General Synod at its best and its worst

Published June 1, 2004

One of the most jarring moments of General Synod 2004 came not during the debates, nor the lengthy election process, nor during a presentation on AIDS in Africa by a United Nations envoy, nor when nine bishops read to the gathering their statement that synod’s opinion on same-sex relationships was “in error and contrary to the teaching of Scripture.”

Rather, it came during the reading of the gospel at the installation service of the new primate, Archbishop Andrew Hutchison. The gospel, John 15:1-11 began, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.” The reading, however, was delivered in 15 languages by synod members scattered throughout the 19th-century Christ’s Church Cathedral in Hamilton, Ont. The voices, sounding discordant and disconcerting as they seemed to compete with one another, eventually tapered off until one aboriginal member completed the reading in Cree.

It could not have been a more stark reminder of the myriad of voices and opinions that had been present on the campus of Brock University which, for eight days, became the home of about three hundred elected delegates who would decide the future of the church for the next three to six years.

It brought to mind a team-building exercise in which staff at the church’s national office once participated. Each had a plastic tube and a drum. Staff were told to play. Period. Those assembled began to whack their drums, the cacophony of several dozen beats quickly becoming a confusing stew of noise. Then came the simple instruction: stop and listen to your neighbour. Thus, one person began drumming, then another – higher pitch but on the same beat – and another until the room was filled with the drum beats, each a different tone, but all in the same rhythm.

The meeting of General Synod is a bit like that.

Many members, many voices, sometimes competing, sometimes speaking as one. Like the drummers when they started out, some arrived at the synod meeting prepared with a monologue, determined to deliver their message and unable or unwilling to hear another side in a debate. Others mixed easily with their fellow members, sometimes forging alliances with those of different views, hammering out amendments that might pass more easily.

For all its faults and challenges, General Synod is a remarkable meeting. It draws together high and low church, evangelicals and cutting-edge liturgists, rural and urban, local and foreign, gay and straight, youth and seniors. All have at least one thing in common: a love for their church and wanting only the best for its future.

This was one of the first national meetings in some time where retired primate Archbishop Michael Peers was not present to repeat one of his favourite quotes, attributed to Desmond Tutu. The former archbishop of Cape Town was reported to have said that the glue that kept the Anglican Communion together is that “We meet.” Once, after Archbishop Peers trotted out the saying, someone commented “Pretty thin glue.” Archbishop Peers’ response was to say, “But what if someone says, ‘I won’t meet’? That is the end.”

While some feared that a decision on same-sex blessings could spark walkouts, that did not happen. Indeed, nine bishops who decried synod’s actions urged those who were similarly dismayed with the affirmation of the “integrity and sanctity” of same-sex relationships to remain in the church and take part in the diocesan and provincial synods which will discuss whether blessings are a doctrinal matter.

At its worst, General Synod is like a family reunion gone awry, each member bringing her own past hurts, his own prejudices, each prepared to be disappointed again, each believing he knows where the other person stands.

At its best, General Synod is one big eucharist, a family gathered for a feast, some stories, some quiet thought and prayer.

General Synod 2004 saw a bit of both.


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