Council of General Synod, the executive body of General Synod that typically meets biannually, will be meeting in regular one-day virtual sessions via Zoom videoconferencing software, as the Anglican Church of Canada suspends all business travel for the rest of the year.
At the first of these one-day sessions, which took place Saturday, June 13, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada Archbishop Linda Nicholls explained the travel suspension. “We’ve made the decision there will be no travelling between now and 2021, because we just don’t know where we’re going to be, and there are so many restrictions in different places,” she said.
“We held the last CoGS meeting right on the cusp of everything closing down,” Nicholls recalled. “There were some that felt that maybe we shouldn’t have even met when we did. But we met, and then we all went home and then almost immediately went into isolation or quarantine.” The primate offered her thanks to General Secretary of General Synod Archdeacon Michael Thompson and Scott Hilborn, human resources manager for the church’s national office, for “guiding us through all of the logistics of change that have been required by COVID-19 at Church House.”
Nicholls also noted the many church events that have been postponed or cancelled in the coming months: the Lambeth Conference of Bishops, Sacred Circle and consecrations or elections of bishops.
Nicholls’s address to the meeting focused on the changes that have taken place in the church in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced the suspension of in-person gatherings across the country.
The primate’s work has changed dramatically, she said. “Normally I’d be travelling across the country and to many parts of Canada and overseas, and I’m here in London [Ontario]. I’ve been in London for 12 weeks. It’s given me an opportunity to explore other ways of gathering.” Nicholls said she has participated virtually in graduation celebrations, confirmation classes, Zoom coffee hours, church services both live and pre-recorded, and Pentecost gatherings, among others.
There is hope to be found in these sorts of new opportunities, Nicholls said. “One of the things that COVID-19 has done is that it has broken open some of the moments of resistance we’ve had to changing what we’ve always done. It’s broken open new ways to be the church.”
Anglicans’ affection for buildings, she said, had been tempered by the realization that they are the church wherever they are. “Online, in person, on the phone, on the doorstep, in the neighbourhood. And I know the first stage of those first few weeks was, frankly, grief, when we thought we would be able to gather for Easter, and then we could not. And then the quick learning curve of putting everything online, discovering new skills.
“We’ve learned that we can connect with people who would never have darkened the door of our church building, but will click online to listen to worship, and hear a message. We’ve learned that people who have been isolated by illness or other reasons are able to connect with churches in another part of the country, or connect with a church nearby and be able to be at worship and share. We’ve actually discovered evangelism in a new key.”
Among these changes, she highlighted the ways Indigenous Ministries has extended its online offerings, holding gospel-based discipleship online, an online gospel jamboree, and launching “a new way of training lay pastoral ministry in isolated communities, so desperately needed when Indigenous communities have blockaded for safety.”
Despite these “upsides,” the pandemic has “also affected our economy, our church resources—and the long-term effects have yet to be realized, as we have been cushioned by government subsidies and some diocesan relief possibilities,” she said.
Nicholls likened the next few months to “walking down the street in a pea-soup fog,” only beginning to see the shape of what is ahead.
“We do not know what the church will look like a year from now or two years from now, but I suspect it will be a mixture of what we’ve been learning: of online, in-person smaller gatherings, a mixed economy in ways of people choosing to connect. It is exciting, it is scary, and it’s encouraging that God’s church is capable of change. It’s capable of doing things afresh and anew.”
The primate’s remarks were part of a morning session which included tutorials on how to use Zoom, protocols for meeting using this technology and a presentation by the Governance Working Group.
Co-chair of the Planning and Agenda Team, the Rev. Monique Stone, offered a presentation on how Zoom technology would be used for CoGS meetings. “We envision that CoGS will be one-day sessions and a higher frequency of them…imagine maybe every six weeks,” Stone said.
Among the tools the Council used on Saturday were Zoom’s “raise hand” function to alert the primate, who chairs CoGS meetings, of one’s wish to speak, and a polling tool which allowed members to vote on motions and agenda items. Zoom also has the ability to break a large meeting into smaller groups, which may be used to mimic the table groups that are used during in-person meetings of CoGS.
“The idea will be that we break into smaller segments of work over the next several months so that we can still achieve great work for the church,” said Stone.
Stone also noted that council members would receive an evaluation form to give feedback on how well the meeting worked and whether elements could be improved.
The next two meetings of CoGS are tentatively scheduled to take place July 25 and September 12.