Church still together after somnolent synod

Published July 1, 1998

WE ARE NOT (divided).’ With those words, Archbishop Michael Peers brought the church’s 35th General Synod to a close in a short speech that summed up nine days of polite but dull meetings.

The Primate’s comment was at least partly a response to a book sent to delegates just before synod. In Two Religions, One Church, evangelical author George Eves suggests the church has almost irreparably split between conservatives and liberals, primarily over the issue of homosexuality.

In his summation, the Primate challenged that notion. He argued that division in a vote at synod does not mean the church is divided.

Certainly, there was discussion at synod regarding sexuality but it came, as the Primate also noted, in the form of debate over proposed human rights legislation for the church.

The debate was the longest at synod, amounting to a several hours, drifting over three days.

Conservatives argued the proposal would force the church to grant what they deemed unbiblical rights to gays and lesbians. Liberals said the church can’t expect to be taken seriously when it criticizes human rights abuses if it doesn’t have its own law.

In the end, the bishops narrowly defeated the motion, the clergy and laity having passed the measure.

Paradoxically, bothsides claimed victory: conservatives because it was defeated, liberals because they said it is certain to pass next time given the bishops’ 16-19 vote and the likelihood several conservative bishops will have retired by the next synod in 2001.

Certainly conservatives, at least as represented by the Essentials movement, were obvious and vigorous in presenting their viewpoints throughout synod. Essentials encompasses Prayer Book supporters, charismatics and evangelicals.

Though guarded in public, representatives of the group said they were elated with the outcome of synod. They claim a fair number of their members or sympathizers were elected to the council and committees that govern the church between general synods.

Whether the presence of so many conservative voices will cause the church to change direction on any issues is unclear. They are still a minority and there is always the experience of being able to provoke from the Opposition benches but once in power, the world frequently looks different.

If the church does take a right turn, it may signal a period where church leadership is more conservative than the people in the pews. With the exception of New Brunswick, the sparsely populated North and pockets in B.C., Alberta and Newfoundland, most Anglicans (like the rest of the population) are not demonstrably worried about liberalized attitudes towards sexuality. For most, the issue is more likely to elicit the same response as constitutional debates: “Enough already!”

It’s hard to imagine that motto applying to the bishop of New Westminster, but for whatever reason, Michael Ingham didn’t utter a word at synod.

Many delegates had expected a clash between conservatives and the outspoken liberal. Spiritual leader of the Vancouver-based diocese, Bishop Ingham has championed gay rights and religious pluralism.

Only a few days before General Synod, clergy and lay delegates at the diocesan synod of New Westminster voted 179-170 to ask Bishop Ingham to let clergy in certain parishes bless same-sex relationships.

Bishop Ingham withheld his consent, saying he wanted to consult the other Canadian bishops as well as raise the issue at the upcoming Lambeth Conference.

What happens after that is unknown. A group of advisers from the diocese and two bishops has been established to counsel Bishop Ingham on next steps.

In fact, given that he withheld his consent at the synod, it isn’t at all clear that he can change his mind and give his consent at a later date. Even if he can, if bishops Percy O’Driscoll and Victoria Matthews advise on maintaining the status quo – and it is hard to see how they can do otherwise – Bishop Ingham risks serious censure from the other bishops if he breaks collegiality and permits such blessings.

There has undoubtedly been a shift in political power as a result of this synod. Contentious issues remain on the table although the atmosphere is still civil. Perhaps, then, the last word also belongs to the Primate.

In an informal address at a lunch for bishops sponsored by Essentials during synod, Archbishop Peers told Essentials leaders that their task will be to help people find “the heart of the church.”

A body can only have one heart. Thus a church with one heart is an undivided church, one body. For an institution whose unofficial motto is via media, the middle way, finding the heart of the matter seems an appropriate challenge for everyone.


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