Episcopal Mission incorporates Navajo culture into church services

Posted by Kendall Harmon

Still Father Corbett has faith in the future of St. Christopher's. He is sure the Episcopal Church will not abandon its last "area mission" within the contiguous United States.

An area mission is much like any other Episcopal diocese, he explains. It is a district under the jurisdiction of a bishop. "But we are not, strictly speaking, a diocese, because we are not self-supporting."

The mission will rely on the central church for the foreseeable future, Father Corbett is sure. He explains that one of the congregations, St. John's, does not have one active member who has regular employment.

Father Corbett believes that if the Episcopal Church is going to continue to have meaning in the lives of Navajos, it must embrace their traditions. He quotes Steven Plummer, the church's first Navajo bishop, saying the church must be an incubator of the culture. That's why Father Corbett has learned Navajo prayers, recites the Lord's Prayer in Navajo, prays in English to the four directions. "The basic point is anything Navajos learn has to fit in with their world view."

Father Corbett says Navajo traditions are easily reconciled with Christianity in that Navajos also believe in a creator God. And Navajos have an easy time knowing God incarnate in his son, Jesus. In their Winter Festival, the Holy People come to dance among them, Father Corbett explains. "It is an instance of multiple incarnations."

Father Corbett told a previous bishop that he thought the Navajo would always see Christ as first among many Holy People. "That was too much for him," Father Corbett recalls.

Still, he is sure most of his superiors in the church believe as he does, "If you are going to have dialogue between the Navajo and Christian, if it is a true dialogue, both sides have to be open to change." The Episcopal Church has a long history of adapting, he points out. He mentions the Nicene Convention.

So the Episcopal Church will use Navajo teachers and medicine men next week to help with a Navajo blessing ceremony when they ordain their new bishop. Father Corbett predicts, "The sermon will draw parallels with Christianity. No doubt we shall sing some hymns as well as Navajo chants. This has to be done by someone who is at home with both traditions. Otherwise we will end up with a mishmash."

Read it all.

Filed under: * Anglican - EpiscopalEpiscopal Church (TEC)* Christian Life / Church LifeParish Ministry* Theology

Posted September 15, 2007 at 8:53 am

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The URL for this article is http://www.kendallharmon.net/t19/index.php/t19/article/5935/

1. VaAnglican wrote:

Really reassuring that the service will “draw parallels” with Christianity.  Nice to know the Episcopal Church is still doing such effection “mission” work.

September 15, 9:05 am | [comment link]
2. Leonidas wrote:

Yes, it reminds me of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City where in the nave you’ve been able to find altars from all the popular religions of the world, and where Dean Morton hung a sculpture of the crucified Jesus in the form of a bare-breasted woman.

September 15, 9:33 am | [comment link]
3. cssadmirer wrote:

Yet another example of the theological confusion that reigns in too many regions of TEC.  The reasserters are right to say this is about much more than sex/sexuality.

September 15, 9:46 am | [comment link]
4. Christopher Hathaway wrote:

Apostacy on parade. The authentic episcopal processional.
What an word removed-ed.

September 15, 9:50 am | [comment link]
5. freihofercook wrote:

“The basic point is anything Navajos learn has to fit in with their world view.”
Right, and so if there were to be anything in Christianity which, say, conflicts with their worldview, then we wouldn’t want that would we?  So typical of the prevailing theology of the TEC leaders at present.

September 15, 9:58 am | [comment link]
6. Doug Martin wrote:

The good Fr. Corbett follows a long standing New World tradition of adapting Catholicism to the local belief structure, and over time it will become more (if never to the satisfaction of some) “orthodox”.  God will, assuredly, bless him.

September 15, 10:27 am | [comment link]
7. Jeremy Bonner wrote:

The problem - as it has always been - is how much syncretism one can have before you compromise the theology. I remember one of Philip Jenkins’ anecdotes about a Third World bishop visiting a Canadian church who was appalled to find Native American totem poles displayed in its grounds. The church saw this as a gesture of respect to the Native American community and viewed the poles as CULTURAL icons. The bishop - with arguably more theological perspicuity - recognized that they played a role in Native American RELIGIOUS rituals that made their presence in a place of Christian worship unacceptable.

So how does one handle other cultural practices like music, dance, and festivals? Are they all inevitably compromised by their religious associations? Historically, in North America, Protestant missionaries tended to say, yes always, while Catholic missionaries said, no only sometimes. Perhaps the greater problem today - as Jenkins’ example makes clear - is that many First World Christians do not recognize the religious aspects of minority cultures and so are more apt to adopt an “anything goes” approach.


