Church’s decisions must be mindful of context

Published April 1, 2007

Who’s driving the bus?”

The question was posed by a member of the Council of General Synod (CoGS) at its meeting last month. She was musing aloud about the requests and demands made by the churches’ primates (senior bishops of a national or multinational church) at their February meeting in Tanzania. The primates called on all provinces in the Anglican Communion to examine a proposed covenant and to respond within a fixed time period.

They also issued a communique which set a deadline of Sept. 30 for the Episcopal Church to “make an unequivocal common covenant” that its bishops will not allow same-sex blessings in their churches and that it would not consent to the election and consecration of a bishop living in a same-sex union “unless some new consensus on this matter emerges” across the Anglican world.

(The 2003 consecration of Gene Robinson, a gay man living in a relationship, as bishop of New Hampshire caused an uproar across the Anglican Communion, with reverberations that are still being felt today.)

While the Canadian church escaped special mention at the meeting, likely because its General Synod has yet to vote on the matter of same-sex blessings (it will do so in June), the primates’ requests (and the feelings of much of the church in the developing world) nevertheless weighed heavily on the CoGS members at their meeting.

Some argued that while they did not wish to submit to deadlines imposed on the Canadian church by outsiders, neither did they want to be denied a voice in the process of developing a common covenant for the Anglican Communion. “We’re at liberty to respond as we wish,” noted Andrew Hutchison, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, “but this covenant will be discussed at Lambeth” – a decennial meeting of all Anglican bishops to be held next year – “and our bishops need to be equipped to be able to speak on our behalf.”

Other members remarked on the creeping increase of authority being claimed by primates and suggested that by being reactive to their demands, the church was, de facto, accepting the authority that the primates were claiming.

“Who’s driving the bus?” asked Dean Louise Peters of the Anglican Parishes of the Central Interior.

It was a reasonable question, after the Canadian and U.S. churches set a precedent in 2005 by acceding, in part, to a request from the primates that they “voluntarily withdraw” from the Anglican Consultative Council for at least three years.

(The two churches later voted to send their delegates but asked them not to participate in the meeting, thereby denying them a voice at the international meeting.)

The Canadian church – and any other province in the vast Anglican Communion that feels strongly about the polity of the church – must assert its autonomy and push back at attempts to usurp its authority. While CoGS did refer the draft covenant to dioceses for study, its working group that will draft the Canadian church’s response to the covenant would be wise to repeat the language used in its response to the Windsor Report. That report, produced in 2004 by an international commission, outlined ways of healing divisions within the Anglican Communion over human sexuality; CoGS endorsed a response that the Anglican Church of Canada would make decisions on the dicey matter of same-sex blessings, “mindful of the common life of the Communion and in response to the leading of the Spirit, as we see it in our own context” (italics added).

All of these directives from the primates meeting – traditionally considered one of Anglicanism’s four instruments of unity (along with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference and the Anglican Consultative Council) – constitute an incredible development in the Anglican world.

Stephen Bates, a reporter for the Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom who has written extensively about the Anglican Communion and was at the Dar es Salaam meeting, noted in his blog, or Internet diary, how the change began. “In the old days – say a decade ago – the archbishops and presiding bishops of worldwide Anglicanism would meet in genteel seclusion, unbothered by the outside world, for prayer, Bible study, tentative theological discussion and a chance to get to know each other.” He added: “There is scarcely a rule book for these meetings. They’ve never needed one: the last time they took a vote was in 1981 and that was a unanimous vote of thanks. Not any more: (the) meeting was an opportunity for raw politics, power plays, tactics and boycotts, with the primates not only surrounded by guards but harried by lobbyists and doorstepped by us journalists.”

The Canadian church is not an island. Its many partnerships and relationships around the world are a constant reminder that our decisions have an impact on others. But regardless of how the church votes in June about whether dioceses may bless same-sex couples, the decision must be Canada’s own, and not the primates’.


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