Essentials not the sole authors of this schism

Published February 1, 2008

Winston Churchill famously said, “History will be kind to me … because I will write it.”

Schism is now a reality in the Anglican Church of Canada. The question is: who will write the history of this time?

The Essentials Network, a conservative and evangelical group of orthodox Anglicans, has moved to distinguish itself decisively from the ecclesial structures of the Anglican Church of Canada. It invited the primate of the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone to appoint two retired Canadian Anglican bishops to provide Episcopal oversight to its members; several clergy have resigned the licenses issued them by their diocesan bishops in order to serve under these bishops. There are thus two separate Anglican church structures in Canada, one answering to the primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, and the other answering to the Primate of the Southern Cone, Archbishop Greg Venables. This is schism.

The primate of the Anglican Church of Canada has, in his Nov. 29, 2007 pastoral statement, understandably objected to the actions of the Essentials Network. Such intrusions by one bishop into another’s jurisdiction contravene ancient and current canons of the church. Predictable too, perhaps, is the rhetoric in which this swift assertion of jurisdiction (and power) is couched: the actions of Essentials are “deplorable,” “against the spirit of Anglicanism” and in contradiction to General Synod’s 2007 decision that the matter of same-sex blessings is not one of “core doctrine” and need not be “church-breaking.” The onus for this schism, the statement suggests, lies squarely on the shoulders of the conservatives.

Such rhetoric, however, distorts the reality. The Essentials Network has acted now – after a decade of struggle within the structures of the Anglican Church of Canada – because three dioceses have endorsed same-sex blessings, after General Synod declared in 2007 that such blessings, being a matter of doctrine, are not a matter for individual dioceses to approve. Their bishops have not yet ratified these votes, but they have stated publicly and pointedly that they do not think they can wait much longer to do so. Thus the action of the Network is decisively a response to prior actions of the Anglican Church of Canada. Does the intrusion of one bishop into another’s diocese contravene ancient and current canons of the church? In just the same way, the Network argues, same-sex blessings contravene the teaching of the ancient church on marriage and the Anglican Church of Canada’s current marriage canon (law). Is such intrusion against the spirit of Anglicanism? So, the Network can claim, is the willful refusal to hear and respect the voice of the majority of Anglicans around the world, who say that this matter is important, that it is central to faithful Christian living, that it is in fact church-breaking.

Essentials, and many other Anglicans around the world, have argued these points for years, patiently, within the official structures and processes of the church. They have argued that same-sex unions contradict the church’s original and universal teaching on marriage. They have pleaded with the Canadian church not to change this teaching unilaterally, but to respect the communio fidelium, the shared belief and life of the faithful. They have in the past borne a very great deal of name-calling. And those who now, in the name of the truth they feel they must uphold, resign from their dioceses and refuse their allegiance to the Canadian primate in order – as they see it – to keep faith with the universal church, are being called “schismatics.”

No one, least of all, we suspect, the members of the Essentials Network, is surprised by this.

In this war of rhetoric, however, it needs to be said – and we speak as Anglicans who are not members of the Essentials Network – that Essentials did not start this chain of events. They are not, all on their own, the authors of this schism. Their action has been, every step of the way, a response to actions of the Anglican Church of Canada, its General Synod, its dioceses and its bishops, actions that they believe to be wrong. They act now, and finally, because three Canadian dioceses have failed to respect the voice of their own General Synod and of the international communion, and the bishops have done nothing. They act now, in their view, not to break the church’s communion, but to preserve it: to keep the ancient canons, to stay with the teaching of the apostles and their Jewish forebears, to stay with the faith of the worldwide church.

Schism is always deplorable. That much in the primate’s letter is true. But the Essentials Network alone has not created this situation. It reflects a long conflict in the Canadian church between two diametrically opposed points of view on the place of same-sex unions in the church, a conflict in which rhetoric and name-calling, rather than reasoned debate, has often been the weapon of choice. Perhaps as a result, it has become an un-winnable war, and this schism its outworking. To point the finger at the Essentials Network, without any acknowledgement of the role of the Anglican Church of Canada, is one more exercise of rhetoric, and a skewed writing of history.

Rev. Catherine Sider Hamilton and Rev. F. Dean Mercer are clergy in the diocese of Toronto.


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