Bishop Gordon Beardy of Keewatin formally forgave the church for its past dealings with indigenous peoples at a native healing ceremony during the recent meeting of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada. The forgiveness comes eight years after the Primate, Archbishop Michael Peers, apologized on behalf of the church for its part in the residential school system. That apology was accepted at the time by the elders at the national native convocation held in Minaki, Ontario in 1993. As the Primate stood quietly beside him, head bowed, Bishop Beardy–who Synod members only expected to deliver a dismissal–made clear that he spoke not as a bishop, but as a native person who had attended residential school.
“From my heart,” said Bishop Beardy, “I would like to say that I forgive you and I want to forgive your church which has become my church. I forgive your people who have become my people. I accept your apology because you have worked so hard to break down the barriers. Where things that were condemned before, today you receive them with joy. Where once we were outsiders, today we are with you, as a friend, as a leader, as a brother. So, I extend my hand.
“My children will hear what I said. My grandchildren will hear. For it is in forgiving that we can find peace and it is in rebuilding that we will become strong again as nations.”
Following his statement, the bishop and primate clasped hands and embraced for a half minute, both of them near tears.
Bishop Beardy is one of four indigenous bishops in the Anglican Church of Canada, but is the only native bishop who is responsible for an entire diocese. Elected as a suffragan bishop in 1993, he became head of the Diocese of Keewatin in 1996. After he attended the Presbyterian Church-run Cecilia Jeffrey Residential School in Kenora, Ontario, for just one year at the age of 11, he never returned to school and did not even complete primary school.
His forgiveness is significant because it is one step beyond accepting the church’s apology for its role in the residential schools system, said the Rev. Canon Sue Moxley, a non-native observer at several national gatherings of indigenous people and a partner of the Anglican Council of Indigenous People. “Someone can say ‘I’m sorry,’ and I can say I accept your apology, but I have to do my piece of work to actually forgive,” said Moxley, a priest from the diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.
Bishop Beardy said later in an interview he thought the church was deserving of forgiveness. “Sometimes an apology can be empty but this church is developing, progressing. We have communities healing, we are responding to, we are hearing native people, and I am proud,” said Bishop Beardy. “This is not a white church anymore; I feel it is our church.” He said he felt it was the right time on his “healing journey” and that of many other native people to forgive their church. Many of the roughly forty indigenous partners present at Synod have supported him since he made his statement, he said.
Donna Bomberry, the national church’s coordinator of indigenous ministries, said the fuller inclusion of indigenous people at this meeting of General Synod likely helped the bishop forgive his church. “This is the first time we’ve had so many people who were able to tell their stories [at a national gathering],” said Ms. Bomberry. Many native people spoke publicly of their residential schools experiences earlier in the synod.
Archbishop Peers said the forgiveness caught him a bit by surprise. “I was told that the Bishop of Keewatin wanted to include an absolution,” said the Primate. “I thought, maybe, it would be a liturgical text, but not that way of personalizing the response.”
That personal response, said Archbishop Peers, was an ideal response to his own personal apology, delivered in 1993. “It has been said that (my) apology changed it from an institutional response to a personal one. I was thinking just now that if you personalize an apology, then the best response is a personal one.”
The 1993 apology is considered by many to be a watershed moment in the church’s relationship with native people. It has recently been cited as the cause of much of the litigation by former residential school students, but the Primate responded earlier in the Synod that the church’s legal advisers are unanimous in their belief that the apology was not only the “right thing to do,” but did not open the church up to lawsuits. He told the Synod members that the federal government also apologized to native people for the residential schools system, and with all their legal advisers, they would never have apologized if there had been any chance that an apology would result in lawsuits.