Shaping Worship During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Jesus’ Presence among First Nations Anglicans in Canada
In this conversation, Mark L. MacDonald shares his insights challenges for worshiping in time of COVID-19 in his context of indigenous congregations in the Anglican Church of Canada.
Mark L. MacDonald: National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop; World Council of Churches president for North America
Current city: Toronto, Ontario
Denominational context: Anglican Church of Canada
Worship roles: MacDonald has pastoral oversight of all Indigenous Anglicans in Canada. He advises clergy about worship, sacraments, and Gospel Based Discipleship.
COVID-19 situation: Here on Turtle Island in the area called Canada, Indigenous communities face rather steep challenges. More than 400 First Nations reserves are fly-in communities. Some have a few months when the ice is thick enough to drive in all the goods they’ll need for a year. If they’re lucky, they can get a nurse to fly in. People have to be shipped out for most medical care. The best-prepared community I know of is in Moosonee, Ontario, up near Hudson Bay. They transformed a former residential school into a hospital but have only two ventilators for more than three thousand people.
During the 2003 SARS and 2009 H1N1 (swine flu) pandemics, Canada’s Indigenous population was disproportionately affected. Because of years of radically short funding for basic infrastructure, most Indigenous communities lack basic elements for good health—adequate nutritious food, adequate housing, clean water, and available health services. So, because of their history, isolation, and remoteness, they fear that if COVID-19 reaches their communities, they would be in dangerous situations that would make cruise ships look like nice places to be.
Virtually all Indigenous communities restricted or shut down access before Canada’s provinces and territories did. Many put up blockades to keep out non-members. If a member comes back from outside the community, they have to quarantine for fourteen days. Government offices, schools, and churches are closed.
The Anglican Church of Canada has about 65,000 Indigenous members in 225 Indigenous congregations, almost all on reserves. Church is such a central part of reserve life that every community member is considered part of the church. Church leaders now are often restricted from contact but at the same time are providing more pastoral care with fewer resources.
It’s estimated that about 60 to 70 percent of First Nations people live in urban areas. Most are marginalized. Their health is vulnerable because poverty is the constant companion of most Indigenous people, either directly or through their extended family.
An evangelical group did a study in the 1980s of the first wave of Indigenous people moving to urban areas. Within a month, almost 90 percent visited a church, but none went back. It’s the blunder and sin of the churches (not just among Anglicans) to see their goal as “civilizing” First Nations people. So now there’s a whole generation of urban Indigenous people with no connection to an urban church.
What’s working well—or not: So far I’ve been in touch with almost all our Indigenous Anglican congregations. Many bishops have stopped everything but prayers, pastoral care, and online services. Almost all our communities have good phone service. Some don’t have cellphone coverage, but they have smartphones, so they can go on Wi-Fi to use WhatsApp. Facebook is crazy-big time in remote areas, and I do several Zoom meetings a day. I wouldn’t be surprised if half or more of our people are streaming worship through Facebook.
Although few elderly people have computers, many communities have a radio station. I remember hearing years ago about a community way up north that communicated by CB radio. People often go on the radio to offer hymns, morning and evening prayers, testimonies, and gospel readings in English and the local language. Inuit young people are often as fluent in their native tongue as elders are.
Some of our communities have churches but not clergy, and clergy can’t travel now. So they have to quickly train lay leaders over the phone. Larger communities often already have lay leaders, but, in at least one church, the lay leader was elderly and recently died.
Most helpful worship resources: Most of our folks already had a practice of family prayer because it’s very rare for an Indigenous person to live alone. A small household would be about five people.
"Our most helpful worship resources are the Bible, prayer, and Jesus’ promise to be present wherever two or three are gathered in his name."
For the last twenty years, Gospel Based Discipleship (GBD) has been a way of life for our people. We have A Disciple’s Prayer Book and a common list of daily gospel readings. We begin every meeting by reading and reflecting together on the day'’ gospel. We used to be judged deficient unless we mimicked a Western worship style, in which authority comes from the outside. But the GBD spiritual movement has powerfully affirmed that authority in the local church flows from the presence of Jesus wherever two or three are gathered. And does Jesus show up when you gather digitally? Empirically yes.
Needs, questions, or insights to share: Elders in many communities prophesied this pandemic. When I was a bishop in Alaska (2000–2007), people who were then in their 80s and 90s had a strong sense that the world has gotten out of balance. They said, “A time will come when everything will shut down. People won’t be able to travel from place to place. When that happens, we’ll need our traditional skills to hunt, fish, gather traditional medicines, and live off the land.” Today’s elders remind the people that they faced a massive wave of sickness when Europeans came and know how to protect their communities and survive. All are calling for prayer. Elders sometimes go out and pray on the land. They pray for the land to be protected and on behalf of all who are suffering and dying.
For now, most people are not sharing communion elements at home. They may do spiritual communion—praying to be united to Christ although they cannot physically receive the sacrament. Many elders are wired into Anglican norms of needing clergy to do communion. And the Indigenous mindset is sacramental by nature. We have a multilayered view of the universe. Without buying into a Catholic scheme, we see communion as more than presenting something that happened long ago. We believe that holy communion is embodied and has spiritual power. Jesus shows up, and sharing communion makes things happen.
But if the lockdown continues for a very long time, and clergy cannot travel in, then maybe people will have to elect a leader. Or maybe they will start doing communion at home. After all, I don’t think Jesus was trying to create a clerical bottleneck.
Read a blog post about fasting from the Eucharist while feasting on the Word. Mark MacDonald provides frequent updates about Indigenous Anglicans in Canada. Check out the Anglican Church of Canada National Indigenous Ministry Facebook page. Learn about the international Anglican Indigenous Network.