UPDATED: General Synod votes no to primatial term extension

Members of General Synod discuss a gospel text June 28. Photo: Jim Tubman
Published June 29, 2023

Calgary, Alta.

Updated with new material June 30

Primates in the Anglican Church of Canada will continue to be required to leave office by their 70th birthday, following the failure June 28 of a resolution that would have extended their term to the following General Synod where it fell within a year of their reaching that age.

On June 29, General Synod debated and voted on the proposal again, after General Synod officers reported receiving questions from some members about the accuracy of the count of the previous day’s vote and “discernible discontent” about the outcome. The resolution was struck down a second time.

As a result, the current primate, Archbishop Linda Nicholls, will not have the option to remain in office until the 2025 General Synod. She told the Journal that the decision of exactly when to retire remained a personal matter—that she has the option to work all the way up to her 70th birthday in October 2024 or to step down at any point before then.

The proposal, presented in a motion by the governance working group (GWG), would have established that any sitting primate could continue in the post past the usual age of retirement age of 70 if their birthday fell one year or less before the next General Synod. The vote required a two-thirds majority in each of the three orders of laity, clergy and bishops, but failed to pass that threshold in the Order of Bishops.

On June 28, Canon (lay) David Jones, chancellor of General Synod, said the proposal was not conceived with the current primate in mind. Instead, he said, it was meant to cover any and all instances in which a primate would age out of the office less than a year before the next General Synod meeting as a means of ensuring continuity until a new permanent primate can be elected.

The vote’s failure means that when Nicholls retires, the most senior provincial metropolitan by election will serve as acting primate, if that person is able and willing, until a new primate is elected at the next Synod.

Speaking to General Synod, Jones said he and other members of the GWG felt that was a heavy burden to add to a metropolitan’s existing duties.

“The senior metropolitan would continue to be metropolitan and would continue to be a diocesan bishop by definition. So that’d be three different portfolios [that metropolitan is responsible for] and in the governance working group’s view, that is too onerous.”

Currently, the most senior metropolitan by election is Archbishop Anne Germond of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario, Jones confirmed. But since that seniority is counted from the metropolitan’s most recent election, when the province of Ontario holds its scheduled election in September 2024, Germond’s seniority will reset, even if she is re-elected. When that happens, Archbishop David Edwards, metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Canada, will become the most senior metropolitan, he told the Journal.

In the June 28 session, Some members stood to speak in favour of the motion, including the Rev. Nancy MacLeod, of the diocese of Ontario, who echoed the GWG’s call for a way to ensure continuity.

“I see this clearly as not being in any case related to the person of our current primate,” she said. “This is about the system in which we manage this transition.”

Archdeacon Alan Perry, general secretary of General Synod, also added his support, saying that the discontinuity of leadership that came from appointing an interim primate for a few months would impede the work of staff at Church House, who would abruptly be working under the guidance of a short-term leader.

Other members, however, raised concerns about the proposal. Several echoed the sentiments of the Rev. John Boyd of the Territory of the People, who said he felt extending the term of primates past age 70 as a stopgap was a move in the wrong direction when it came to sending the message that younger voices should be included in church leadership.

“The solution itself that we’re being presented with here is to simply extend, and I realise that discussion on this will be very sensitive because [it may be] sounding like ageism, but my generation and younger were recruited to the church because we were told that we were desperately needed. And quite frankly it’s high time for a generational shift.”

And Bishop David Parsons of the diocese of the Arctic told General Synod he believed the possibility of being called up to fill the interim role should simply be considered part of the duties of a metropolitan.

“There’s pressures on all of us,” he said.

Archdeacon Jordan Ware, of the diocese of Edmonton, raised concerns about the circumstances of the decision General Synod was being asked to make. She said while she believed Jones when he said the proposal was not aimed at extending Nicholls’ term in particular, it was unfair to be making the decision with the retirement of a current primate as an imminent reality of the vote.

“It puts pressure on us that we have to vote yes or consign the senior metropolitan to this crushing burden of work in a time when we are all suffering under the crushing burden of too much work,” she said. “This constraint, I feel, was avoidable.”

A visible majority of the members of each order stood to vote yes on the proposal, but because a minimum of two-thirds majority in all orders is required, a minority of one third or more in the order of bishops was enough to block the resolution.

When members returned from lunch on June 29, the Rev. Karen Egan, prolocutor of General Synod asked them to recall the previous day’s session, saying, “An issue has been raised about the accuracy of the vote, specifically whether some members were counted or not. We have also been made aware that there is discernible discontent in the house arising from the outcome of the vote and the felt need for further discussion.”

In light of those concerns, she said, Jones had moved that General Synod suspend one of the rules of order that prevents it from reopening business that has already been voted on, and reconsider the motion. The motion to reopen, said Canon Clare Burns, the deputy chancellor, required a vote of two thirds of the total membership of General Synod.

Votes at this year’s General Synod are recorded by having members stand or raise a hand. Honourary secretaries counting the votes returned a count of 198 votes, with 143 for and 45 against, so the discussion was reopened. (Burns later clarified that the reported 198 votes were a mistake and that the number of votes cast actually totalled 188.)

Several who spoke in favour of the resolution argued it was a simple, common-sense solution to smooth an impending change in the leadership of the church.

Bob Fearnley, of the Anglican Military Ordinariate, asked General Synod members to “please have mercy on those [staff] who are going to have to deal with [this] transition” if the vote did not go through.

While some detractors questioned exactly how onerous the job of acting primate would be for a metropolitan, supporters of the proposal insisted it would be too much. Archbishop Lynne McNaughton of the diocese of Kootenay said her ecclesiastical province had seen what it was like to have a metropolitan serve as acting primate. Archbishop David Crawley, former metropolitan of British Columbia and Yukon, took on the role in the early 2000s.

“It was very, very difficult for the diocese, for the person himself. So it is a huge workload and I don’t think that it serves anyone well,” she said.

Many of those who spoke against the motion, meanwhile, took issue with its being reintroduced for debate after they had already voted on it the previous day, arguing that it damaged people’s trust in General Synod’s integrity. Edwards, who is also bishop of the diocese of Fredericton, said he had voted in support of it the previous day, but the process of reopening the motion was enough to change his vote.

“In the light of the votes that we’ve just had, I will have to vote against this motion today,” he said. “I truly believe that the process of General Synod is undermined by the change that we’ve had and it’s a breaking of trust, so therefore I ask that we vote against this motion.”

The final tally of votes on the motion still showed a majority in General Synod as a whole, but the ratio of votes in the Order of Bishops again failed to reach the threshold of two-thirds in favour required of each order.

During the June 28 GWG session, General Synod passed an amendment to the church’s constitution adjusting the bands that determine how many lay and clergy representatives each diocese sends to General Synod. These changes reflect the shrinking of the church as a whole by lowering the threshold of attendance needed for smaller dioceses to add representatives and balance out the influence of larger dioceses like Toronto by raising the threshold for each additional representative past their first five. Jones told General Synod the proposed change would not greatly change the total number of members.

Corrections: Primates in the Anglican Church of Canada will continue to be required to leave office by their 70th birthday after the failure of the June 28 vote. 

Archbishop David Edwards is metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Canada.

Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.


  • Sean Frankling

    Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He’s been chasing stories since his first co-op for Toronto’s Gleaner Community Press at age 19. He studied journalism at Carleton University and has written for the Toronto Star, WatchMojo and other outlets.

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