Synod issues end in a question mark, not a period

By on July 3, 2007

There was a distinct feeling (and some evidence) midway through the June meeting of General Synod that most members wanted to decide, finally, the all-consuming matter of whether the church should bless the relationships of gay couples.

Not another three years of messy tussles, drawn-out departures by individuals and parishes from their dioceses and sporadic scandals involving unauthorized church blessings and weddings of gay and lesbian Anglicans. Not another directive from the church’s highest governing body to wait, at least another three years.

But, despite the fact that many members wanted to leave Synod with a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ what they carried away with them is much more of a ‘no, but …'” It remains murky where this vote and an earlier, equally critical decision leaves the church. Many observers interpreted them as a mixed message. Anglican synod affirms same-sex blessings in theory, denies them in practice, read one headline.

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‘No’ was the answer (decided by a razor-thin majority of bishops, the only house to vote against) to the question of whether the church should allow dioceses to decide whether to allow same-sex blessings; the day prior to that vote, though, synod members agreed with a commissioned report that concluded “the blessing of same-sex unions is not in conflict with the core doctrine” of the Anglican Church of Canada.

It reminds one of the feeling of, “Where does this leave us?” that the church faced in 2004 after Synod voted to wait another three years to decide the blessings matter (while a theological commission examined the issue). However, that same Synod confounded many by saying something much stronger than many members had anticipated: that Synod affirmed “the integrity and sanctity of committed adult same-sex relationships.”

The indication that this Synod would decide – one way or the other – on the most crucial matter came early in the business segment of the week-long meeting, during debate on the Windsor Report, an international examination of how the church can hold together despite dramatic differences on issues like sexuality. The theatre that General Synod can be – sometimes at its best, often at its worst – began in earnest as member after member queued at the microphone to get his or her opinion on the blessings issue on the record. Occasionally, the points made were relevant to the discussion at hand; sometimes, they felt like a rehearsed speech prepared for any of the related resolutions – an all-purpose address that might be used at any of the discussions.

To outside observers and members on the floor of Synod, it felt like parliamentary-style filibuster.

Synod ultimately defeated an amendment that would have called on dioceses to comply with a moratorium (recommended by the Windsor Report) on blessing ceremonies for gay couples. Later in the meeting, it said that same-sex blessings are not a Communion-breaking issue and they are not in conflict with the church’s doctrine, yet a slim majority of bishops were not ready to move ahead with them until there was more theological study of the issue.

There are differing opinions on what this all means. Some interpreted the decisions as meaning that the church committed only to study the matter for another three years. Blessings will have to wait. Certainly not much longer, if the recent narrow vote is any indication. Surprisingly few speakers argued the oft-raised position that a vote in favour of blessings would have negative consequences for the Canadian church on the international Anglican stage.

Others, though, posit that we will now see blessings scattered across the country – though not using an officially prepared rite – since, it is thought, clergy cannot be disciplined for actions that are not in conflict with church doctrine. That would put the Canadian church in the same arena as the Church of England, which has been quietly blessing gay couples for years. The practice is so common in the United Kingdom, Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, the former primate, has previously noted, that announcements of such blessings appear in broadsheet secular newspapers.

The dioceses of Toronto and Niagara will be ones to watch, as they both have strong numbers in favour of moving forward on the blessings issue; Niagara’s bishop Ralph Spence withheld his consent to his synod’s vote last year, pending a decision at General Synod. The picture is similarly cloudy in New Westminster which has likely already begun to seek legal advice whether General Synod’s resolutions affect its decision to enact a moratorium on same-sex blessings in all but eight parishes where they were already permitted.

So, the Synod issues end in a question mark, not a period. The decisions are not wrapped neatly in a bow. But then, when is church tidy?

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