Making changes to key church canons is likely to become easier and faster if a set of resolutions on church governance passes at General Synod this summer. Motions drafted by the governance working group (GWG) of the Council of General Synod (CoGS) and forwarded from CoGS to General Synod in March propose a number of measures which would alter aspects of the Anglican Church of Canada’s governance rules.
Another set of recommendations, also drafted by GWG, includes a proposal that would extend the term of primates—including the current one—whose 70th birthday falls less than a year before the next General Synod.
Some members of CoGS have expressed a desire to publicly dissent with the voting changes
Current rules require General Synod to divide into its three orders (bishops, clergy and laity) when voting on any resolution changing the declaration of principles or constitution, and on canons related to doctrine, worship or discipline. For a resolution on these matters to pass, a two-thirds majority in each order must vote in favour. And in cases involving the declaration of principles or canons of this type, the resolution must meet this standard at two consecutive sessions of General Synod to pass.
Two of GWG’s set of governance-related recommendations would change these rules. Instead of a two-thirds majority in each order, a motion would be able to pass with at least 50 per cent of each order and a two-thirds majority in General Synod as a whole, and become official after just one vote at General Synod.
The other resolutions include a proposal to adjust the number of bishops, clergy and lay people each province sends to General Synod, and another to commission a document to educate General Synod members on the history of the church’s governance structures.
Canon (lay) David Jones, chair of the GWG and chancellor of General Synod, says he and other members of the committee have been looking for opportunities to streamline General Synod’s decision-making process since as long as he’s been on the group, believing the existing ones made the church exceedingly slow to change. He describes the issue as being about finding “an appropriate balance between conservatism and approaching contemporary society’s issues.”
He adds, “One wants to be cautious and that’s why one has these thresholds. The question is, what is an appropriate threshold?”
The GWG’s current membership was set in 2019, but the group itself was first formed in 2005, with Jones becoming its chair in 2007. While it may have been considering ways to make General Synod more agile for a long time, the group drafted the specific changes currently on the table in response to General Synod Resolution C005 from 2019, which tasked CoGS to review the church’s governance structures. C005 as it was first written mandated only the review of the bands determining how many clergy and laypeople would represent each diocese. It was amended on the final day of the 2019 General Synod to include the rules on voting in a move which came after—but was not stated to be a response to—the failure of a resolution that would have amended the marriage canon to allow same-sex marriage, after an insufficient majority vote by the Order of Bishops.
At the time, secular media covering the marriage vote drew a connection between the failed vote and the governance review, launched, as the Canadian Press put it, “amid outrage that just two bishops’ votes stood in the way of having same-sex marriage recognized by the church’s laws.”
Jones, however—while conceding there was “quite a bit of anger about all sorts of things in General Synod 2019”—says these changes have been in the works for much longer. “The GWG’s point of view is, we’re not looking at a reaction or response to a particular matter. We’re trying to look at it conceptually, and honouring the fact that we have three [orders] and that we are also the church of the whole people.”
At the March 2023 meeting of CoGS, some members of the council expressed concerns about the voting resolution—either explicit opposition to it or concern that CoGS’ sending of it to General Synod might be seen as an endorsement of it. They also discussed the possibility of holding an information session on Zoom before General Synod so that those who strongly support and oppose the changes may explain their stances on the resolutions. As this story was being written, a webinar was being put together by the office of the general secretary of General Synod.
Jones says the resolutions—which themselves will require a two-thirds majority in each order as well as two consecutive votes by General Synod—are far from a simple rubber stamp, regardless. They may be debated, modified, accepted or rejected entirely. “I have no idea what two General Synods will do with these,” he says, “but we need to have this discussion.”
Currently, the national church’s Canon III states that once elected, a primate serves until age 70 unless they resign or are declared incapable of finishing their term. Since the sitting primate, Archbishop Linda Nicholls, will celebrate her 70th birthday in October 2024, there will under current rules be a six-month gap between the end of her term and the election of the next primate. The resolution the GWG is putting forward would allow a primate who reaches age 70 less than one year before the next General Synod to continue on as primate until the end of the triennium.
Jones says the idea originated before Nicholls was the primate, when it became clear that any of several candidates for primate might have turned 70 less than a year before the end of a triennium.
“This is for the general case,” he says. “This is to prevent a sort of discontinuity for a short-ish period of time.”
Primates are elected during sessions of General Synod. Under current rules, if a primate resigns before General Synod, the most senior provincial metropolitan by election fills in as acting primate until General Synod meets to elect a new one. That would mean a lot of work for this person, says Jones, since they’d also retain their duties as a metropolitan and a diocesan bishop. If a primate has served a term lasting through several General Synods, he says, switching to a new person right before the end would stop their work early and replace them with someone who will be in office only for a few months before a permanent primate is elected.