Skip to main content

"The Flying Bishop"

The Bishop was coming to town! What a thrilling time for our little community. It only occurred once every two years, but you sure knew when it was happening. It seemed that everything, people and even objects, were readying themselves. Houses were cleaned spotless. We got new covers for our Mother Hubbard parkas; new mitts, boots ? the works.

People prepared for days. Bread was baked, the church was readied, of course, and the "airstrip" was created by shovelling a section of ice and snow off the frozen bay. The Bishop was flying in with "Rocky," Rocky Parsons, who had been his pilot for untold years. The whole thing was like an Easter celebration and frat-house party rolled into one.

You see, even if he was the leader of all "Anglicandom," he was the fun Bishop. Bishop Donald Marsh, Donald of the Arctic. He always seemed like the kindest and most pleasant man you could have met in all your life. He even spoke Inuktitut. And when he was in town, we knew that the fun had arrived.

After services, he would sit in our kitchen, and we would get a chance to chat with him. He would have changed out of his bishop's get-up by then, into a more sedate, black outfit. But he always had his collar on. We were chronically polite and thus held back the flood of questions we wanted to ask. Yet, despite our shyness, he would cast his glance over our way, a twinkle in his eye, and the talks were on.

He would tell us of amazing cities he had been to, speak of where he grew up, how he came north, how he came to love it. How he got the "call." It really did happen, he would tell us, God speaking to you out of the blue, telling you where to move and what to do. He had supposedly heard God as clearly as he could hear us; clear as day.

That was the time when we watched a couple of my older relatives become ordained as Anglican ministers. We took photos of them, dressed in what we irreverently referred to as their "gowns," along with the new minister's collars they received that day.

What made it so special, the Bishop explained, was that they were two of only a small handful of indigenous individuals who had gone through the rigorous training, who had passed their tests, to follow in the footsteps of Umauq (one of the very first and famous Inuit ministers) in their path to this type of life service.

"Did they get the 'call'?" I asked him.

Smiling, he told me that He called different people in different ways, and that the men had received His "call" in one way or another. Inuit had become Christian, he said, but they had accepted it on their own terms ? practising it in the ways that were uniquely Inuktitut, somewhat combining it with their old cosmologies.

Today, he said, he felt "big inside." Someday, he smiled, us kids would understand what he meant, once we had grown and dealt with the matters of adults.

I seem to recall reaching over to grasp the Bishop's hand, which was gentle and warm, and I inspected his bishop's ring. It was a huge thing, stars and other symbols all over it. We stared in rapt attention as he told us about its history and meaning. His explanations had something to do with why his stole was of a certain colour, and why in some ceremonies he had to wear "a silly hat;" about how people didn't have to kiss his ring like the Pope. He explained that High Anglicanism wasn't much different from Roman Catholicism. We left only when he had to break for lunch.

We couldn't know, as children, that that very ring would years later rest on an equally gentle and familiar hand ? on Oolateetak Idlout's finger. Big and mysterious as ever. Over a different lunch, decades later, I got to chatting with "Uncle O." We discussed many things: the changing climate in the north, social issues, our respective destinies. And, of course, we talked about Bishop Marsh, about his kindly yet powerful influence upon us all. And I remembered again some of the things that he had said long ago.

Years later, I received a strange package from a Jesuit priest. Soon after, the priest called me personally, asking me to review the papers therein. It turned out to be a report he had written for the church, evidence of his mounting suspicion that Inuit were not practising "true" Christianity, that every Christian denomination in the north had taken on Inuit cosmological overtones.

I read it and, as kindly as possible, told him, "Of course Inuit practice their own version of Christianity. Your own church, in Inuktitut translations of its materials, has inadvertently used shamanic terms. For mass, you're using the term for a shaman's spiritual cleansing ritual. For God, you're using the term for the living sky."

He went away crushed, disappointed in his church's missionary efforts, which I found odd. Could he not have accepted what Donald of the Arctic, or later my Uncle O, had always known? Inuit are a practical people. When we adopt a custom or a belief that is not originally ours, we do so because we want to; not because we have been "assimilated." We believe in the same way that we hunt: on the basis of whatever works. If we like something, we take it; and just maybe, we make it a little bit better. We have always altered things to suit ourselves.

Just as Inuit know who they are, they regard faith and religion as two separate things. Every Inuk has his or her own faith. Religion is simply regarded as a chosen way to express it.

It takes some growing up to realize this about your culture. But I remember the day it first occurred to me. I felt big inside.

Pijariiqpunga (That's all I have to say on the subject).