What face will General Synod show the world?

Published May 1, 2004

As the meeting of General Synod inches closer, plans are afoot to cope with the anticipated media interest. If the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA) is any indication, a denominational gathering that is planning to talk about homosexuality is a guaranteed attraction for many secular media. In fact, there were more than 350 accredited media at the 2003 convention in Minneapolis, Minn.

Now, few would expect those numbers to appear at the Canadian church’s triennial national gathering, which will start at the end of this month. If that were to happen, the media would outnumber the 310 delegates.

But the fact remains that many denominations across North America are wrestling with questions about sexuality. It is a hot topic.

Here in Canada, the Anglican and Evangelical Lutheran churches are examining the role of gays and lesbians in the life of the church, while the United Church of Canada dealt with the issue several years ago. In the U.S., besides ECUSA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the United Methodist Church are struggling with the reality of non-celibate homosexuals in the ranks of their clergy.

Naturally, most delegates and General Synod planners would prefer that the media paid more attention to other matters in the life of the church: the soup kitchens, the Out of the Cold programs, the services to refugees and immigrants, the Alpha programs and the youth ministries.

An illustrative example of the differing priorities of the church and the media came in 2002 at a diocesan synod in the diocese of New Westminster. A number of religious and secular media were in attendance, anticipating a resolution endorsing same-sex blessings.

As much of the Anglican Communion now knows, the synod passed the resolution and the subsequent walkout by a number of parish representatives had virtually all the reporters (myself included) chasing after “the” story. Those who walked out were at the centre of various scrums away from the meeting floor. While much of the buzz continued outside the meeting, Bishop Michael Ingham reconvened the synod, which was scheduled to hear an update about one of the diocese’s many social service programs. After speaking for a moment about the program, the bishop paused for a moment, then commented sardonically on the media’s fixation on matters of sex when here was the church, talking about what it is really all about. The few reporters who had returned from the scrums to hear his words found ourselves looking at our shoes for a moment.

Gone are the days where the media and even the general public have an innate respect for or interest in religion and the churches. Few daily newspapers in Canada have reporters dedicated solely to religion. Only a few even bother with a religion page or section devoted to faith issues. The election of a bishop or a metropolitan rarely rates a mention in the daily news, these days. Compare this with the newspapers of a few decades ago, which devoted entire sections to religion and covered clergy appointments to plum parishes in the same way that appointments in the corporate world are treated today.

Still, if ever there were a time to recapture some interest in faith issues, it is now. Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, has spurred unprecedented media attention about Christ, his life and how it is lived in churches today. Well, maybe the churches should ride that momentum.

Of course, as with the supermodel or actor whose look is in one day and out the next, the media lens currently focused on religion will move on. But while the interest exists, think what could be accomplished.

What would the media see if it came to your church, to your diocesan synod?

And what will they experience when they come to General Synod?

Will they see a group of faithful people committed to furthering the work of the church? Will they hear individuals speaking passionately about their beliefs, yet listening respectfully to those whose understanding of Scripture is different from theirs? Will they hear individuals who feel as strongly about AIDS and issues of social justice as they do about matters of sexuality?

Or will they hear bitter recriminations and monologues, or, worse still, will they be witness to groups who, feeling they are unable to remain at the same table with those whose opinions they cannot share, simply walk away?

It is worth thinking about.


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