Keeping everyone at the table, for as long as possible

By on May 1, 2007

Rowan Williams said on his recent visit to Canada that his job as Archbishop of Canterbury – the spiritual leader of the world’s 77 million Anglicans – is to get people around the table and keep them there as long as possible.

Of course, in ecclesiastical terms, Archbishop Williams’ words carry two meanings: he is attempting to keep all parties around the meeting table, continuing to talk about the challenges surrounding human sexuality and the authority of Scripture that threaten to divide them forever. He is also faced with the task of trying to keep all members around the eucharistic table. In some respects, he can record some success and some failure on both counts.

The recent meeting of primates in Tanzania is one marker of his progress. While there in February, seven leaders of the Anglican Communion’s 38 provinces boycotted a communion service to symbolize the “brokenness” of the communion. Granted, the number of absentee bishops was about half that which declined to share communion two years earlier at the same meeting in Northern Ireland. But it nevertheless shocked some observers, who could not fathom why church leaders would refuse to partake in the greatest gift to believers: the body and blood of Christ, simply in order to make a point.

Others, though, were more supportive of the boycotts, asking how can a primate, a bishop or a priest stand at the same altar with another when they lack a common understanding of sin and salvation?

Similarly, North Americans were kept away from the table in 2005 when they were asked by the primates of the Anglican Communion to “voluntarily withdraw” from the Anglican Consultative Council as a step towards restoring unity within an Anglican Communion. Both the Canadian and the U.S. churches sent their members to the meeting in Nottingham, England, but instructed them to “attend but not participate fully” in the gathering. Though they participated in worship, they were denied their place at the meeting table.

Sadly, the issue of individuals leaving – or being excluded from – the table is going to be with us for a very long time. For, whether General Synod next month votes in favour of allowing dioceses to decide whether to allow the blessing of same-sex couples or decides to wait, yet again, some Anglicans will choose not to stay. Some will drop away quietly, seeking churches that are more in line with their thinking. Others will depart noisily; particularly in the case of a “yes” vote, there will be litigation and arguments over property. And others, perceived as approving of or complicit in a church that would even consider a matter which is seen by many as an abomination, might be shut out of the governance of their church.

Despite the fears of some groups across the Anglican Communion, it is far from a sure thing that next month’s meeting of General Synod will pass a resolution calling for the so-called “local option,” which would allow dioceses to decide whether to allow the blessing of same-sex couples. In the weeks following the March meeting of the Council of General Synod (CoGS), various groups who examined the group of five resolutions dealing with same-sex blessings have expressed their concerns about the motions and how the church was trying to deal with the critical issue.

The Primate’s Theological Commission, which was asked by General Synod in 2004 to offer an opinion on whether or not the blessing of same-sex unions is a matter of doctrine, was the first to weigh in. Through its chair, Bishop Victoria Matthews, the commission distanced itself from the CoGS motions and issued a clarification stating that only one of the synod resolutions related to the commission’s opinion on the matter of blessings.

The commission released its opinion in 2005 in the St. Michael Report. It declared that the blessing of same-sex unions “is not a matter of core doctrine in the sense of being creedal.” That forms the basis of one of the General Synod resolutions. But delegates will also consider a resolution deferred by General Synod in 2004 that affirms “the authority and jurisdiction of any diocesan synod, with the concurrence of its bishop, to authorize the blessing of same-sex unions.” A 60 per cent vote in favour of the two resolutions was suggested as the required threshold.

Bishop Matthews explained, “I’m afraid that people could read those resolutions and believe that that’s the recommendation of the St. Michael Report.” She added: “We don’t make recommendations, we do raise theological questions.”

In addition, the house of bishops of the ecclesiastical province of Rupert’s Land expressed concern with a synod resolution expressing that same-sex blessings are consistent with the church’s core doctrine – a conclusion not reached by the theological commission. In an open letter to the church they wrote, “If the blessing of same-sex unions is consistent with core doctrine and right, then it is incumbent upon us to help educate Anglicans, and other Christians, in Canada and around the world.” The bishops said there was not enough time for delegates or the church to be educated or to “be in a position to determine whether the blessing of same-sex unions is scripturally sound and theologically consistent with core doctrine.”

Perhaps they underestimate the synod process and the seriousness with which delegates face their responsibilities. Perhaps not.

Still a third group of 25 theologians wrote directly to the house of bishops, arguing that while consultations have been held on the St Michael Report across the country, “most of these consultations have been given over to hearing points of view and not to a critical exchange of ideas. Quite simply, what is lacking is a biblical and theological justification for changing the church’s teaching.”

Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, while refraining from offering explicit advice about what the church should do at General Synod, delivered a cautionary word, suggesting that delegates ask the question “What is for the health of the Body of Christ both locally and globally?”

Where does it all leave synod delegates and the Canadian church? Likely, still in the limbo in which it has been suspended since General Synod 2004, when the vote was delayed. There are no easy answers.

The church’s challenge now is the same as that of Archbishop Williams: how to convince its numbers that they have more in common, more that unites than divides them, and how to keep them from leaving the table forever.

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