Bishop Anderson Calls Church to be ‘Holy Family’ – Ways of Lakota People Can Renew Role of Priests

In a timeless ceremony at a place called Pine Ridge, on the plains of South Dakota, the Lakota people adopted an Episcopal Bishop. They invested him with a new name, Wanbli Tokahey (“Leading Eagle”), and welcomed him into the Oglala Tribe.

The Rt. Rev. Craig Anderson, Bishop of South Dakota, planned never to leave the seamless circle of the Lakota people who make up the vast majority of Episcopalians in his diocese that was started in 1858. But earlier this year, officials of General Theological Seminary in New York City invited him to become their new Dean beginning in 1993, and the Oglala people encouraged their bishop of eight years “to take what you have learned (among us) and share it with the larger Church.”

A piece of what Bishop Anderson learned from the Lakota people he shared in a recent interview while on sabbatical at Ohio State University in Columbus, where he is a Mershon Fellow studying theology and public policy.

What he discovered among the Native Americans in South Dakota “can transform Christian education as we know it,” according to Bishop Anderson, who earned his Ph.D.  in theological anthropology at Vanderbilt University. The Lakota people call it “tiospaye.” The Bishop calls it “the incredible gift of the Lakota people in passing on culture, values, and religion.”

Tiospaye Defined

Tiospaye (pronounced tee-osh-pay-ee) is the series of extended families that are responsible for shaping the spirituality and values of each person in the community. From birth to death, the lives of the people in the tribe are saturated with the concept that religion “permeated all aspects of life.”

Through “tiospaye,” the circles of the extended community teach, model, and pass on the important truths embodied in the traditions of the people that give everyone an identity. The result of this collective teaching and sharing of story is that each person grown up with a sense of belonging to the whole – of being a part of a group with roots that nourish and connect an individual with the tradition of the community.

“There is no search for identity,” says Bishop Anderson. “Tiospaye provides the center for it.”

Tiospaye is the obligation of everyone among the Lakota people, and it is not to be palmed off onto others. It is an on-going, lifelong saturation in the truth that religion and life form a seamless union.

Bishop Anderson, who taught pastoral theology for eight years at the Theological School of the University of the South, Sewanee, TN, believes the Lakota concept of tiospaye can help the Episcopal Church reconfigure itself as a “holy family” dedicated to embodying the truth of faith in Jesus Christ, and passing on the traditions of the people of God that shape identity in all parts of life.

“Tiospaye underscored for me a resonance I felt with John Westerhoff’s belief that the primary responsibility for a religious formation resides in the home.” But the bishop noted that this puts too much pressure on the nuclear family. Like the Native American model, the Church must begin to see itself as a band of extended families that share the responsibility of Christian education.

“The Christian formation of people is too fragmented,” he believes, as is American culture. Many people lead rootless lives that give them little or no identity. The Church needs to be a community where people can gather to find a center for their identity in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He calls for the whole people of God to commit their lives to embodying and passing on the traditions as an extended family.

In a society where people are often desperate to find connections, the Church can be a covenantal community with a center for identity in much the same way that living in tiospaye for the Lakota people “provides and identity of family, nation, and tribe.”

Formation at the Heart

The formation of disciples of Christ is the heart of Christian education. It can become just another “program” left to a small band of well-meaning, dedicated volunteers in the busy parish agenda, absorbing no more than one hour a week. “The Church is not ‘program,’” says Bishop Anderson. “We need a new way of seeing the Church as extended family.”

American society is absorbed with the importance of the individual, and many American Christians have “privatized their religion.” Bishop Anderson sees these dangers as “our own Babylonian captivity,” and he challenges the Church to be a community where people also see themselves as part of a whole with responsibilities for living out the gospel and teaching the traditions.

How would the concept of tiospaye look in an Episcopal parish? Drawing on eight years of experience as a non-stipendiary priest in Christ Church, Alto, TN, he calls for clergy to lead the way “by reclaiming the function of priest as rabbi, as the bearer of tradition.”

In a Jewish congregation, the rabbi is the chief teacher. “I find it curious,” he reflects, “that we see education and formation as one of many functions. Clergy rarely teach. The role of the clergy needs to be renewed through recovery of a sense of what it means to be a teacher.”

The priesthood also needs to “reclaim the icon, the function and symbol of the bearer of tradition” in the Church. Bishop Anderson quotes one of his mentors, Urban T. Holmes, former Dean of the School of Theology of the University of the South, who believed that, like the rabbi, “the priest is the one who embodies wisdom” through a life of holiness, devotion, and commitment.

“Spiritual formation is the birthright of every baptized Christian,” says Bishop Anderson. But serious formation is reserved for the clergy. Popular series such as Education for Ministry (EFM, a multi-year course of immersion in the Scriptures, Bible, and traditions of the Church) “points to the hunger for something else” among lay persons besides sixty minutes of instruction and a sermon on Sunday morning.

As he prepares for his new responsibilities at General Seminary, he envisions seminaries as places to provide formation for God’s people. “We must overcome the distinction between theological discussion and Christian education.”

Still Many Questions

Even with a deep background in theology and anthropology, parish ministry, and the episcopate, Craig Barry Anderson does not pretend to have all the answers. “I have lots of questions,” says the 50-year-old bishop. He and his wife, Liz, a city planner, have three children: a son, Court, who is a sophomore at the University of Minnesota; and two daughters, Megan, a high school student spending a year in France, and Ragnar, who is in grade 6.

The Andersons will make their home on the campus of General Seminary, in the Chelsea section of New York City, next spring, as he enters the Dean’s office.

Leaving the Lakota people is hard. But Bishop Anderson has learned from them that one never really leaves the circle “where we can whisper the secrets of God and deepen our faith.”

By George J. Kroupa III

Episcopal Teacher – December/ January 1992

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