Dramatic moments at synod

Published September 1, 2001

Waterloo, Ont.

IT WAS THE synod where Canadian Anglicans and Lutherans crossed a centuries-old divide and joined hands in a series of moments that drew tears, applause and song.

It was the synod where Bishop Gordon Beardy, once victimized at a residential school, embraced the Primate and announced his forgiveness to his people, to the church and to the world. His eloquent statement, the culmination of an arduous personal journey, came during what was to have been a simple dismissal at the end of a healing service, and stunned delegates.

“I even surprised myself,” he said in a subsequent conversation.

The magic of Gordon Beardy was both in the spontaneity of his words and in the stature the man has assumed as a credible spokesperson for the church’s native constituency. The nobility and power of his statement, more than any other single event during the eight days of General Synod, gave body and soul to the theme “Healing, Reconciliation and the New Life.”

It was the synod that at long last, ratified a statement on “dignity, inclusion and fair treatment,” effectively guidelines on how the church should deal with people.

In some ways, it was Michael Peers’s synod, the accord with Lutherans capping his primacy, his emotional prorogation at the end coming so close to tears that he simply broke off. “This is going to be really bad. Thank you.” He sat down to thunderous applause. The next General Synod, if it comes, will almost certainly elect a new primate.

It was a synod of shadows, yet never without the aura of hope.

It was a synod discernibly proud of the church it governs. Moments before the gathering concluded, Archbishop Peers took pains to comment on a belittling, largely erroneous newspaper editorial that had appeared that morning under the headline “Anglican Waterloo.”

“Many Lutherans,” he said, “though not all, are of German extraction. Many Anglicans, though not all, are of British extraction. Waterloo, for us, was a victory!”

And at that moment of optimism from the mouth of its leader, synod members may have thought back to the opening sermon preached eight days before by Bishop Steven Charleston of the U.S. Episcopal Church, and of the optimism that he managed to conjure.

“I see,” the Choctaw bishop said, “not a church teetering on the edge of ruin, but standing on the threshold of glory.”

It was also the synod where for eight days of long hours, members skirted around, occasionally glancing at but never naming the elephant firmly tethered in their midst. Would the 36th session of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada in effect turn out to be the last?

If there were more tears and more visible emotion than usual at such gatherings, it can also be said that it was a synod marked by dignity and thoughtfulness.

This was most apparent during the debate on the “Dignity, Inclusion and Fair Treatment” resolution. In Montreal three years ago, debate on what was then called “Human Rights” was acrimonious to the point of embarrassment, the resolution ultimately going down to narrow defeat in the order of bishops.

This time, with the exception of a single speaker, the debate was intelligent and constructive, paving the way to the defeat of assorted watering-down amendments and to ultimate approval of a resolution that states with simple eloquence: “All persons seeking spiritual care and nurture, as well as those pursuing employment and those people employed by our church shall be treated with courtesy, compassion, fairness and integrity by our church and its representatives or officials, without discrimination on the basis of age, sex, sexual orientation, family or marital status, race, colour, ethnic (or place of ) origin, ancestry, disability, creed or social-economic status.”

It took the church 20 years to come to this. One veteran observer mused that synod may have bitten the bullet this time out of a realization that it might never get another chance.

It was a synod of lovely moments. General synods usually have discrete, identifiable moments when they are born, when the vast array of personalities and experiences that constitute the membership comes together and takes ownership of the proceedings – something that creates a tone and that endures. Sometimes, it can take days to reach this point.

Not this time.

At 1:54 p.m. on the first full day of General Synod, these men and women rose as one and applauded long and warm a simple statement made by a lawyer.

It was during a briefing on residential schools and a question had been asked as to whether or not the Primate’s 1993 apology for the Anglican church’s involvement in running residential schools has contributed to the church’s legal liability.

Robert Falby, chancellor of the diocese of Toronto, replied in the language that lawyers use, that there is no evidence it has.

Then he said “Even if it were not so, and this is my personal opinion, the apology was the right and proper thing for us to do.” And he sat down.

And General Synod members, in unison only hours after coming together, applauded his words. That was the birth of the series of moments that became the 36th session of General Synod.

Applause is frowned on at General Synod and early on the primate warned members not to applaud after votes on resolutions.

Which may be why the gathering burst into song moments after Resolution A164 was approved without debate.

It was a moment when a profound sense of history seeped into the room, the moment of full communion with Lutherans, a moment replicated a short while later when a telephone call came from Wilfrid Laurier University to say that the Lutherans too had assented.

A moment of optimism, harkening to a future where nothing is certain.

The unspoken but pervasive moment of the 36th session of General Synod was the one still to come, when a kind of agreement with Ottawa will herald a new future for the church, or when forfeiture of an agreement will spell the end of General Synod.

It was the moment on everyone’s mind and it never really gained a voice.

It was also Michael Peers’s moment, a moment when perhaps more than at any other time in his 12-year-old primacy, he allowed, seemed to welcome, glimpses into his own heart. His exhilaration at the accord with Lutherans was palpable; his pain at the church’s travails no less so.

And it was the moment of Gordon Beardy. The native bishop from Keewatin stole the show with his bombshell absolution of the church, in a voice that began strong and quavered at the end. His was an unscripted, pivotal moment that touched all who witnessed it. In the simplicity and yet the scope of his words, in the depth and humility of his heart, in the movingly pastoral quality of his outreach, he was, for a moment, all the love and all the pain and all the compassion that the church can be.


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