September 15, 10:48 am | [comment link]
8. Bob from Boone wrote:

Thanks for your contributions, #6 & 7. Inculturation has been a feature of the Church catholic from early times (e.g., the adoption of Dec. 25, the pagan festival of Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun, as the birthday of Christ, who soon appears iconigraphrically as the Sun of Righteousness; and there are many, many more examples). This especially came to be the case in the New World, as Native Americans incorporated aspects of the old religion into the new. On the Pine Ridge Resevation of the Lakotah, Jesuit priests regularly incorporate the Sacred Pipe ceremony and other ancient practices into the Eucharist and other ceremonies; examples could be multiplied among other tribes. What the Navaho Episcopalians are doing is nothing out of the ordinary.

Bishop-elect David Anderson criticized the use of a Native smudging ceremony inside an Episcopal church. He got it wrong: the ceremony was held outside the church. He also failed to report, if he knew it, that the ceremony was part of a celebration of the dedication of a stained glass window in honor of David Pendleton Oakerhater, the former Cheyenne Warrior who was the first Native American to be ordained an Episcopal deacon.

I have often told my college students that there are two kinds of Christianity: official Christianity and peasant or folk Christianity. Those of us growing up in modern industrialized societies have lost the connection with the latter. The Navaho remind us that there is a wisdom in preserving aspects of deeply rooted native identity into the Christian faith. After all, St. Paul said that he was “all things to all men.” In my view, when it is done carefully and selectively (and I see nothing to the contrary in this article), that is a good model to follow.

September 15, 11:34 am | [comment link]
9. John Liebler wrote:

My grandfather founded St. Christopher’s Mission to the Navajo, Bluff, Utah in 1942.  When I was a child most Episcopal clergy knew him by reputation, and even today some still do.  Father Liebler was a nose-bleed Anglo-catholic and an ultra-traditionalist.  His courtesy and respect for the medicine men, his adoption of Navajo hairstyles and customs, and his fluency in the language were known throughout the West.  He adapted tribal chant tunes to compose a “mass” setting that is still performed occasionally, although he refused to use Navajo chants, believing they might cause his people to entertain pagan associations when chanting the tune.  He consistently pointed to the correspondence between Augustine of Canterbury and Pope Gregory as the model for cross-cultural mission: incorporate anything that is not antithetical to the faith.  Oppose anything that is.  After mandatory retirement at age 72 the Bishop brought in a guitar playing, sandal wearing priest.  He couldn’t stay, and went south to Monument Valley to start another mission! 

When I visited out there about 15 years ago we were escorted around by Bishop and Mrs. Plummer.  A troubled man, Bishop Plummer was also a prayerful man.  His bible was dogeared and highlighted and underlined.  Yet he let the pastoral work go.  And the liberalizing of TEC alienated many of these traditional people.  The clinic and school stood in ruins.  The mission in Monument Valley was closed and quiet. 
A Presbyterian Navajo pastor I met told me that most of the members of his thriving and growing congregation had been baptised and instructed in the faith by the same person who had brought him to the Lord:  Canon H. B. Liebler.

So…despite the faithlessness in TEC, God is faithful.  The buildings he built are largely empty.  The church he raised up is still alive and well and worshiping the Lord!

September 15, 11:42 am | [comment link]
10. Harvey wrote:

To the Diocesan Bishop invloved I tell a story.
A missionary to Ireland many decades ago was repeatedly interrupted by a member of the congregation ( he was a bit tiptsy I believe).  He kept insisting He wanted wanted to hear words on the shamrock ( with reference to pagan diety I understand I believe).  After many interruptions by this man the preacher paused and looking straight at him said famous words that I shall never forget….” On Christ the solid Rock I stand….all other rocks are SHAM ROCKS..”  This might be applied to the subject of this blog.

September 15, 12:28 pm | [comment link]
11. Karen B. wrote:

Fr. John, I am moved and thankful for your comment in #9.  What a great testimony about your grandfather’s work and legacy.  Awesome!

I especially appreciate your reiterating the key principle for cross-cultural mission:
He consistently pointed to the correspondence between Augustine of Canterbury and Pope Gregory as the model for cross-cultural mission: incorporate anything that is not antithetical to the faith.  Oppose anything that is.


That’s certainly what I and my teammates are seeking to do here in Muslim West Africa.  For instance, it’s currently Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month.  We haven’t forbidden local believers (from Muslim backgrounds) from keeping the Ramadan fast, but DO teach against legalism. 

