Primate reflects on achievements, ‘serious questions’ about future

Photo: Milos Tosic
Published July 12, 2019

In his final opening address to General Synod, Primate Fred Hiltz celebrated the church’s achievements—and warned of an ‘alarming’ decline in membership


In a wide-ranging address to General Synod Thursday, July 11, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, outgoing primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, spoke of what he saw as some of the church’s most important recent accomplishments and priorities, as well as the challenges likely to face his successor, who will be elected Saturday, July 13.

Hiltz, who has led the church as primate since 2007, opened General Synod’s first day of business with a speech dealing with the themes of discipleship; the Indigenous church and reconciliation with Indigenous people; human trafficking; climate change; ecumenism and interfaith relationships; same-sex marriage; and the need for his successor to keep the church together in the aftermath of a potentially divisive vote on the marriage canon while facing an “alarming” decline in church membership.

As National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald had in the previous evening’s worship service, Hiltz spoke of the importance of discipleship in the church today—and of a renewed concern for it not just throughout the Anglican Communion but even the World Council of Churches (WCC). A WCC gathering last year resulted in the Arusha Call to Discipleship, which exhorts Christians everywhere to “be active collaborators with God for the transforming of the world.” Hiltz said he was pleased General Synod would consider a resolution commending the call “as a primary resource for dioceses and parishes wanting to uphold an expression of discipleship that is holistic, robust and relevant for our time.”

Hiltz said he was also happy that a number of items related to Indigenous concerns were on General Synod’s agenda, including a resolution to memorialize, on the church calendar, the 1993 apology of former primate Archbishop Michael Peers for the church’s role in the Indian Residential School system. Hiltz said he himself was planning to make another apology that evening to Indigenous people for the spiritual abuse the church had inflicted on them—an act, he said, that the Council of General Synod (CoGS) had requested and authorized him to do at its last meeting of the triennium in March.

Hiltz also noted what he saw as some important achievements by the church in efforts toward reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples, among them the work of the Commission on Discovery, Reconciliation and Justice, including its engaging of Anglican Video to produce a documentary on the Doctrine of Discovery, “Stolen Lands: Strong Hearts.” Another was the appointment of reconciliation animator Melanie Delva, who, he said, had done much to impress upon the church the notion of reconciliation as “a spiritual discipline requiring commitment for the long haul.” Hiltz lauded the work of the Vision Keepers, formed to ensure the church remains committed to living out the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and noted that the Jubilee Commission, tasked with raising funds for the ministry of the soon-to-be formed self-determining Indigenous Anglican Church, had begun its work.

Hiltz also said he was gladdened by a number of steps that had been, or were soon to be, taken in the ongoing emergence of the self-determining Indigenous church—including the possible passing of a resolution at the current session of General Synod empowering Sacred Circle, the national gathering of Indigenous Anglicans in Canada, to change the church’s Canon XXII, which governs Indigenous ministry.

Hiltz also noted the church’s recent work against human trafficking, including series of consultations in each of the Anglican Church of Canada’s four provinces. He said he hoped General Synod would endorse a resolution calling on the church to continue its partnerships with other organizations in the fight against human trafficking.

The primate spoke of his concern about the effects of climate change, adding he was pleased that General Synod would vote on a resolution adopting a “‘Season of Creation’ as a focused time of learning, praying and positioning ourselves—yes, politically—in the interests of safeguarding the integrity of creation and sustaining and renewing the life of the earth.”

Hiltz also spoke of his encouragement at seeing the church’s continuing progress with its ecumenical partners, and its interfaith work with both Jews and Muslims. He said he hoped that a resolution to replace the Book of Common Prayer’s prayer for the conversion of the Jews with a prayer for reconciliation with the Jews would make a “helpful step toward a path of renewal in dialogue and collaboration with our friends in the Jewish community in Canada.” He said he was glad, also, that General Synod was considering signing “A Common Word Between Us and You,” an interfaith statement from Muslim leaders.

The primate also touched on General Synod’s second reading, slated for Friday, Jul 12, of an amendment to allow same-sex marriages in the church. He said he hoped “A Word to the Church,” a statement drafted by church leaders and presented to CoGS this March, would help guide respectful discussion of the topic, which has proved divisive in the church.

“In listening and learning, discerning and deciding, may our conversations be marked by an honouring of the norms for respectful conversation to which we will commit ourselves,” he said. “Let us hold dear one another’s place in this church. Let us work hard in making room for each other within the boundless grace of Christ. Let us hold fast to that communion in him that transcends all our differences and compels us to behold one another as found in him.”

Hiltz has announced he will resign as primate during this session of General Synod, and one of the synod’s most important tasks, he said Thursday, will be the election of a new primate to succeed him on Saturday, July 13—a primate, he added, who will lead the church at a time in its life that is “both very exciting and very challenging.”

The church’s new head, he said, will have a number of exciting tasks to deal with, including fostering discipleship in the church. But he or she will also inherit a church in need of healing among its own members, he added, and needing to maintain its relationships with the rest of the communion and with other faith groups in the aftermath of the vote.

“I am mindful as you are, that following the outcome of deliberations on amendment to the marriage canon, there will be a need for ongoing pastoral care for people disheartened or disillusioned by an outcome different from what they had longed and prayed and hoped for,” he said. “There will be a need for steadfast leadership in efforts to preserve communion with one another in Christ…. There will be need for conversations led by the primate in the wider circles of our [Anglican] Communion and with our ecumenical partners.”

The new primate, he also said, will take up his or her new role at a time that call for “fresh visioning” as a result of demographic and financial challenges the church finds itself facing.

“The overall decline in the number of people who self-identify as members of the Anglican Church of Canada and the number of identifiable givers is dramatic,” he said. “In fact, some of us would say it’s alarming, the decline. It poses serious questions.”

The new primate, he said, can be expected to “devote a significant amount of time” to a review, called for by CoGS, of the mission of General Synod, given concerns over church finances, to take place over the next three years.

Hiltz said he had always loved the church and was leaving the office of primate loving it even more. To a standing ovation from the members of General Synod, he closed his final primatial address with St. Paul’s words to the church in Philippi: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, constantly praying with joy in any one of my prayers for all of you…” (Philippians 1:3-5).


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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