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Archbishop opens heart to residential school survivors

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The archbishop of Canterbury asked himself one question after hearing stories of abuse from Indigenous survivors of Anglican Church-run residential schools: “How could they have done that?”

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/05/2022 (216 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The archbishop of Canterbury asked himself one question after hearing stories of abuse from Indigenous survivors of Anglican Church-run residential schools: “How could they have done that?”

Justin Welby, the spiritual leader of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, spoke to the Free Press after meeting Indigenous residential school survivors in Prince Albert, Sask. on the weekend.

“I have a huge sense of anger and profound grief about (the abuse),” he said.

Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury. (AP File Photo/Sam McNeil)

After hearing stories from 15 Indigenous people from the nearby James Smith Cree Nation who had experienced abuse at Anglican-run schools, Welby said he lamented their “intolerable suffering” as children.

“For building hell and putting children into it and staffing it, I am more sorry than I could ever, ever begin to express,” he said in his apology.

“I’m ashamed. I asked myself where does that come from? That evil? It has nothing to do with Christ. It is the rawest, wickedest, most terrible thing to molest a child while you read them the Bible,” he said.

Welby was in Saskatchewan from April 28 to May 1 to attend the synod of the Ecclesiastical Province of Rupert’s Land, which brought together clergy and others form 10 Anglican dioceses in Manitoba, northwestern Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

He was especially moved by hearing from a survivor who cried herself to sleep each night, along with other sobbing children.

“One’s instinctive reaction with a crying five-year-old is to comfort and reassure them, to tell they are valuable and beloved. What possessed them (residential school staff) to behave in the way they did?” he said.

Welby said he doesn’t have an answer; maybe it “was racism or an abuse of power,” or perhaps the idea that Indigenous people were “subhuman,” a belief that grew out of the Doctrine of Discovery.

“I’m going to wrestle with that more,” he said, noting the subject of the church and Indigenous people is a key theme at this summer’s Lambeth Conference in England, which brings together Anglican bishops from 165 countries.

In response to a request from survivors for the release of records about residential schools held in England, the archbishop said he will “do everything in my power to make sure it happens.”

He is open to exploring a request for funding from the Church of England to help restore Indigenous languages although, he noted, he doesn’t have control over church finances.

In making the apology, Welby said he wants Indigenous people to know “the church stands with them, will be with them in solidarity,” adding “we want to do much more than that.”

Anglican Church of Canada Primate Linda Nicholls echoed Welby’s feelings.

“I was profoundly moved,” she said. “I could hear the pain and grief in their voices, see it in their bodies.”

Murray Still, priest at St. Stephen and St. Bede and a member of Peguis First Nation, attended the Synod.

He called Welby’s apology “quite moving,” as was his commitment to “stand alongside” Indigenous people in Canada.

Still, who is also a member of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples, was glad to hear Welby say he intends to back up his words with actions.

“It was very important to get that message from him,” he said, adding his apology felt “genuine and from his heart.”

Theo Robinson, an Anglican priest who is the minister for the Interlake Regional Shared Ministry, also attended the Synod.

He called Welby’s apology “very sincere” and said it communicated the message “the church has harmed Indigenous people, and we need to do better.”

The Synod included a conversation about changing the name of the ecclesiastical province. It is Rupert’s Land — the name given to the territory granted to the Hudson Bay Co. by King Charles II in 1670, which was named after his cousin Prince Rupert, first governor of the company.

“We want to move away from that colonial past,” said Robinson, adding there is also discussion in Manitoba about changing the name of the local Diocese of Rupert’s Land to promote reconciliation with Indigenous people.

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John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

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