I was just today teaching some local sisters about this, looking at John 4 and the importance of “worshipping in Spirit and in truth” as opposed to outward legalism.  We teach that the Ramadan fast can be used as a way to grow in faith and in the love and knowledge of Jesus.  But for some believers, we would strongly discourage it if we think they are merely fasting to appear as if they are still Muslims and avoid persecution.

It’s a real challenge, because while something like the Ramadan fast can easily be “Christianized” [insisting on our freedom in Christ, that fasting is not obligatory and that we in no way “earn” merit with God through our fasting; and it can be very helpful to be seen fasting in a society which equates Christians with unholy infidels and doesn’t believe that Christians fast or pray….] it is also problematic as outsiders looking in might think we are promoting syncretism, and some weak believers may well keep the fast for the wrong reasons.

May God give all of us cross-cultural workers much wisdom and grace to build with gold, silver and precious stones, not wood, hay, or stubble, and to ALWAYS build on the foundation of Christ Jesus and the Apostles teaching!

September 15, 1:24 pm | [comment link]
12. Chip Johnson, cj wrote:

The ‘motto’ of our mission in South Dakota is, “Traditional Anglicanism, with a twist”, because we have L/Dakota people in our parish, and because we occasionally include some aspects of Lakota spirituality in our worship.  As Karen B> says, not to take away from, but to enhance, native understanding of Anglicanism.  Afterall, the first, and only prayer book they have is a Dakota translation of the 1789 BCP.  The newer abridgenment, known as the 1979, was not translated for them, since the white man forced them to lose their language up until a few years ago, when the BIA began allowing native language instruction in schools.

So, yes, their spirituality is very important to them, and it is no more pagan tha the pablum some of the early missionaries tried to force on them.

Chip Johnson+, cj

The South Dakota Anglican

September 15, 1:49 pm | [comment link]
13. art+ wrote:

Bob from Boone, actually the first Native American to be ordained a Deacon and a priest was Enmegahbowh see info from lesser feasts and fasts below:
June 12, 2002, marks the centennial of the death of the Rev.
John Johnson Enmegahbowh (pronounced En-meh-GAHboe),
the first ordained Native American Episcopal priest. Ordained
deacon by Bishop Kemper in 1859 and priest by
Bishop Whipple in 1867, Enmegahbowh served the Diocese
of Minnesota for over 40 years and died less than a year after
the man who had ordained him to the priesthood.

September 15, 1:57 pm | [comment link]
14. Bob from Boone wrote:

Art +, thanks for the information and correction. My copy of Lesser Feasts and Fasts is out of date. An interesting story.

September 15, 2:52 pm | [comment link]
15. azusa wrote:

Why wasn’t Steven Plummer removed from the ministry?

September 15, 3:17 pm | [comment link]
16. MJD_NV wrote:

Some great comments here - and three cheers ot Pope Gregory!  Unfortunately, my experience has been that the ECUSA goes way beyond, putting a slight veneer of Christianity on Native feasts instead of using Native culture to teach orthodox Christianity.  But sounds like Karen & Chip+ are involved in ministries where the opposite is true, praise be to God!

If God is not Father, Jesus is not Lord, the Son is not unique, baptism is not necessary, the creeds are optional, repentance and sin are dated concepts and the atonement is marginalized or even rejected, where do we go from here? The faith remaining will be a very different faith from the Christian faith once delivered to the saints - and I, for one, am not going there!  ~ Bp. Miller, Church of Ireland

September 15, 8:07 pm | [comment link]
17. Larry Morse wrote:

Karen, I should be very much interested to hear more from you about the world you live and work in and the way Christianity is integrated into that world.  Larry

September 15, 11:48 pm | [comment link]
18. Dan wrote:

For those interested in innovative approaches to working with Muslims, check out Paul-Gordon Chandler’s “Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road: Exploring a New Path Between Two Faiths”, published by Cowley Publications. He focuses on the remarkable ministry of celebrated Arab novelist Mazhar Mallouhi, known as a “Muslim follower of Christ.”

We are always more comfortable with our own cultures, and therefore can find it uncomfortable when persons in another culture interpret what it means for them to follow Christ. Certainly there are problems with some conclusions, but we can’t be too judgmental given the difficulties Western Christians have of figuring out what it means to follow Christ in our culture!

September 17, 3:11 pm | [comment link]

© 2014 Kendall S. Harmon. All rights reserved.

For original material from Titusonenine (such as articles and commentary by Dr. Harmon) permission to copy and distribute free of charge is granted, provided this notice, the logo, and the web site address are visible on all copies. For permission for use in for-profit publications, please email KSHarmon[at]mindspring[dot]com

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