Leadership often sacrificed for collegiality’s survival

Published March 1, 1999

WHILE I AM SURE that there is much to be said in favour of the House of Bishop’s principle of collegiality, I believe there is probably more to be said against it than has ever surfaced for a “grassroots” debate. It has an authentic ring when House of Bishop’s statements are about motherhood issues, when it is obvious that Christians of all stripes and opinions, individually or jointly, could have no other options.

Today’s church, however, is confronted increasingly with more than motherhood issues. It is a legacy of the 1960s when the structures of society, the church included, were questioned and authoritarian leadership rejected. It was probably a first-fruits of universal education. People were taught to think – and, damn it, they did!

The House of Bishop’s statement on sexuality reveals the problem. It suggests that bishops were, and are, making compromises in the interests of collegiality beyond the bounds of usefulness. It would appear now that episcopal collegiality is nearing a breaking point if news reports are true. Some of our bishops are very nervous about the Diocese of New Westminster where Bishop Michael Ingham has been under pressure to act in response to a diocesan synod resolution regarding lesbian and gay rights within its diocesan life. While accepting assistance from a “council of advice,” the bishop announced he would make his decision before a further reference could be made to a meeting of the House of Bishops scheduled for May.

Other bishops responded with warnings of the “gravest of dangers” and Bishop Peter Mason of Ontario diocese pleaded: “Please let us deal with this as a house … Otherwise, any notion of collegiality disappears.”

As it happens, Bishop Ingham has announced a two-year plan for study and consultation and a further synod vote before a decision will be made. But the synod did vote, so what does any synod vote really mean?

The people of any diocese today look to their bishop for leadership and that requires that she/he will share personal faith, theology, practical concerns and political considerations which may then assist ordinary Christian people to work their way through the issues. After all, it was a combination of these personal characteristics which led to their election in the first place. If this is not happening, where is the leadership? The fog of collegiality is no substitution. People lose their way and get lost in fog.

So where does your bishop stand? And why? The bishops’ great fear is controversy and division. Hello – anyone there? We already have controversy. It is no longer a phenomenon to be contained within a select body who will then make a pronouncement. Even Rome, with all its authority, is experiencing great difficulty in this approach (e.g. birth control). It would be more healthy if our bishops allowed their differences to surface and published their concerns, acting according to their consciences, and at the end of the day exhibit their humility by asking the forgiveness of God and each other, joining in prayer and eucharist as brothers and sisters in Christ, acknowledging that in Christ, one day, truth will be known. That would be compelling leadership.

A footnote: some years ago a friend of mine, now deceased, was elected a bishop. He was a person of conviction, insight and integrity, which undoubtedly was why he was elected. Just before his consecration I suggested he “zipper his neck” so that when the bishops huddled around him in the act of consecration he not allow them to extract his backbone. His silence was deafening.

In the years following it was noticed that his convictions were muted, his insights were dulled and his actions curtailed, all in the interest of collegiality as practiced by the Canadian House of Bishops.

Was it worth it? Not in my book, for either him or the church.

Canon A. Gordon Baker is former director of Anglican Foundation and edited the Anglican Journal when it was known as Canadian Churchman.


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