On Sunday, November 21, Bishop Steve London conducted a service of confirmation and renewal of baptismal vows at St. Luke’s Anglican Church in Edmonton. It was London’s first confirmation service as bishop, and special in its own right in the way it blended Anglican and Indigenous tradition.
The service was the culmination of a four-session confirmation course that included all the elements of Anglican teaching, but also elements of Indigenous teaching and culture. The idea for the course arose out of discussion between the Rev. Nick Trussell, rector of St. Luke’s, and Eliza Hilliar, friend to Trussell, an Indigenous follower of Jesus, and someone who is respected in her culture as a mature, wise, and caring adult. That description is summed up by the Cree word for grandmother, which is Kokum. Thus, the title for the course: Confirmation with Kokum.
Trussell tells the story of how it all came about:
As I thought about confirmation preparation at St. Luke’s, I wanted to include the traditions of the First Peoples of this land that have been a blessing to my own faith and relationships, and to engage them in the faith formation of youth in the church. Eliza and I met at a Healing of Memories workshop in 2019. We have stayed in touch and worked together this past summer on the Revive Reclaim Restore youth camp. I offered her protocol and asked if she would teach the youth with me for confirmation. (In Cree culture, ‘protocol’ refers to a respectful way to enter a prayerful covenant together when asking someone for help.) Eliza agreed and we planned the sessions together.
Confirmation with Kokum was an act of reconciliation and decolonization. It was an opportunity to receive in faith and humility the insights of the spiritual connection of the Nêhiyaw (Cree) people between Creator and this land which has existed since time immemorial, as blessings for our way together.
We were so blessed to have Eliza share with us her knowledge and faith that has sustained her and given her such hope and strength. Eliza has had a long connection with St. Luke's. As part of her healing journey as a residential school survivor from the Anglican-run Gordon's Residential School in Saskatchewan, Eliza reclaimed her culture and language through an Indigenous Studies Degree at the University of Alberta. During her studies she felt that a reconciled relationship with the church was another step she would need to take for her healing. She formed a positive relationship with the Rev. Dan Van Alstine (a previous rector at St. Luke’s) and all her adult children were baptised at St. Luke's. Eliza was baptised and confirmed at the residential school, though the life-giving faith she holds was a gift from Creator through the traditions of this land.
The three youth and one adult who took part in the teaching circle with Eliza were able to begin to receive from her some of those gifts that had been taken from her by our church as a child. It is our hope that teachings of the smudge, the medicine wheel, and the seven grandfather teachings, which were part of the confirmation classes alongside teachings from scripture, will inspire and strengthen them as they grow and mature in their own faith, a journey marked in ceremony through their confirmation.
In the Apology for Spiritual Harm offered in 2019 by then Primate Fred Hiltz on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, there is a prayer for “the whole Church to learn from the spiritual wisdom of the elders and to listen with a heart to the spiritual hopes of Indigenous youth; and restoring spiritual teachings and ceremonies that were lost and celebrating them as a vital part of a gospel-based life."
It was essential to me that the confirmation preparation happen in this way; to live out the direction set by the apologies of our church and honour the spiritual gifts of our relations. I pray this small group of Indigenous and Settler people, gathered to learn and practice our faith together, is one small part of that work of healing and reconciliation.
For St. Luke's it was a joy to create an opportunity for reconciliation, to understand our shared faith and the traditions of this land in a new way and to host youth from different parishes.
Bishop Steve was grateful for what he calls the “providential gift” of a ribbon shirt, to wear for the confirmation service. These shirts are traditional regalia for ceremony in Cree and other First Nations cultures and Fred Matthews, lay-reader-in-charge of the Indigenous congregation at Frog Lake, just happened to have a purple one in his closet!
Bishop Steve says the service was a real blessing to him.
“I love the fact that it was an organic experiment in reconciliation,” he says. “Nick and Eliza found a way to teach the faith in the normal fashion through creed and scripture, but to also learn and meditate on the wisdom of this land. It was for me a good example of the kind of respectful listening and learning that we have been talking about.”
Trussell also says it was not an accident that the confirmation ceremony was held on Christ the King Sunday.
“It was as intentional as the teaching circle itself," he says. "That day reminds us of the kind of king Christ is, one who brings resurrection and healing to our suffering and divisions, whose Kingdom is beyond the divisions and conflicts of our earthly kingdoms. Baptism and confirmation are commitments into Christ's kingdom life within us, one that unites across nations, breaks down dividing walls and reconciles us to one another in Christ.”
Photos by Karen MacDonald