It’s a piece of the glass ceiling that cracked’

Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan: Ready to tackle "the tough stuff"
Published October 1, 2009

When Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan was appointed director for unity, faith and order at the Anglican Communion Office in London, the sound of glass shattering—or at least cracking—could be heard across the 77-million strong Anglican Communion.

“It’s probably one of the most senior positions, other than bishop, that a woman can hold in the Anglican Communion,” Ms. Barnett-Cowan told the Journal. “So I do think it’s blazing a trail. It’s a piece of the glass ceiling that cracked.”

Ms. Barnett-Cowan is currently director of faith, worship and ministry of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada. She is also a consultant to the Anglican-Lutheran International Commission and was recently appointed to the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission for Unity, Faith and Order (IASCUFO).

Ms. Barnett-Cowan received the news while on sabbatical in New Zealand. “Alyson brings a profound knowledge and experience of both ecumenical and doctrinal issues to this role,” said Canon Kenneth Kearon, the Communion’s secretary general. The new post follows the election of Canon Gregory Cameron as bishop of St. Asaph in the Church of Wales.

During a celebratory dinner with Bishop Victoria Matthews, the two women reflected on how their lives have changed since they were both 19 and attending Trinity College at the University of Toronto. “The ordination of women in the priesthood was still being debated,” noted Ms. Barnett-Cowan. “It wasn’t possible to imagine what we’re doing [now].” (Bishop Matthews, former bishop of the diocese of Edmonton, is bishop of the diocese of Christchurch, in the Anglican Province of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia.)

Ms. Barnett-Cowan said her new role feels much like what she’s been doing as the ecumenical officer for the Anglican Church of Canada, except now she’ll be contributing on a global scale. She recognizes there will be a learning curve, despite her diverse experience working with Anglican doctrine and practice and meeting with church leaders. And there will be lots of travel.

It has been almost 15 years in what she calls “the best job in the Canadian church” and Ms. Barnett-Cowan is ready to tackle the “tough stuff,” including criticism about same-sex blessings. “There are things to negotiate before we find some sort of equilibrium,” she said, adding, “I may have to say things that sound hard to Canada.”

One of the first agenda items is the Covenant Design Group meeting. The group will work on section 4 of the proposed Anglican Covenant that came out of last summer’s meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) in Jamaica. The covenant is being heralded as a way forward for the Communion to heal fractured relationships.

Ms. Barnett-Cowan also will provide IASCUFO with the priority-defining documentation needed to propose policy. She also expects to attend informal talks with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the ecumenical body of the Vatican in Rome. The Roman Catholic Church has concerns about the views on human sexuality expressed by some Anglican churches as well as the divisions in the Anglican Communion resulting from this.

Ultimately, her appointment conveys “a hopeful sign” that Canadians have something important to contribute, said Ms. Barnett-Cowan. “We are an important part of the Anglican Communion. And while I will be serving all of the Communion, I will still be a Canadian and I have great affection for the Canadian church.”

In 2003 to 2004, Ms. Barnett-Cowan was a member of the Lambeth Commission on Communion, appointed by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. In 2000 to 2008, she was a member of the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations. She was also a member of the Plenary Commission, Faith and Order at the World Council of Churches.


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