A calm but eventful General Synod

Archdeacon Taimalelagi Fagamalama Tuatagaloa-Matalavea (right) greets Stephen Lewis, United Nations special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa, after his speech. He urged the church to help end the “death spiral” of AIDS in Africa.

General Synod 2004 may well be remembered as much for what did not happen as for what did.

A surprise upset in the election of the primate, with an unforeseen candidate becoming the head of the church? A clear decision on the church’s position on same-sex blessings? Picketers? Gatecrashers? Feared walkouts?

None of it happened.

In the end, what did happen is that the synod voted for a short-term primate; a safe option in a confusing time in the church. It also opened a can of worms by deferring a vote on whether dioceses may exercise a “local option” to bless same-sex relationships, and then 12 hours later voting in favour of a motion that affirmed the “integrity and sanctity” of those same relationships.

Time for change

It approved a new strategic plan that will guide the church’s work for the next six years, and made changes to the marriage canon that will permit weddings outside church buildings and allow dioceses to eliminate their matrimonial commissions.

It also received a startling reminder of what the church can do in the arena of HIV/AIDS.

There was also a moment of reconciliation, with a hug between a former residential schools worker and a one-time student, an echo of the embrace at General Synod 2001 between aboriginal bishop Gordon Beardy as he publicly forgave the primate, Archbishop Michael Peers, for the schools system.

New primate

The election displeased few, despite the wishes of some that other bishops – namely Fred Hiltz of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island and David Crawley of Kootenay – would let their names stand for election. Archbishop Andrew Hutchison will serve as primate for three to (a maximum of) five years; his diplomacy, peacemaking skills and background in finance will be a boon to a church that is struggling with division over matters of sexuality and a drop in income.

The election was the first indication of a disparity at this synod between clergy and laity. It took lay members just two ballots to elect Archbishop Hutchison, but it would be another two ballots and three requests for more nominees (only one of which was granted) before there was a majority in both laity and clergy. Clergy also dominated the microphones at many debates.

Active youth

It was widely believed that youth, most of whom were attending synod for the first time and were new to the orderly style of deliberations, swayed a vote that affirmed the “integrity and sanctity” of same-gender relationships. It was their voices that led off the debate. That happened only after a request by synod member Sr. Constance Joanna that youth be allowed to speak first at the debate. (She noted that they were not being heard, due to the fact that they were slower to approach the microphones). Like their older counterparts, they were not of one mind about homosexuality, but they spoke from their hearts, with passion and forthrightness. A number said they were disappointed that synod had voted the night before to defer a decision on same-sex blessings. The vote to affirm same-sex relationships passed and early indications are that the wrangling over the definition and intent of the word “sanctity” will carry on for months to come.

AIDS challenge

A highlight for many was an address by Stephen Lewis, the United Nations special envoy on AIDS in Africa. Delivered without speaking notes, Mr. Lewis’s 45-minute speech was a powerfully moving commentary on the “death spiral” of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa – where there are more than 14 million children under the age of 15 who are orphaned by HIV/AIDS – and the unwillingness of much of the Western world to do anything to stem it. He challenged the church to provide religious leadership to fight the pandemic.

That day was one of the most draining of the eight-day meeting. Synod delegates lurched from the challenges posed by Mr. Lewis – those very things on which many believe the church should focus its attention – to church finances, then to a presentation on anti-racism, then into debate and decision on same-sex blessings.

No protests

The issue of blessing two people of the same gender, of course, was the proverbial elephant in the room throughout synod. The subject was considered so contentious that the rumour mill went into overdrive. Drawing conclusions from last year’s meeting of the Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA), where media interest was unprecedented and protestors passed out leaflets to members, organizers put in place stringent security measures. Nobody was permitted on the plenary floor at Brock University without a colour-coded lanyard and nametag. Local and campus police were warned of the possibility of protestors and some even speculated that a fundamentalist, anti-gay church group from Kansas might choose to picket the synod, as it has done elsewhere.

In the end, the busloads of conservative supporters never materialized. Observer seats were filled, but nobody was turned away. Essentials – a coalition of conservative church groups – had a visible presence on the campus, having rented the Lutheran seminary and erected a tent for its gatherings. But its numbers were modest and its delegates could not sway the synod, as evidenced by the primatial election results (many had backed Bishop Ronald Ferris, who concedes he is “very conservative on moral issues,” including the question of same-sex blessings) and by the vote to affirm the “sanctity and integrity” of same-sex relationships.

No consensus

Synod’s other decision on the contentious issue of the blessings – to defer voting on whether to affirm dioceses’ authority to bless relationships between members of the same gender – was not unexpected. A survey commissioned by the church had indicated earlier this year that many Anglicans wanted more time to discuss the issue. The consulting group advised that a decision should be postponed until General Synod 2007. The Council of General Synod elected to send the resolution to General Synod in spite of the consultants’ advice.

On the day before the vote, Walter Deller, principal of the College of Emmanuel and St. Chad and a member of the faith, worship and ministry committee, summarized for the gathering the comments from small table groups. The writing was on the wall: despite decades of study in some parishes and dioceses, far too many others had barely broached the subject of blessings, and had arrived at General Synod oblivious to the issues that were being raised. Clearly, synod was not of one mind and would likely defer a vote on the matter.

Commitment to stay

Many had feared that conservative Anglicans, many of whom do not accept homosexuality, might leave the church over this issue, but a group of nine Canadian bishops, working with the Essentials coalition, appear to be taking a different route than some of their counterparts in the ECUSA.

In the United States, seven (out of 113) dioceses and a handful of congregations have joined the Anglican Communion Network – a group seeking to “realign” themselves with conservative primates throughout the Anglican Communion.

Instead, the Canadian bishops have urged those who are distressed by the synod’s actions to remain with the church and “take their full part in the diocesan and provincial synods which will contribute to a decision of whether (the blessing of same-sex relationship) is a doctrinal matter.”

Pomp and ceremony

Synod wrapped up with an appropriate measure of pomp and ceremony. The new primate’s installation service, held at Hamilton’s Christ’s Church cathedral, began and ended with a long parade of church dignitaries and representatives, drawing stares by processing down the urban streets of the downtown core – a curious mix of the sacred and the profane. During the service, homilist Frank Griswold, presiding bishop of ECUSA, spoke of the nature of communion.

The bishop reminded the congregation that communion implies difference.

“Communion requires that there be singularities that set us apart from one another: that there be various ways in which we seek to inhabit and live the gospel, as well as different contexts in which we seek to discern the authentic workings of the Spirit – who is weaving the love of God into the fabric of our lives and spinning the webs of relationship of which our lives are made.”

It was a timely observation.

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