As we enter this divisive debate, what are the rules?

By on February 1, 2004

Anglicans in Canada are facing a divisive controversy. The issue has come onto the General Synod 2004 agenda following a decision in the diocese of New Westminster, where the bishop and that diocese have implemented the blessing of same-sex unions. This is being done in opposition to the expressed wishes of much of the Anglican world, including the Lambeth Conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the 1997 guidelines of the Canadian house of bishops as well as their October 2002 meeting. The global primates, meeting in October 2003, also disapproved.

As we enter a national debate that is potentially divisive, what are the rules?

Many Anglicans believe that the blessing of same-sex unions is contrary to Scripture, that it would overturn a 2,000-year moral tradition of the church, and that it would be contrary to the Articles of Religion, the marriage liturgies, and Marriage Canon. How would such a decision be constitutionally possible? Could General Synod authorize implementation of same-sex blessings by local option on the basis of a simple majority vote? Or by canonical change, as a matter of doctrine, worship, and discipline, requiring a two-thirds majority vote at two General Synods? Or only after fundamental constitutional review and re-agreement by constituent dioceses?

Anglicans view themselves as a comprehensive Christian community encompassing wide polarities, yet bound together in a single, unified structure, built upon a common commitment to Holy Scripture and our constitution.

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In the past century, two streams of Anglicanism have co-existed, accommodated to one another, and I believe, enriched one another. These two streams could be characterized as Salvationist and Liberationist. The Salvationist stream emphasizes a unique salvation available only through the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the necessity of conversion to newness of life, and right living as the outflow of receiving the gift of salvation. The Liberationist stream emphasizes the Creator’s care for all of humanity, Jesus as a liberator enlightening human progress, and the obligation of all believers to seek justice. These positions are not mutually exclusive, but rather highly compatible. Christ and the Scriptures testify that righteousness and justice are but two sides of the very same thing. “Mercy and truth are met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (Psalm 85:10).

The presenting issue for this unity crisis in the Anglican church is the blessing of same-sex unions. But that is just the first of many issues coming at us. Signals of upcoming issues ? including bisexuality and the blessing of common-law unions ? were clearly present in the deliberations of the last General Synod. Inclusion has been one of the principal themes of theological education for the past two decades. Inclusionism taken to the extreme undermines many basic Christian teachings. Ultimately an inclusionist gospel is embarrassed by exclusive claims for Jesus Christ. The bold New Testament proclamations of Jesus as “the way, the truth, the life” become an offence.

The overall unity issue cannot be easily avoided. Every diocese and congregation will ultimately have to face questions about what are the outward boundaries of tolerance. With more and more dioceses taking independent actions, albeit for what they see as justice reasons, are we to give up our vision of a single church which is a bridge to ecumenical unity?

We know (from observing the United Church of Canada, the Episcopal Church of the United States, and the diocese of New Westminster) that wherever a church proceeds to the implementation of same-gender unions, four kinds of division inevitably result. The four kinds of division are attrition, external splits, internal rifts and distancing between congregations and their governing bodies.

Some would argue that these perceived threats to Anglican unity are exaggerated. They argue that we have come through many other changes, and they feel that the talks of disunity are mere posturing. But other changes were largely preceded by widespread consensus and were supportable by some measure of Scriptural warrant. In this instance, division is not simply a risk, but a present reality.

Many are calling for local option and alternate episcopal oversight as solutions to insoluble differences. It will take some time to discover whether these will be devices to keep the church together in the midst of transitory controversies, or whether they are, in fact, separation agreements.

General Synod will feel tremendous pressure to downplay its own constitution and ground rules. It will no doubt be tempted to give rushed or tacit approval of local option. It may well devise some new process of education in the hopes of finding fresh opportunities for compromise. Some are feeling that dialogue easily turns to persuasion and that middle ground is simply a stopping place towards an unacceptable destination.

Though we are Anglicans, our ultimate loyalties are to Christ and his whole church. Our branch is but one vessel of the Holy Catholic Church. We know that our church is coming into a storm that all sides wish we did not have to go through. We do not know what the future holds. Will it be common, or will there be many new expressions of the Anglican church, some flourishing, some floundering? We need to suffer our griefs and losses with charity and good will to all. We need to prepare ourselves to enter unfamiliar terrain.

Ronald Ferris is bishop of Algoma.

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