United Church elects Carmen Lansdowne as first Indigenous woman to lead a religious denomination in Canada


A pastor from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has become the first Indigenous woman to lead a religious denomination in Canada.

On Saturday, the United Church of Canada elected Reverend Carmen Lansdowne as its new moderator. The position makes her the institution spiritual leader and public representative, while policies and doctrine are overseen by a general council.

The Heiltsuk Nation (Haíɫzaqv), also known as Kwisa’lakw, leads First United in the Downtown Eastside. It provides food, housing, and showers for low-income residents.

“Our safety nets are not adequately meeting their needs,” Lansdowne said in an interview.

Churches should “speak truth to power” on issues like poverty, housing, Indigenous rights and climate change, crises that are tragically “playing out” in the Downtown Eastside, she said.

“But these are issues that affect all Canadians. I think the church should have something to say.”

His election comes 36 years after the denomination became the first to apologize for abuses against Indigenous children at its residential schools.

“There are divisions or mixed feelings, and rightly so, within the native community about Christianity,” Lansdowne said. “And at the same time…Christian history has been a beacon of hope for some indigenous peoples.”

Lansdowne said she “stands on the shoulders” of Alberta Billy, a We Wei Kai First Nation elder who died June 13. Billy was among a group of Indigenous elders who demanded that the institution make amends in the 1980s.

This historic apology came in 1986, but the elders did not accept it, acknowledging instead that it had been received.

“It was a huge gift and challenge to the church,” Lansdowne said.

In 1992, Cree Reverend Stan McKay became the church’s first Native moderator. Thirty years later, Lansdowne was the only candidate.

“Make room for these conversations”

Lansdowne’s leadership of what was once one of the strongest denominations in the country is a sign of change, said the Reverend Ray Aldred, director of the Indigenous Studies program at the Vancouver School of Theology.

“To fix something, it has to be a grassroots movement and a good leader,” said Aldred, an Anglican minister and member of Swan River First Nation. “And I think Carmen would be good at it… [to] listen to the base and try to make room for these conversations to happen.

“Sometimes people throw everything away, not just the bad stuff… What’s good? What needs to change? What can be kept?”

Not one to avoid the most controversial topics within Christianity, June 28 she tweeted after U.S. Supreme Court struck down abortion rights: “This pastor will marry you and support you while you access reproductive care. Period. No exceptions.”

Asked about the post, she said it only reflected her own views and ministry, admitting many Christians might be surprised.

“There are people within the United Church of Canada for whom that would be a particularly sweeping and empowering statement, and we disagree with each other on that,” she said. . “I don’t feel like it’s my job or anyone’s job to judge another person on what’s going on inside and in their body.”

In 1980, the church declared “abortion should be a personal matter between a woman and her doctor” – the same year it elected its first moderator, the Reverend Lois Wilson.

The United Church is one of the largest Protestant denominations in the country; about 1.4 million Canadians express an affiliation, according to Statistics Canada.

But a massive drop in membership has dealt a lasting blow to Sunday benches – and supply plates.

“We haven’t seen what the future of the church looks like yet…new ways that we couldn’t imagine that don’t focus on a neighborhood congregational building,” Lansdowne said.

Lansdowne says she wants to tackle the impacts of climate change and fascism. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Having also worked for environmental law firm Ecojustice, she said one of the most pressing priorities of her three-year term was to “address” the crises of climate change, the “rise of nationalism and potential fascism” and the neglect of senior citizens.

“The church can and must do more,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of time to deal with some of the challenges that we have… We have to think big and be hopeful and creative.”

Lansdowne will be officially installed in a ceremony Aug. 7 at the Canadian Memorial United Church in Vancouver.