Some days it feels hard to wear the label “Christian,” even harder to bear the awkward mantle of priest in the church.

Of course, there are no perfect institutions. But the reminder over the past month from Kamloops, BC and the Cowessess First Nations in Saskatchewan of the dark shadow side of the church, makes the discomfort of identifying as part of a Christian religious institution even more acute than usual.

During the announcement last Thursday of the identifying of 751 unmarked graves, on the grounds of the Marieval Indian Residential School on the land of the Cowessess First Nation, Knowledge Keeper Florence Sparvier was given the opportunity to speak. Reflecting on her experience in the Residential School, she said in part,

We had to learn how to be Roman Catholics. We couldn’t say our own little blessings the way we said them at home. We had our own way of honouring ourselves and Mother Earth.

They (the church) made us think different and feel different. And a lot of the pain you see comes from there. They made us believe we didn’t have souls; and that was the ultimate desire of all of us.   

Christianity has a long and troubling history of arrogance, exclusivism and judgmentalism in relationship to people of other faiths or people who espouse no particular faith.

The settlers who began the conquest of this land we now call “Canada” five hundred years ago did not come here to learn or to listen. They did not come to seek out the wisdom of the peoples living in this land or to hear how the indigenous worldview might offer a healthy and life-giving way of being in this place. The colonizers came here to impose the European way of life that they believed superior to anything they found upon arrival in this land. This egregious attitude of superiority was nowhere more evident than in matters of faith.

With tragically few exceptions, the missionaries who brought their version of faith to this land, did not stop upon arrival to discern what might be the outlines of the Spirit at work in this place. They discounted the religious rituals and beliefs that had been practiced by the people of this land for thousands of years. They sought to eradicate the culture, language and religious practices practiced by the people of this land. Long before it was a term, this was “cancel culture” at its worst.

The European religious officials who accompanied the invaders were determined to impose upon anyone they encountered what they believed to be the superior version of faith that they brought with them. They saw no reason to ask questions or to listen. They came only with answers and persecution for anyone who did not immediately subscribe to the answers they brought. They believed they had nothing to learn from the faith system that was already alive in this place.

It is hard not to wonder how really different we are today.

In Anglican liturgy, when we conclude readings from our sacred text we are instructed in our service book to declare, “The word of the Lord.” What does this affirmation say about other sacred texts? Are we discounting the texts and practices of other faiths as equally conveying “the word of the Lord”? To anyone who does not subscribe to our version of faith, these words must sound just like the old old story of the first missionaries who landed on these shores and used their version of faith to support the subjugation of the peoples already resident in this place.

How are people likely to hear the words when we sing with grand organ flourish:

Lift hight the cross, the love of Christ proclaim
till all the world adore his sacred name.

The Hymn Book of the ACC and the UCC 1971 #321

Or how are we able, in light of our triumphalist history, to hum happily along with:

Jesus shall reign where e’re the sun
doth his successive journeys run;
his kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
till moons shall wax and wane no more

The Hymn Book of the ACC and the UCC 1971 #164

How might indigenous inhabitants of this land possibly hear our words as we piously beseech God saying:

Almighty and everlasting God,
whose will it is to restore all things
in your well-beloved Son, our Lord and King,
grant that the peoples of the earth,
now divided and enslaved by sin,
may be freed and brought together
under his gentle rule…

(BAS, 394)

How does it feel to visit an Anglican worship service as a person seeking to embrace people of many faiths and be required to stand and declare:

I believe in one God…
And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only-begotten Son of God

(BAS, 234)

We hear frequently these days that it is time to re-think how we do church in our current context. This re-thinking needs to extend to the core of all that we believe and proclaim in our theology and our worship. I wonder if unmarked graves from the past may be enough to make us willing to do some deep soul-searching about our practice of faith in the present. How will we speak in the shadow of the multitudes we have silenced by our arrogant assurance and our dogmatic certainties?