Bishops vote down bill of rights

By on July 1, 1998

A contentious, comprehensive bill of rights for church members and employees, almost 18 years in the making, was narrowly defeated by the bishops at synod.

The human rights principles called for protection from discrimination on the basis of age, sex, sexual orientation, family or marital status, race, colour, ethnic origin, ancestry, disability, creed and socioeconomic status.

Over the years, proposed human rights principles have had a turbulent passage through the church. This synod was no exception. The separate votes by the three orders of ministry – lay, clergy and bishops – were taken after hours of debate spread over three days in the sweltering heat of a McGill University gymnasium.

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Approved by lay and clergy delegates, the principles were voted down by bishops — 16 for and 19 against.

Synod first called for development of the principles in 1980. A first draft was sent to the 1986 synod and was referred to the National Executive Council, the forerunner of the Council of General Synod.

The draft was later twice referred by the council to the House of Bishops which twice sent it back with comments. In 1992, following a General Synod forum, members agreed to send the principles and a study kit to parishes and dioceses for study and comment.

More than 500 parishes requested the kit but only 10 returned responses.

After extensive debate at the 1995 General Synod, the principles were referred to the newly formed eco-justice committee for further reworking.

[photo - Lynn Ross]

Delegates line up to debate the contentious human rights proposal.


The six-point set of principles presented to this year’s synod spelled out the right to be treated with courtesy, compassion and integrity: the right to fair treatment; the right to vote; the right to be considered for election; the right to be considered for service; and the rights of employees in positions not requiring ordination.

In presenting the principles to General Synod, Chris Lind of the eco-justice committee said they would not resolve all outstanding issues, noting that the church had not reached a “common mind” on the question of the ordination of homosexuals.

A House of Bishops’ statement says sexual orientation in and of itself is not a barrier to ordination but exemplary behaviour for persons who are not married includes a commitment to remain chaste. The statement says committed same-sex relations should not be confused with holy matrimony and that bishops would not authorize any act which appeared to promote this confusion.

“This is as far as we could go based on the direction we received,” Prof. Lind said as he asked synod members to “look beyond the inadequacy of the language to the substance.”

Murphy of Yukon said the proposed principles could not stand up to the full weight of Scripture. He said that while sexual orientation may not be a barrier to ordination, attitude might be for those who “do not want to come under the grace of God.”

Rising to oppose the set of human rights principles, Bishop Caleb Lawrence of Moosenee said it was his most “painful moment of the synod.” He said the principles could be interpreted as condoning an “action, a way of life,” a lifestyle.

“We are talking about accepting as leaders in our church as role models those whose way of life is unacceptable on scriptural grounds,” he said. “I would be legislated to something I cannot accept in conscience.”

In related business, the synod approved an amended motion commending the House of Bishops for its 1997 affirmation of its 1979 human sexuality statement and acknowledging the need for continued study and dialogue.

Moved by Rev. Jonas Allooloo of the Arctic, the motion said there is a feeling the statement was based on Scripture and that the issue is of “deep concern to the Aboriginal people.”

The original motion included reference to the “ordination of gay and lesbians and the blessing of covenanted same-sex relationships.” This was removed and the acknowledgment of a need for continued study and dialogue added.

That acknowledgement gives Chris Ambidge, who was “profoundly disappointed” by the defeat of the human rights’ principles, some cause for hope.

Mr. Ambidge of Integrity Toronto, which works for the full inclusion of gays and lesbians into church life, said in an interview the amended motion “inverted” the intent of the original to focus on gay and lesbian ordination and the blessing of same-sex relationships.

Mr. Ambidge said that by defeating the principles, the synod, albeit by a slim margin, denied rights to a lot of people because of the “church’s attitude to us gay people.”

But because only three bishops stood between the adoption of the human rights’ principles, Mr. Ambidge said he would not be surprised to see them resurface in another form.

In a news release, the Essentials group said the bishops’ action in defeating the human rights’ principles and the reaffirmation of their guidelines on homosexuality is a clear signal the church still affirms that the place for sexual relations is “within holy matrimony between a man and a woman.”

Essentials representatives at General Synod were “greatly encouraged that traditional Anglican teaching on sexuality was so strongly affirmed by the highest governing body in the church,” the release said.

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