Reflections on General Synod 2019

Wycliffe College Principal Stephen Andrews

By Stephen Andrews

Jul 19, 2019

The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) met in Vancouver for seven days, beginning July 10. This was the 42nd session of a national gathering that happens every three years, and it brought together some 235 delegates from 30 dioceses in the three orders of laity, clergy, and bishops. This was my eighth consecutive General Synod, though this time I was not a member.  

Synods are intense, exhausting affairs, and they can be real emotional roller coasters. The certainties are that there will always be something to celebrate, something to lament, and something that will be unexpected. And, since 2004, the unexpected usually has had to do with sex. This year was no different. 

Much good

Let me begin by saying there was much in this General Synod that was good. The body endorsed a proposal enabling the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples to order their own affairs. This proposal was accompanied by an apology delivered by our Primate (the chief bishop of the ACC) for the spiritual harm caused by Anglican evangelistic efforts that confused colonial culture with the gospel. Moreover, the National Indigenous Anglican Bishop has now been designated an Archbishop and will have a permanent place in some of the Church’s highest councils. And speaking of high councils, the Synod also elected a new Primate amidst a great outpouring of gratitude and affection for the ministry of Archbishop Fred Hiltz. I am proud of the Wycliffe connections in these and many other actions of the Synod. In addition to the fact that Archbishops Mark MacDonald, Linda Nicholls and Fred Hiltz all hold Wycliffe degrees, a prayer “For Reconciliation with the Jews,” which passed first reading with near unanimity, was the product of a collaboration involving The Reverend Chris Dow (Wycliffe class of 2012). 

It was also good for Wycliffe to have a booth in the display area where we could hawk our educational wares. This year we shared a table with Trinity College, and my colleague, Dean Christopher Brittain, and I happily shilled for one another, though our location in the middle of a windowless exhibition room meant that our most important connections occurred away from the booth. I was glad to be able to catch up with old friends and alumni from across the Church, and I was impressed by news of the leadership being offered to the Church by our grads. But a most important connection for me was with the delegation from the Diocese of Algoma. They are a great group and include College grad, The Reverend Aidan Armstrong (Wycliffe class of 2016), who has a flourishing ministry in Sudbury. 

But also pain 

But this Synod also stood out as one of the more painful events in the life of the Church, revealing the depth of our divisions and testing the sincerity of our professed charity. The occasion of our conflict was framed by the passage of a motion at our 2016 General Synod directing that the doctrine and canons—or laws—of the Church be changed to allow for same-sex marriage. Then, that resolution narrowly passed by the required two-thirds majority voting in each of the three orders amidst much heart-rending controversy. Owing to the importance of the matter being resolved, however, our rules required that the vote be repeated at the next Synod. This was the motion debated in Vancouver last week. 

Since the middle of June, there have appeared online a series of helpful articles from a number of Wycliffe faculty and graduates addressing some of the biblical and theological dimensions of the debate. Although some of the responses to those articles were uncharitable, in my view, I believe fresh insights were gained and the exchange underlined just how nuanced the matter is. Such nuance is, of course, one of the reasons Synod conversations are so difficult. A serious consideration of what we mean by Christian marriage requires an ability to understand and assess complex theological perspectives. But in the anxious moments of Synod debate, any eddies of patient reflection on questions of sacramentality and natural law get swept away by the powerful currents of politics and emotion.  

In advance of General Synod 2019, many people were aware of the precariousness of the motion and the very real possibility that it might not receive the necessary votes to pass, particularly in the order of bishops. As the Synod grew closer many strategized in the hopes of avoiding a potentially destructive debate on the floor. One such strategy was the production of what many regarded as a pre-emptive amendment and statement emanating from the General Synod’s highest council. An amendment to the main motion was approved which read, “Members are entitled to hold, teach and exercise” different views of marriage, “provided they recognize and respect that others may with integrity hold, teach and exercise a different view.” It concludes, “All Anglicans accept that marriage is a sign of God’s redeeming purpose to unite all things in Christ.”  

The additional statement bolstered the intent of the amendment by offering a series of affirmations. Although they are five in number, they touch on three things. First, they express a respect for the inherent right of Indigenous Peoples to determine their own policies in this matter. Second, they acknowledge diversity of opinion both on the nature of marriage and the application of the existing canon on marriage. Finally, they affirm a commitment to value the opinion of those who disagree as well as a commitment to stay in fellowship with one another and within our Anglican Communion. These affirmations were endorsed by 85 percent of the Synod members. 

Acknowledging current realities

A couple of comments might be ventured on the adoption of these affirmations. The first is that they are not a policy on marriage. They neither endorse nor forbid same-sex marriage. They simply acknowledge the current reality that while some see church rules as restricting marriage to heterosexual couples, others (and here they claim the justification offered by some of our canon lawyers) are of the conviction that the canon on marriage may include same-sex couples because the canon does not expressly prohibit same-sex couples from being married in the Church. The second thing deserving of emphasis, in my view, is that the affirmations seek to recognize the integrity of these two competing views of marriage and the value of trying to walk together with those who disagree, for the good of the Church and the work of the gospel.  

I believe that it was the generous nature of the amendment and affirmations towards those who hold a traditional view of marriage that may have led some to assume that the traditionalists would not stand in the way of the canon’s approval. A number who spoke to the motion urged those who did not agree with changing the canon to abstain from voting. The debate on the floor was largely respectful and generous, but when the results of the voting revealed that the motion had passed in the order of clergy by 73 percent and in the order of laity by 81 percent, but had failed in the order of bishops by two votes, thus defeating the motion, there were expressions of shock and anger, with some fleeing the floor in tears. 

