and healing in their communities was in reconnecting to language and teachings that had been lost. Although the conversation around a self-determining Indigenous church was very much a step on the road of Truth and Reconciliation, Archbishop Mark wanted us to hear the even more urgent call at the heart of this work. 

Our Indigenous brothers and sisters are in the midst of a spiritual crisis. They were asking then, and they continue to ask now, for the rest of the church to join with them in empowering and equipping the Indigenous church to be part of how spiritual solutions can be offered in response to these critical needs.

The wisdom Archbishop Mark named in Pinawa needs to be heard loud and clear in the whole church today. At the tail-end of last year, results of a study in the Anglican Church of Canada began to trickle out: given the rate of decline currently being experienced in the church, the institution as we know it will be gone within twenty years. In fact, visioning plans, restructuring solutions, and the study of decline and growth in the mainline church has been a regular part of our church’s reality for as long as I can remember. Since this study came out, COVID-19 has hit, suddenly putting questions of the church’s survival on fast forward. When this article comes out, we will—God willing—be back to some form of in-person worship. Individual parishes, and collectively as a diocese, we will be asking questions about how we go forward.

“What can be easy to lose in the frenzy of tough questions and even tougher realities is the question of why”

What can be easy to lose in the frenzy of tough questions and even tougher realities is the question of why. Why should we go forward? Why does the health and renewal, much less the survival, of this church matter? 

Archbishop Mark shared something else with a group, many years before the Pinawa conversation. It was the first meeting of what would become Pimatisiwin Nipi (Living Water Group), a national network of faith communities who have become part of a national Indigenous Water Project with PWRDF. He noted that, as we began our partnership work with Indigenous communities in seeking clean water solutions, we needed to remember the tragic reality that Indigenous Canada is, in many ways, the canary in the coal mine for all of us. That is to say, the issues faced in Indigenous Canada can’t merely be compartmentalized away into being just about Indigenous people. Their story is also our story. 

I think about Pinawa Manitoba and about Archbishop Mark’s words a lot. The rest of Canada has not experienced the same collective cultural genocide of our Indigenous brothers and sisters, and in no way do I want to suggest that we have. But I see young people shooting up in our downtown St. Catharines’ church parking lot more than I would have ever thought possible. Addiction and mental illness is starkly visible in the downtown community who accesses our church’s programs. And addiction and mental illness, rising rates of anxiety and depression, are also an all-too familiar story behind middle-class doors all across our communities. 

“a disconnection from key spiritual truths.”

COVID-19 has made visible systemic racism, systemic neglect of those in our care facilities, and the true price of gross economic inequality. Meanwhile, the environmental crisis that has been banging on our doors for decades while we have mostly acted paralyzed to answer isn’t going away, and not responding to it is increasingly putting us all in peril. Archbishop Mark named the interconnected crises in Indigenous communities as fundamentally a spiritual crisis—a disconnection from key spiritual truths. But we, too, have become disconnected from who we are: beloved of God, and biologically-spiritually-emotionally connected to one another, bound to one another and to all life on this planet, whether we like it or not. We need to be prepared to name our interconnected challenges with a similar boldness: this is fundamentally a spiritual crisis for us too. 

If we believe this is true, and more importantly, if we believe that God’s desire for us is to reconnect to God’s healing and love, then we have hit upon the WHY of our church’s future. God is calling us, the Anglican church, once again to play a part in how God’s healing and love gets made known, gets poured out, on this world that God so loves—on this world that surely needs to know that love urgently and always. 

We have a lot to figure out going forward. If we can name the why behind questions of our beloved church’s survival, health and renewal, then we can be assured that the journey ahead will be graced with courage, faith and hope.