The House of Bishops met in Niagara Falls, Ont., from April 8 to 12, and thanked three retiring bishops for their service, as well as examined ways that the house can best serve its members and the church.
In an interview with the Anglican Journal following the meetings, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, praised the contributions of all three of the retiring bishops, who were honoured by their peers during the meetings.
Bishop George Elliott, who will retire as suffragan bishop from the diocese of Toronto at the end of April, has been “a great member of the house” and a “gentle holy presence,” said the primate. “His great contribution, along with lots of others from a national perspective, was his work with the department of communications, information resources and the Journal,” he added. As president and then chair of the Anglican Journal committee for the past six years, Elliott saw the paper through transitions including changes of editor and the paper’s reincorporation into the structure of General Synod.
Bishop James Cowan and Bishop Michael Ingham of the neighbouring dioceses of British Columbia and New Westminster respectively will both retire on Aug. 31. Archbishop Hiltz spoke of Cowan’s commitment to the national church and his talents as an administrator. “He basically oversaw a complete remapping of the diocese of British Columbia, and that was not without its challenges to the synod and to him personally,” the primate said. “But he just kept his hand on the helm and saw it through, and his episcopacy will be remembered for that kind of strong and steady leadership, a firm hand at the helm.”
In the minds of many, Ingham is instantly associated with the debate over the blessing of same-sex unions and the ways that impacted the church, but there was so much more to the man and his ministry, Hiltz said, mentioning the bishop’s work with the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, the Council of General Synod and strategic planning for General Synod. “Michael’s a very good liturgist, good preacher, good writer. He’s got a huge heart for people and has just been a champion for inclusivity in the life of the church, men and women in all orders of ministry, young people, gays and lesbians…,” he said. “He’s been a champion of the need for our church to pay attention to its ever-growing multiracial and multicultural character.” Hiltz also praised Ingham’s work on interfaith dialogues and for highlighting “the need for our church to get on with a much deeper dialogue with people of other faith traditions.”
Looking ahead, the House of Bishops has been discussing ways that they might provide more support for new bishops. Although newly elected bishops in Canada attend a training program in Canterbury or one in New York run by the Episcopal Church, Hiltz said the bishops are considering the need for a mentoring program that would be unique to the Anglican Church of Canada. One idea is to pair new bishops with experienced bishops as mentors.
The role of the House of Bishops in the church
The House of Bishops has also been re-examining its role in the church. For a time, Hiltz said, the agendas for the bishops’ biannual meetings seemed to resemble “a parade of one presenter after another asking for the bishops’ support, endorsement, prayer.” More recently, the bishops have spent time looking at their own life as a house, “building a sense of community, addressing our own relationships, our own tensions,” he said, noting that there has hardly been anyone from outside the house making presentations.
Now, however, Hiltz said the pendulum is swinging back toward the middle. The bishops are still discussing questions of how best to support each other’s ministries and to deal with “huge differences of theological conviction…[and] continue to respectfully engage one another in dialogue,” he said. But they are also asking, “What are the issues in the life of the church-locally, nationally and internationally-that we need to be involved in and that we need to be providing some leadership for?” Hiltz said he also thinks that there is a role for the house to speak out on important social issues, and if the bishops from coast to coast make a statement, it would have significant weight.
The House of Bishops currently meets twice a year. Although the Council of General Synod and some General Synod committees are considering proposals to meet less frequently and rely on more electronic communications in order to reduce costs, Hiltz said his early read of the opinion in the House of Bishops is that they cannot meet less than two times per year. “If we’re really going to be about the work of mutual support and encouragement in this ministry and providing strong leadership around matters of evangelism, making disciples, building the church, equipping people for ministry, liturgy, matters of ethics and morals, social justice, we can not be meeting less frequently,” he said.
Update on plans for the General Synod and Joint Assembly in Ottawa
The archbishop and the general secretary, Michael Thompson, updated the bishops on plans for the General Synod and Joint Assembly gathering with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada from this July. Hiltz acknowledged that there has been anxiety about having reduced the length of time for the synod from nine days to four, but he thought the presentation on behalf of the planning committee helped reassure the bishops that there will be enough time to do the work that has to be done. He encouraged the bishops to come with “an open heart and open mind.” And he reminded them that “they are going to be part of a historic moment. This is the first time ever in the world that two churches are coming together as their governing bodies in one joint assembly, doing most of our work together and only doing separately what our constitutions require us to do…,” he said. “It’s a watershed moment for ecumenism in Canada.” While the two churches will celebrate 12 years in full communion, Hiltz said, they will also be looking for ways that they can do more together in areas such as worship, theological education, evangelism and social justice. During the assembly, the delegates will consider issues of homelessness and affordable housing, along with responsible resource extraction.
The Bible in the Life of the Church
All the bishops received a copy of The Bible in the Life of the Church, a compilation of resources produced by the Anglican Communion. It was created following the meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in Jamaica in 2009. Anglicans around the world say that “we are formed by scripture,” said Hiltz. “That’s true, but Anglicans also recognize that there are a variety of ways to read and interpret scripture, and it is that very point that has been so close to the centre of the debates on sexuality,” Hiltz acknowledged. He held up the report as “a gift from the Anglican Communion… It really is about how Anglicans read the Bible.” The bishops enthusiastically received the document, and Hiltz suggested that not only could individual parishes use it, but it could also be recommended to theological colleges for their curriculums. Bishop Stephen Andrews of the diocese of Algoma is anchoring a House of Bishops working group to examine the study.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission concerns
The bishops also had a discussion about difficulties that some dioceses are having meeting the obligation to provide documents to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. While no one was questioning the aim, said Hiltz, for some dioceses that do not have the manpower to devote to the task, “it is a huge burden and feels almost insurmountable.” The conversation then moved to ways that the national church will try to provide support and how dioceses might support each other in the task, he said.
Update from the Christian Hospitality, Christian Initiation and Formation task force
Canon John Hill, chair of the task force on Christian Hospitality, Christian Initiation and Formation, also offered the bishops an update on the task force’s efforts to develop a resource for the Lent and Easter season in 2014. Although the work was triggered by debate over admission to the eucharist, or the idea of Open Table, he said, task force members found that there were many understandings about the nature, function and role of the church in society, and what was needed was a study that would help re-establish some of the foundations. “So, the goal as articulated for this Lent-Easter project…would be to strengthen the baptismal character and sense of baptismal vocation of the church,” he said.