Fall-out

The fallout from the motion’s defeat took a tremendous toll on the house as much of the good will achieved by the Synod seemed to evaporate. Resentment and acrimony were particularly channeled towards the bishops and it was evident that relationships between them had become very strained. There were calls to find ways to reverse the decision, and for a time, members lived under the threat that their votes, which were conducted electronically, would become immediately public. In the intense moments that followed, our Primate exercised true pastoral leadership and effectively managed to de-escalate and redirect the passionate demands of some Synod members.  

For the next three days the Synod attended to its scheduled business while the bishops struggled to find words that would bring hope to the fractured body. Some harboured a suspicion that the addition of bishops in the north had been a deliberate tactic in preventing the resolution’s passage, but such characterisations are unfair. The Diocese of the Arctic, for instance, received the endorsement of their provincial synod in the 1990s to have as many as four bishops owing to the punishing demands of ministry in the north, while jurisdictions in the south have both added and dropped bishops to diocesan rosters based on changing ministry needs. 

Three days after the vote the bishops issued a message sorrowfully acknowledging the pain and anguish they had caused. Drawing upon the affirmations made earlier in the Synod, they expressed their intention of “walking together in a way which leaves room for individual dioceses and jurisdictions . . . to proceed with same-sex marriage.” The brief statement underlines in two places the division that exists among our bishops, and it is probably significant that the statement carries no indication of how many endorsed its sentiments. In a dramatic moment when the Primate prepared to read the statement, he invited the bishops to stand. But not all felt able to do so. 

Once again, we should point out that what the bishops have produced is not a policy but is, rather, a statement of how they can see themselves moving into the future in a way that maintains the integrity of their individual views while preserving the greatest degree of communion. How successful they will be in living up to their aspirations will become evident in the coming months. They need our prayers. 

Additional comments

I want to add two things by way of comment.  

The first is that the idea that a recognition of the value of a traditionalist view—such as is expressed in the amendment and affirmations—should have given adequate comfort to those who hold those views is mistaken. There is an important distinction between a gracious acknowledgement of a plurality of convictions and practices in the Church, and an action of Synod that explicitly changes the Church’s doctrine of marriage. I think that those who were wishing for change might understand this, for although there is nothing in the wake of Synod that would prevent bishops who are in favour of change from instituting same-sex marriage in their dioceses (and, indeed, many have already declared their intention to do so), the change in doctrine was important enough for proponents to seek ways of ameliorating or even overturning the vote. If this matter is ever raised again at Synod, it will surely come as an attempt to revise the Church’s doctrinal stance on marriage.

So, there is some residual anxiety in the Church about whether the Synod’s actions could be regarded as restrictive or permissive. I believe they are neither, though I know that it is a matter of concern for those traditional Anglicans in dioceses with bishops planning to bring about change. The second thing that ought to be remembered is that, insofar as the current canon on marriage remains in effect, a protection of clergy conscience exists. The canon states that “the discretion of a minister to decline to solemnize any particular marriage shall not be abrogated by this Canon” (XXI.I.11.d). Such protections also exist in the marriage acts of many civil provinces. 

Implications for Wycliffe College

I have been asking myself what, if any, are the implications of the Synod’s decisions for Wycliffe College and our mission. Contrary to the impressions of many, the Synod did not just talk about marriage. They debated a variety of resolutions around such matters as liturgy and social and ecological justice that could come to be reflected in parts of our curriculum and College life. In response to one Synod motion, for instance, we will want to look at a policy regarding single-use plastics in the College. But more significantly, I hope we can better equip our students for leadership by paying more deliberate attention to the history and place of Indigenous Peoples in our Church. We have a lot to learn from the Indigenous church, and we look forward to greater collaboration with institutions like NAIITS and individuals like Professor Ray Aldred (Wycliffe doctoral student and Director of the Indigenous Studies Program at Vancouver School of Theology). And this autumn we look forward to welcoming our first divinity student from the Arctic since the graduation of Bishop Annie Ittoshat in 2016. 

Is it too naïve to express the hope that the endorsement of the amendment, affirmations, and the bishops’ statement will actually make it easier to discuss human sexuality? With the implicit freedom of bishops to implement the practices they believe the gospel requires of them, perhaps we may, for a season, talk about these matters without having to come to some legislative conclusion.  

The conversation needs to continue. Our Anglican students can anticipate serving a Church where, if the consolidated vote of the General Synod is any indication, 77 percent of their congregation might be in favour of marriage equality. All the while, the number of people desiring marriage in the Church is plummeting. A recent blogger concludes that there may be at least 50 percent fewer weddings in the Anglican Church of Canada than there were eight years’ ago. The Church is facing serious challenges on this front. We live in a culture addicted to instant gratification and confused about gender, where the purposes of procreation and family are unclear amidst an epidemic of alienation and loneliness among our youth. Christians need to hold out a vision of the integrated life where human sexual desires might find fulfilment as an expression of our God-likeness and directed towards God’s purposes for creation. 

If we really care about God’s Church and God’s world, these conversations must continue. 

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Stephen Andrews is Principal of Wycliffe College and Helliwell Professor of Biblical Interpretation.

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