Athabasca synod supports breakaway churches

Published May 1, 2008

The archbishop of Athabasca has issued a letter confirming his diocese’s commitment to the Canadian church and the Anglican Communion after its synod passed motions supporting churches that have left the Anglican Church of Canada and criticizing bishops who have gone to court over property issues.

The letter was released after the leader of the Anglican Church of Canada asked the archbishop to explain his synod’s motions.

According to one resolution, the synod, meeting in High Prairie, Alta. April 24 to 27, voted to “inform the parishes and the bishops who have joined the Anglican Network in Canada and the Province of the Southern Cone that we are in full communion with them.”

Fifteen churches, including 10 former Anglican Church of Canada parishes, have joined the network, which is opposed to the blessing of same-sex unions, among other issues. Since they have left the Canadian church, they have allied themselves with the Southern Cone, an Anglican province that includes southern South America, and its primate, Archbishop Gregory Venables. None of the 33 congregations in the diocese of Athabasca, which encompasses the northern half of Alberta, are members of the network and none have voted to leave the Canadian church.

A second resolution expressed synod’s “dismay” that bishops “have resorted to secular courts when parishes … have found it necessary to align themselves with the (network) and the … Southern Cone.” In a background information note, the mover and seconder said the issues “should be settled with prayerful negotiation.”

Archbishop John Clarke, the area archbishop and diocesan bishop, did not return calls from the Anglican Journal seeking comment. Archdeacon Paul Feheley, principal secretary to the primate (national archbishop), Fred Hiltz, said in an interview that Archbishop Hiltz “sought clarification” of the synod’s intentions. (Archbishop Hiltz is out of the country and did not speak directly with Archbishop Clarke.)

In an open letter written after the synod ended, Archbishop Clarke wrote that “there seems to be some confusion over certain resolutions passed at our recent synod. I am also aware that there are those who for their own particular motives have attempted to ‘spin’ our decisions in directions very different than we intended.”

The members of the diocese “are committed to being ‘in communion’ with as wide a range of our brothers and sisters in Christ as is possible,” he wrote.

“We are also concerned that the term ‘in communion’ is being increasingly interpreted in a legalist sense. Our understanding of ‘in communion’ is more relational. We recognize that some feel we must be in agreement with each other before we can come to the Lord’s Table together. We believe, however, that it is by coming to the Lord’s Table together that we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to find the wisdom, courage, and grace to overcome our differences,” he said.

As members of the Anglican Communion, both the Canadian church and the Southern Cone are already in communion with each other.

“Be assured that the Diocese of Athabasca is as deeply committed as ever to the Anglican Church of Canada and to the Anglican Communion,” wrote Archbishop Clarke.

Layman Ross Whitelaw, of St. Thomas church, Fort McMurray, Alta., who was the mover of both motions, said the diocese “feels we are in communion with those churches that have opted to join the Southern Cone.” Mr. Whitelaw is the diocese’s representative on the national Council of General Synod, the church’s governing body between meetings of General Synod.

Mr. Whitelaw added that the two retired Canadian bishops, Donald Harvey and Malcolm Harding, who resigned from the Canadian church to lead the network churches and join the Southern Cone, are “well-respected” in Athabasca.

Many in the diocese are opposed to same-sex blessings, he said, and “several people feel we should move out of the Anglican Church of Canada.” His church in Fort McMurray, he said, has lost parishioners because the Canadian church has become more liberal on the issue. “They have moved to other churches in town,” he said. The parish’s vestry (annual meeting) earlier this year discussed separation, but there was no motion and no vote, he said.

Although synod passed the motions, there was no sense the diocese wanted to separate. “That was definitely the feeling that came out of synod, that we are in it for the long term, that we need to stay in this struggle for the time being,” he said. Mr. Whitelaw added that Archbishop Clarke has had many meetings with the diocese’s churches and stressed “the importance of staying together through this struggle.”

The synod also resolved that “the current doctrines of the Anglican church regarding the blessing of same-sex unions … be maintained” and in the diocese unless “they are adjusted by the full and proper process” of the Canadian church. The resolution mentions the St. Michael Report, which concluded that the issue is a matter of doctrine but not core doctrine, and the marriage canon (church law) which currently describes marriage as being between a man and a woman.

Archbishop Clarke’s letter, meanwhile, noted that synod was “dismayed” that several dioceses voted to ask their bishops for the right to perform same-sex blessing ceremonies. “As part of our commitment to full participation in the Anglican Church of Canada, we believe that we are bound to adhere to the decisions of General Synod, not only in the letter but also in the spirit. We understand the decision of General Synod 2007 not to endorse the right of dioceses to bless same-gender unions as meaning that it was the mind of General Synod that we should not proceed at this time, especially in light of the overwhelming vote to re-examine the marriage canon.”


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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