GTU Alum of the Year Interview | Rev. Dr. Carmen Lansdowne (PhD, 2016)
Rev. Dr. Carmen Lansdowne is from Alert Bay, British Columbia, and a proud member of the Heiltsuk First Nation. Rev. Dr. Lansdowne's journey in theological scholarship has been imbued with a deep commitment to an Indigenous way of being in the world. Rev. Dr. Lansdowne earned her PhD in 2016 from the GTU in Interdisciplinary Studies, with her scholarly work centered on indigenous epistemologies, delving into Christian missiology. She recently made history as the United Church of Canada’s 44th Moderator, becoming the first Indigenous woman to hold this position.
GTU: Congratulations on your recognition as the 2023 GTU Alum of the year! What significance does this award hold for you?
Rev. Dr. Carmen Lansdowne (CL): I feel very humbled to be recognized by the school in this way – especially as a Canadian. I felt out of sight out of mind to my church when I was in California studying, and I suppose the reverse is true now that I’m living and working in Canada. I loved my time at the GTU and follow what’s happening there, but I didn’t realize the GTU was also following me.
GTU: What experiences or aspects of your studies at the GTU have had the most significant impact on your work, including your recent election as the United Church of Canada's Moderator?
CL: For me, the most impactful was the way in which the core faculty in the Interdisciplinary Studies program were so vocationally focused.
I remember them saying to us in our first semester “Everyone says they want an interdisciplinarian, but the academy is still very much structured around disciplines. You need to be strategic about where you are going to fit in the world.”
This made my discernment continue about where and what I wanted to teach or write, and also really made me focus on the future and not just what I was wanting to read in the moment. That has really served me well.
GTU: As the first Indigenous woman to be elected as the United Church of Canada's Moderator, what opportunities or challenges have you encountered in this position, and how have they informed your theology and work?
CL: I think my election as Moderator put a spotlight on me and on the church that I didn’t expect. I’m not sure the last time that the CBC covered the election of the Moderator of The United Church of Canada. It is a privilege to hold the office of Moderator. I don’t think I knew how much it meant to folks in our communities of faith, but it’s been a real blessing to see folks eyes light up when I show up in a church space. The decline of churches in Canada is also a real challenge – exacerbated by the pandemic – and people are feeling disheartened or discouraged. This is true in the Indigenous church and the wider church. Sometimes it’s also hard to be the spokesperson for the church about reconciliation and reparations when our position is that Indigenous peoples in the church should not have to be the spokespersons for such things.
GTU: The name "Kwisa’lakw," given to you by tribal elders, signifies that you are a "woman who travels far." How has your globetrotting work and your experiences in various roles influenced your approach to leadership in the church?
CL: I think my global ecumenical experience, and even the experience of having lived, studied and worked in multiple contexts throughout the US and Canada have all impacted me. It’s important to know that different cultures do things differently. The more of that you’re exposed to, I think the more flexible it makes you in how you hold your own positions. The Institute for the Future has a great slogan: Strong beliefs, lightly held. I think that’s what exposure to different places and people has given me.
GTU: What experiences from your academic and professional journey have helped shape your vision for leadership and your commitment to social change?
CL: I think that grounding myself in the small but mighty tradition of Indigenous theologians and other thinkers in the academy has given me the intellectual ability to explain things in an intercultural way. Indigenous peoples, broadly speaking, don’t lead very “theoretical” lives – everything is political and grounded in action/reflection. So for me, that always means ideas impact people. The ideas that have taken root in the world have taken root with proponents saying that the impact on people and the planet are too hard to account for, so we should ignore them. I don’t buy that, and I think there are different ways to approach how we manage our lives together – at the local, regional, national, and international level. I think my academic studies supported that commitment. In the church, specifically, I also think my (unpopular) decision to study mission and evangelism in a church that struggles with those concepts because of the way they were coopted by colonialist powers has also been helpful.
There are very few places, if any, that I can think of where answers are black and white. Maybe mission and evangelism aren’t the right words anymore, but the Christian church needs to stay rooted in the love of a radically immanent and radically transcendent triune God, or it has lost its heart.
GTU: Could you share insights into your future academic or professional aspirations, considering your background and the experiences you've gained at GTU?
CL: I think folks often assume I want to teach Indigenous studies. I don’t. What I really felt called to teach was leadership – so I’m excited to share I’ll be joining the faculty at Emmanuel College of Victoria University in the University of Toronto in 2025 as Assistant Professor of United Church of Canada Studies. I’ll take over direction of the MDiv program, and teaching leadership through interdisciplinary courses about the United Church will allow me to do just that!
When I defended my dissertation, my committee challenged me to make connections between the mid-century political theologians and Indigenous theology. Working in outreach ministry really hasn’t given me the time to do that. I’m looking forward to sabbatical after my term as Moderator, and the fact that research and writing will be part of my duties as faculty so that I can start to do that. I will always be concerned with social justice issues. For the past 5 years or so that’s been around housing justice. I’m working with Urban Loft Press to write on liberation theology and the housing affordability crisis. I’m also on schedule to release my dissertation in book form in the fall of 2024 with Canadian Mennonite University Press.
GTU: How do you envision the role of theology in addressing the challenges faced by indigenous communities worldwide, and what message do you have for students and scholars pursuing studies similar to yours at the GTU?
CL: I was privileged to study theology during my MDiv with the late Sallie McFague. I think in one of her first lectures, she said “Theology matters. What we think about God matters. What we do because of what we think about God matters.” I couldn’t agree more. For Indigenous peoples across the world, religious traditions have been both sources of oppression and liberation – again, there are never just black and white answers.
But rumbling with the theological tradition that have grounded or impacted your people is important, whether you are critiquing from the outside of that tradition, or grounded and reforming it from the inside. What you do matters.
GTU: At the GTU, we are working to build a more compassionate, just, and sustainable world, and so we like to ask our community members: What is something that is making you hopeful for the future? And what does that brighter world look like to you?
CL: I see more and more people committed to a different way of doing business in the world. That can mean a different, more inclusive and flexible way of being church, but can also mean different corporate, political, and economic choices. Sometimes in the digital age it can be hard to see anything that what algorithms put in front of us – but if we steps outside in the communities around us, we find we still have far more in common than not. And that gives me hope.