The Rev. Chris Harper, Indigenous native priest for the diocese of Toronto, was elected on the fourth ballot during an electoral synod in the diocese of Saskatoon September 8. Harper is to be consecrated as bishop of the diocese November 17.
Harper says he is “incredibly humbled by the encouragement, blessings and prayers” that he has received since the election. “It’s stunning,” he says, adding that he has received messages of support from within the dioceses of Saskatoon and Toronto as well as across Canada and internationally.
“It’s overwhelming what has to be done now, now that the rubber’s hitting the road, so to speak.”
For Harper, who was born in Paradise Hill, Sask., and spent much of his life in Saskatchewan and Alberta, the transition to the diocese of Saskatoon is somewhat of a homecoming. “Wherever parish ministry has called me…that’s always been home,” he says, “But this actually feels like going to true home, where I’ve got relatives, I’ve got my friends and a lot of acquaintances that I’ve known for many, many years.” He also knows many of the parishes and clergy in the diocese, he says.
As one of the smallest self-supporting dioceses, Harper says Saskatoon is well-positioned to accommodate a “family structure,” where “everyone recognizes each other as family, sharing resources, sharing and supporting each other in prayer.”
He hopes he can encourage this “familial feel” both in the culture of the diocese and the way it is structured, he says. While the church often talks about being a “community,” Harper says, the word “family” denotes something deeper. “To be family means you’re going to disagree. Anybody who has brothers or sisters knows you’re going to disagree. But still, you always come back to the same table, and you always share what you have, and you will always love and forgive. That’s the difference between a community and a family.”
For a diocese, “You share resources, you share the meal in that way, and you become a little more open and conversational in that sense, too. It’s a different way of looking at things, but I think it may work.”
But first, he says, he wants to hear from parishioners. “My first agenda is to hear the people…to get to just about as many of the parishes that I can and try to let them know that I will be there, and I am there, for them and with them, and that we can do anything together. Especially if we do it prayerfully and as the spirit leads us.”
Harper’s other goals are to foster greater unity and reconciliation in the diocese. “Oftentimes, the way I see it is, we bubble ourselves. My community, my church, this exists, this is it. This is all we do. Anything outside that bubble doesn’t really exist. I want to try to pop the bubbles of expectations, of self-need and desire, and instead to see where everybody’s together at the one table.”
Harper, who is Plains Cree, has been the diocese of Toronto’s Indigenous native priest since 2016. The position has taught him a lot about the realities of working toward reconciliation in the church.
“The church right now has a real desire to go right into reconciliation, looking at a timeline. ‘All right, well, we’ll be all reconciled within the next two years,’ ” he says. But before that can happen, he says, there must first be “knowledge, understanding, acceptance, acknowledgment, [then] hearing of the stories, and then you go into reconciliation.”
Indigenous people, he says, “are still at the stage of wanting to tell their story—tell their history, tell their need, tell their pain. And they need somebody to listen. But if everybody’s already left the table to become reconciled and work on reconciliation, they’re still missing half the table. So, I’ve been really pushing the churches to truly listen, and that becomes part of reconciliation.” This is especially important in the lead-up to General Synod 2019, he says.
Indigenous Anglican leaders are hoping to present a resolution to create a self-determining Indigenous church within the Anglican Church of Canada to General Synod when it meets in 2019.
Another issue that looms large over the upcoming meeting of General Synod is the proposed marriage canon amendment. When asked his views on the amendment, Harper says, “I can never give anything in the short, because a short answer is either a yes or a no, which is divisive. But a long answer is a…bit…more…open to interpretation and invitation to understanding in the broader sense, so I give long stories.”
Indigenous communities traditionally survived by recognizing the value of change, he says. “Whenever somebody came into the community and they brought something new, it was embraced, because it only meant that they were getting better at doing something. They were finding out something new and exciting, a new way of looking at things…No community ever survived by staying the same, otherwise they’d still be with sticks and rocks.” It didn’t matter who was coming into the community, he says, “whether they were male, female, by all the divisive labels we put on ourselves now. As long as they had something to contribute to the whole, they were embraced, and they [became] part of a family.” Rather than labelling people, he says, he wants to “see people as children of God—it sort of takes down those barriers. We start to look at each other just a little bit differently and hopefully with the same sense of peace.”
Harper says that it is with some regret that he leaves the diocese of Toronto—“I still feel I was just getting started”—but that “the Lord brings us all to the field to do some things, as we hear in Scripture. Some are there just to plant the seed, others to nurture, others to watch over it, some to weed. We all have these things for the final harvest.”
While he is looking forward to what’s to come, “right now there’s the little things that one’s never thought of,” he says, giving the example of a lesson recently learned shopping for bishop’s attire—“Did you know there are different types of purple?”
His very first order of business, he says, will be to sit down and thank everyone who has offered their congratulations. “I’ve been asking everybody for prayer…I know this in the back of my mind, I don’t do this alone. I walk with a great, wonderful, strong leadership.”
Harper was an emergency medical technician before completing a certificate of Indigenous Anglican Theology from James Settee College in the diocese of Saskatchewan and a masters of divinity from Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. He was ordained as a priest in 2005. He served as a priest in Saskatchewan and Ontario before becoming Indigenous native priest in the diocese of Toronto in 2016.
The current bishop of Saskatoon, David Irving, will retire at the end of September. Irving has served as bishop since 2010.