Dissenting minorities who strongly disagree with church decisions on the blessing of same-gender relationships should be provided with an alternate bishop, at least temporarily, says a task force appointed by the Canadian house of bishops.
The arrangement, called temporary adequate/alternate episcopal oversight (AEO), is recommended in the task force’s final report, which was publicly released Mar. 4. Temporary AEO, said the report, is the best way to foster healing and reconciliation and to preserve unity within the church.
“After reviewing the responses by dioceses to the questions posed by the task force it is clear that the concept of AEO receives only grudging acceptance and is seen as a last resort to prevent schism,” said the report. It added that the “division of theological understanding and interpretation of authority of Scripture is judged to be so widespread across the church that the task force believes healing and reconciliation can be served best by the implementation of AEO.”
The majority of those consulted by the task force, headed by Bishop Victoria Matthews of the diocese of Edmonton , believe that AEO “must be interim in nature, and must provide security and safety to those who request it.”
If AEO were to remain in place forever, said Bishop Matthews in an interview, “we would be doing damage to the church because we would be setting up parallel jurisdictions. The general view we kept hearing was, ‘we need this in place until the dust settles.'”
The task force likened the granting of AEO to a “trial separation,” with a hope for reconciliation. “What we’re saying here is that we’re leaving the door open for the Holy Spirit,” said Bishop Matthews.
Dioceses across Canada also believe that AEO should be limited to addressing dissent arising over same-sex blessings, the task force said. “Many expressed concern that if the AEO was to extend beyond the issue of the blessing of same-sex unions, it could open up a Pandora’s box which would render episcope (ministry of a bishop) unmanageable,” said the report.
The report, available on the national church Web site (www.anglican.ca) is extensive, addressing not just the practical implementation of AEO but also issues like the financial fallout that might result from disagreements over same-sex blessings as well as the history and context behind the formation of the task force.
Formed last October by the house of bishops, the task force included Bishop George Bruce of Ontario , Bishop Thomas Morgan of Saskatoon (who retired last December), and Bishop Donald Young of Central Newfoundland . The group conducted consultations among bishops, clergy and laity nationwide and ultimately suggested three models of AEO based on varying scenarios that might emerge out of the discussion on same-sex blessings at the upcoming General Synod, which begins May 28.
Two of the models require the temporary ceding of authority by a diocesan bishop in a troubled diocese to an AEO bishop, granting him or her full jurisdiction over a church or parish seeking AEO.
The first model says that in the event that General Synod approves a resolution allowing dioceses to exercise a “local option” on the matter of same-sex blessings, and if a diocesan synod passes a resolution permitting the blessings, then, “dissenting and distressed parishes would be given the option of being placed in trust by the diocesan bishop.” An outside metropolitan (senior bishop of a church province) sympathetic to the dissenting parishes would act as their advocate but the metropolitan of their province would name the AEO bishop, the task force said. Alternate bishops will be selected by the church’s metropolitans with the concurrence of the majority of the national house of bishops. The AEO bishop will be considered episcopal assistant to the province’s metropolitan. The task force suggested that the alternate be a bishop “living in reasonable proximity to the parish(es) requesting AEO.”
The task force said the appointment of an AEO bishop could be for a six-month term, renewable but not exceeding six years, with a review every two years.
The second model deals with the single Canadian diocese where same-sex blessings are already permitted and where a number of dissenting parishes and clergy have formed a coalition seeking alternate episcopal oversight: the Vancouver-based diocese of New Westminster .
Under this model, in the event that General Synod votes against the local option on the matter of same-sex blessings, “the diocesan bishop of New Westminster (Michael Ingham) and metropolitan of British Columbia and Yukon (Archbishop David Crawley) volunteer to temporarily cede jurisdiction” over New Westminster’s most strongly dissenting parishes and their clergy to another metropolitan. That metropolitan would assign the dissenting parishes to an alternate bishop to allow for the “healing of relationships.”
The third model, which is “not strictly” AEO, allows dioceses to make informal arrangements with a retired bishop or a bishop of an adjacent diocese to care for dissenting or distressed parish in a diocese which allows same-sex blessings. This arrangement would not include jurisdiction but would allow consultation on appointments and invitations to preside at confirmations.
On the issue of financial hardship that may arise because of AEO, the task force recommends that General Synod or provincial synods be approached for solutions.
In an interview, Bishop Matthews said the task force decided to submit the report to the March meeting of the Council of General Synod ahead of the house of bishops meeting this month to give bishops more time to read and reflect on it and to guide the national church’s faith, worship and ministry committee, which drafted a motion on the matter of same-sex blessings that will be presented at General Synod
Asked whether AEO might be granted to others, including parishes that support same-sex blessings in the event that General Synod quashes a motion that would allow the rites, Bishop Matthews said, “The models (for AEO) are flexible.” She added that it is up to the house of bishops if it wants the scope expanded.