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Owning up

When I was ordained in 2000, one of the hands laid upon me that day should have been the President of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma. Unfortunately, shortly before the Methodist Conference got underway in Huddersfield, Fiji experienced its third coup d'etat in 13 years. George Speight took the Fijian parliament by force and held the Prime Minister and most of the government hostage. As with the previous coups, the leader was a Methodist and so the Church's president flew home to act as mediator in the national crisis.

In a recent article in one of the main Fijian newspapers, the current Methodist President called on Methodist members not involve themselves in any other coups. I'm not aware of many church leaders having to go public in asking their flock to refrain from overthrowing the government, but it speaks to a rather murky history of interference in politics by the Church in Fiji.

On the other side of the world, Pope Francis spent much of last week on a six-day 'pilgrimage of penitence' to Canada. The Catholic Church's role in the running of Indian Residential Schools has come under scrutiny in recent times and the scandalous act of 'cultural genocide' perpetrated on the indigenous communities of Canada has been revealed.

From 1883, the Canadian government enacted an educational policy that not only set up segregated institutions for indigenous children, but eventually mandated their participation. Children were denied access to education in their own languages and forced to engage in cultural assimilation that uprooted them from their cultural backgrounds. Many were coerced into conversion to Christianity. The policy removed children from their families and communities and deliberately placed them as far away as possible to ensure that parental visits were not possible and children were cut off from sources of external support. The last residential school closed in 1997.

The role of all the mainline Churches - Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist, as well as Catholic - in setting up and running these schools has caused shock and outrage within Canada. The Pope, in focussing his visit on taking responsibility for the actions of Catholics in facilitating this appalling system, has been moving to watch. In listening to the voices of some of the victimised, as well as apologising to the tramatised communities, Pope Francis has owned up to an awful episode in his Church's history, an important step on the road to justice.

But Catholics didn't invent the Residential Schools system. For Methodists, the shameful reality is that the thinking that lay behind this system can be traced to the work of an ordained Methodist minister and educationalist, Revd Egerton Ryerson. Ryerson was a key player in setting up the Canadian public school system, including the move to make textbooks more uniform, and education free. His contribution to Canadian education has been honoured in the creation of a town named after him and a university.

There is another aspect to Ryerson's legacy, however, one that has now led to Ryerson University being renamed and his statue being removed from the public square. On May 26, 1847, Ryerson in a letter for George Vardon, Assistant Superintendent of Indian Affairs, wrote:

"it is a fact established by numerous experiments, that the North American Indian cannot be civilized or preserved in a state of civilization (including habits of industry and sobriety) except in connection with, if not by the influence of, not only religious instruction and sentiment but of religious feelings.

"The theory of a certain kind of educational philosophy is falsified in respect to the Indian; with him nothing can be done to improve and elevate his character and condition without the aid of religious feeling.

"Even a knowledge of the doctrines and moral precepts of orthodox Christianity, with all the appliances of prudential example and instruction, is inadequate to produce in the heart and life of the Indian, the spirit and habits of an industrial civilization, without the additional energy and impulsive activity of religious feeling. The animating and controlling spirit of each industrial school establishment should, therefore, in my opinion, be a religious one. The religious culture in daily exercises and instruction should be a prominent object of attention ...."

Although the system was only set up after his death, the philosophy underlying it clearly owed much to Ryerson's thinking. The idea that Christianity could be force-fed to indigenous children to remove the perceived deficiencies in their own culture sounds abhorrent because it is - and was.

We live at a time when leadership is severely lacking in the institutions we have relied on to give shape and direction to our common life. The temptation is to believe that the answer to this lack lies in new leaders who are somehow morally superior and without flaw. The reality is that new brooms never sweep clean in the way we want. Our institutions are designed to hold memories for good or ill so wiping the slate clean isn't a possibility.

The real leadership we need is one that acknowledges the past, the mistakes and the brutality, and seeks to ensure that the future will be different. Those leaders need the rest of us to be willing to hear the unvarnished truth about what we have been in order to become what we wish to be.

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