Church organization under the microscope

Published May 1, 2007

All eyes and ears might be focused on the issue of same-sex blessings at the upcoming General Synod meeting in June, but another crucial matter will be discussed that affects the future of the Anglican Church of Canada: governance.

Simply put, Anglicans across Canada are being asked to take a long, hard look at “what is it that we do and how do we organize ourselves to do it?” said Archdeacon Jim Boyles, retired general secretary of General Synod and a member of the governance working group. To this end, synod members will be asked to review and possibly change how decisions are made and how they are implemented.


In 2004, General Synod requested the Council of General Synod (CoGS) to review the governance of the General Synod, the church’s administrative body, “with a view to enhancing (its) work and mission.” In 2005, the governance working group was created with members appointed by the primate, Archbishop Andrew Hutchison.

Re-examining the way the church governs itself “is a necessary and healthy sign of an organization attempting to respond to changing circumstances in the life of the church and the world,” said Archdeacon Boyles.

In its report to CoGS, the working group, headed by retired Archbishop David Crawley, said a governance review is needed for many reasons, including lack of money at “all levels of our church,” and a “widely-held view” that the church is over-governed, its governance too complicated with too many layers.

When General Synod delegates meet in Winnipeg from June 19-25, they will be asked to act on various governance resolutions. One motion proposes changes to the church’s declaration of principles, its constitution and rules of order, so that amendments, other than those concerning doctrine or discipline, may be made at one meeting of General Synod.

Under current rules, these amendments require the approval of a two-thirds majority of each of the three orders of General Synod (bishops, clergy and laity) at two successive synods. (General Synod takes place every three years.) Between sessions, they must also be taken to all diocesan and provincial synods “for consideration.”

The working group said that while these rules exist for good reason – issues of “a high level of importance” require wide consultation because they affect the whole church – they have hindered effective governance. It cited how the “slow pace” of legislation has affected the election of the national indigenous bishop, which under present rules, cannot occur before 2013. “That an initiative begun in 1995 and expressly encouraged by General Synod in 2001 cannot be implemented until 2013, 18 years after its birth, perhaps exposes a serious weakness in the church’s system of governance,” the working group commented.

If General Synod approves the change, it would also mean ending a requirement for referring legislation to dioceses and provinces “for consideration.” But to satisfy the need for consultation, the requirement for a notice of motion would be increased from 30 to 90 days before General Synod.

Provincial structures

Another synod motion asks the primate to begin discussions with dioceses and provinces regarding “possible reform” of the church’s provincial structures. This reform could mean eliminating the four ecclesiastical, or church, provinces (Canada, Ontario, Rupert’s Land, British Columbia and the Yukon) and transferring their powers to General Synod or maintaining them, but shifting part of their powers to General Synod. Another possibility would be to reorganize dioceses into groupings according to common goals, needs, interests and concerns.

The working group acknowledged that discussions around the future of provincial synods might be interpreted as “an improper quest for a more centralized authority.” (Provincial synods meet every three years for fellowship, for discussion, and for co-operation in the mission of the church in their provinces.) But the question that must be answered, said the group: “Is our current three-level structure sustainable?”

There were mixed reactions among CoGS members during recent focus group discussions about the possible reforms, with some saying they never really understood what provincial synods were there for and others arguing that their dioceses have benefited from them.

Other proposed reforms include reducing the number of dioceses and adjusting diocesan boundaries “to reflect modern transportation patterns and population shifts created by social and economic changes.”

Statistics relevant

In the absence of church statistics, there has not been any recent systematic study of dioceses and provinces in relation to population, geography, transport patterns and cultural communities, the working group report said. It noted that for several decades, General Synod had collected and published statistics of church membership, clergy, buildings, Sunday schools, and finances. The last statistics were collected in 2001. (In response, CoGS recently passed a resolution that asks dioceses to help the General Synod treasurer in the statistics gathering effort.)

The working group said such a study would be relevant today given declining church numbers.

“Since 1971, the number of Anglicans identified in the Canadian census has decreased by 20 per cent. Church statistics collected from dioceses indicate that the number of Anglicans on parish rolls has decreased by 42 per cent,” the working group said. “While numbers have decreased substantially during this period, governance structures have been unchanged, in fact, in some instances have grown.” General Synod now has 20 more members than it did in 1971, it noted. The working group also observed that there may be advantages to reducing the number of dioceses by amalgamating or grouping dioceses in delivery of ministry and in administrative costs.

Ultimately, though, the issue of governance boils down to a simple, unsustainable paradox: the proportion of the budget that supports governance has been growing but church finances have been diminishing. As a result, “the mission of the church suffers,” as budgets for program work – like ministry in northern dioceses through the Council of the North – are repeatedly cut.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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