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Pêhonân: A Paradigm Shift in the Canadian Ecumenical Movement | One Body

Scott Sharman

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Archdeacon Travis Enright, Lodge Elder of the Standing Stones Sacred Lodge in the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton, leads a Round Dance at the conclusion of the Pêhonân gathering in June, 2023. Photo courtesy of the Canadian Council of Churches. Used with permission.


Pêhonân: A Paradigm Shift in the Canadian Ecumenical Movement

by Rev. Canon Dr. Scott Sharman

The great damage inflicted among Indigenous Peoples by the colonizing projects in North America/Turtle Island, including the far too frequent complicity of the churches with them, is something that can hardly be overstated. Most Canadian Christians are, I hope, relatively aware of the large-scale physical, cultural, and spiritual harms that were perpetrated by things like the reserve system, residential schools, and bans on traditional ceremonies and rites. Less widely considered, however, are the impacts that also came from the importing of inter-Christian hostilities from Europe to the Peoples of this land. Although less urgent than the direct and tangible abuses, here too there are harmful marks that must be reckoned with.
The history of separated Christianity in the lands we now call Canada has its roots, of course, in divisions that go back to European Christendom prior to the colonizing period. Through things like denominational rivalry and missionary competition, these deep-seated rifts between peoples from another continent were then further transplanted to this land. If it was not bad enough that the churches regularly failed in their witness to the Gospel by forcing Indigenous People to reject their own culture and identity to embrace the message of Jesus Christ, now the subsequent race to win adherents to ‘this church’ over against ‘that church’ served to draw yet another set of divisions. To this day, stories are told by Elders of the way that communities and families that had lived well together for centuries were now encouraged to turn against one another in the name of showing loyalty to Christian denominational lines.
With this additional piece of the tragic story in mind, the task of seeking Christian unity can take on yet another layer of meaning and necessity. It is this conviction that inspired Pêhonân – Forum on Dialogues, a gathering held by the Canadian Council of Churches Commission on Faith and Witness in Edmonton, Alberta in early summer 2023.
Convened every four to five years in a different city across the country, every iteration of the Forum on Dialogues explores emerging issues in the ecumenical movement while also building a thematic focus around the distinctives of that place. The city today called Edmonton is a region long known in the language of the Cree/Nehiyawak People as Amiskwaciwâskahikan, Beaver Hills House. At its heart, on the bank of the river, is a spot known as a Pêhonân – a gathering/waiting place. Long before settlement by Europeans, Indigenous Peoples living in the surrounding area, and others traveling through, would stop there to take a break on the journey, to encounter others doing the same, and to engage in trade and other forms of spiritual and material exchange.
In many respects, this is a compelling analogy for ecumenical dialogue. What better place, therefore, than Edmonton, to consider the interrelationships between Indigenous reconciliation, Indigenous voices in the churches, and the future of the ecumenical movement?
For three days, June 8-10, over 60 people were privileged to listen to lectures, panel conversations, workshops, and the like, all shared primarily by Indigenous church leaders from a diversity of geographical locations, Indigenous Nations, and church denominations. There were also ample opportunities to engage with local Elders and Knowledge Keepers, and to receive traditional teachings by means of words, ceremony, prayer, dance, and song. All of it was directed towards listening to the voices and experiences of Indigenous followers of Jesus and appreciating more deeply what both the division and the unity of the churches means from those points of view.
The Pêhonân gathering was a rich experience for all involved, and it is difficult to encapsulate all its insights and lessons into a few short paragraphs. But let me name 3 major takeaways as I heard them (bearing in mind that, as a Settler Christian, it is by no means all up to me to define these things).
A first message that came across loud and clear was that Indigenous followers of Jesus need to be and entirely have the right to be at the Canadian ecumenical table. While there are many different committees, commissions, working groups, etc., sponsored by the churches in Canada to foster ecumenical understanding, very rarely have these invited Indigenous members of churches to take part. This serves to reinforce inaccurate assumptions which tacitly imply that expressions of Indigenous church and spirituality are somehow not fully Christian, or the equally false notion that there is a single Indigenous Christian perspective. To continue to move forward as one Body in Jesus Christ in this land, it is urgent that progress be made to overcome this lacuna in ecumenical dialogue among Christians in Canada.
Second, the agenda of the ecumenical movement in Canada shows signs of biases that need always to be named and questioned. This includes the choice of topics that have most regularly been the focus of dialogue: justification, sacramental theology, orders of ministry, etc. These surely are important things to discuss ecumenically, but the centrality they commonly hold is in part a product of the issues that were faced by European churches during the time of their divisions. Christians from other cultural contexts, including Indigenous Peoples from Canada, do not always feel themselves as bound to those historically rooted and culturally conditioned debates, and may have other kinds of questions and concerns which are seen to be more significant from their own perspectives.
The same can be said for the way in which many ecumenical dialogues operate methodologically. There is regularly a default to a heavily words-focused and even academic approach in many ecumenical settings. Indigenous followers of Jesus certainly appreciate these dimensions too, but want to emphasize the spiritual and relational elements as critical components of the task of seeking unity as well. To put it plainly, it is critical to ensure that the ecumenical agenda is not beholden only to the forms and focuses which it has been used to. It needs to shift and expand so that Indigenous voices can also influence the direction of movement and its ways of seeking progress, to the benefit of all.
A third thing heard at Pêhonân was that, as we begin to see the continued emergence of self-determining Indigenous expressions of church in various denominational settings, there may be a need and desire for a specifically Indigenous ecumenical forum – at least for a certain period of time. This was identified because there are some matters which Indigenous disciples from different contexts and backgrounds in this land need to dig into on their own. Existing ecumenical institutions in Canada, such as the Canadian Council of Churches, can perhaps share some of their privilege and infrastructure to assist these structures of consultation and cooperate to take shape, but they must be for Indigenous churches to create according to their timing, priorities, and needs.
It goes without saying that one three-day conference is not going to say everything that could be said or solve all the issues and problems that exist. Nevertheless, I hope and believe that the Pehonan – Forum on Dialogues gathering will, in the long run, stand as a benchmark moment towards a paradigm shift in the Canadian ecumenical movement. God willing, may it lead us all into a level of ecumenical discussion worthy of what the beautiful diversities of this land and its many Peoples have always called us to.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Scott Sharman lives in Treaty 6 Territory in the city of Edmonton. He is a priest and theologian in the Anglican expression of the Jesus way. He completed a Master’s Degree in Religion from Wycliffe College in 2006, and a Doctorate in Historical Theology from the University of St. Michael’s College in 2014. His academic research has focused on 20th and 21st century ecclesiologies and how they influence the way that churches engage in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. Scott currently holds the office of Animator for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations for the Anglican Church of Canada at the national level, and also serves in the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton in the role of Canon to the Ordinary. He is married to Alex, and together they have three young children.

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