- Change and diversification in North American Anglicanism;
- The church and public culture;
- Anglicanism, the New World, race and gender;
- The church and the SPG in North America
Joe Thoma, Communications Officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida(ENS) More than 200 historians, archivists and cultural observers from the United States, Canada and elsewhere met in Toronto June 23-27 to explore aspects of the transformation of Anglican traditions through New World cultures.
The triennial Anglican/Episcopal Church History Conference, titled "(Re)Making Anglican Tradition(s) in North America," came soon after the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG). The SPG was the major sponsor of Anglican churches and clergy in the pre-Revolutionary American colonies, Canada and the West Indies.
The event's host institutions were Trinity College and Wycliffe College of the University of Toronto. The conference was sponsored by the Canadian Church Historical Society, Episcopal Women's History Project, Historical Society of the Episcopal Church USA, and National Episcopal Historians and Archivists.
Although most of the papers delivered reflected the rigor of academic research, many were leavened by the writers' obvious passion for their subject. Among the themes: that culture and history are continually evolving and their actors are mutually dependent as subject and historian, missionary and "unchurched," historians and archivists, U.S. citizen and Canadian, producers of documents and consumers of historical records.
There were few explicit references to the current lawsuits by indigenous people against the Anglican Church over decades of child abuse at church-run residential schools. But many papers suggested that the attitudes of "empire" that helped the church flourish in its first three centuries in North America also helped set the stage for the ill treatment of the "natives."
For Bishop Mark MacDonald, bishop of Alaska, the conference was something of a homecoming. Originally from Duluth, Minnesota, he received his bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto and his master's of divinity from Wycliffe in 1978.
MacDonald brought his perspective as a scholar who has spent much of his ministry working with Native Americans to the opening banquet, where his address challenged traditional academia's setting of the "boundaries for our discourse."
"Knowledge to us is flat; it's a fact." MacDonald said. "But it can be a doorway to deeper knowledge. If we entertain all aspects of knowledge, it can be transformational."
The starting point for developing this mutually enlightening relationship between people who style themselves missionaries and those to whom they would bring the word of God is to dispel the myth of "terra nullius," MacDonald said.
Early missionaries to "First Nations" people in New World territories--and their successors through current times--assumed that they were entering vacant, even "God-forsaken" territory.
"The idea that there's nothing here still infects us," he said. "But God is here."
MacDonald told of ministering to an elderly Ojibway woman who, after years of hiding her people's ways of worshiping the Lord, revealed the beauty and piety of her customs while desperately sick. It took years for her to trust that MacDonald would not try to break her of those practices, as others had. In her heart, he said, she would not be transformed into the English model of a churchwoman, but her prayers were just as valid.
Cultural openness could give historians and missionaries an inkling of the legitimacy of others' practices, MacDonald said.
For example, "The idea of subsistence [hunting] is impossible to explain in English," he said. In English, the central idea has to do with killing an animal. For the Inuit people, the key concept has more to do with the "gracious provision that God has for us in this world."
Ojibway hymnals and prayer books illustrate the point of local culture transforming a cross-national religious tradition, he said. "They know--the Gospel is greater than the person who preaches it."
Local expressions of faith show "traditional ways of understanding and knowing that are sophisticated access to truths and the development of human life never appreciated," by those who assume terra nullius and the absence of God in a people, MacDonald said.
"We must grant sacredness to places that scripture says is there, but missionaries and historians don't always grant," he said.