OPINION: General Synod 2010 has been successful for most, but great challenges remain

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Neale Adams
Neale Adams

When sailing in dangerous waters, it takes a skilled skipper to steer clear of the rocks.

As primate, Archbishop Fred Hiltz is the skipper of the Anglican Church of Canada. Elected three years ago, this was his first General Synod to lead, and he had a pretty challenging course to navigate.

There was a lot at stake: A strategic plan for the next decade was on the table. Drastic cuts to budget and staff at national office headquarters are still looming. Proposals to reduce representation at synod, and the Council of General Synod (CoGS), meant some dioceses wouldn’t have representation.

The Archbishop of Canterbury had just levied sanctions against The Episcopal Church over a human sexuality issue. And, the most dangerous shoal, the sexuality/blessings issue, was once again looming large.

General Synod 2010 in Halifax could have floundered on any of these rocks, but it didn’t. Instead most-not all, but most-delegates are heading home with a sense of hope that the Anglican Church of Canada will survive and move forward.

Much of this is due to the tone that the Primate, at home here in his native Nova Scotia, set as he presided: informal, unpretentious, even folksy-but when a serious demeanour was required, or prayer, he knew what to do.

When one delegate got his title mixed up, calling him “Your worship”-the title for a bishop-and, apologizing, stuttering out a “Your grace”-an archbishop’s title, the primate just smiled and said: “Fred is fine.”

But twice in the sexuality debates, he called for prayer and the plenary hall fell dead quiet for minutes as delegates prayed for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Importantly, delegates were given lots of opportunity to talk-not only in the large plenary sessions, but in dozens of discussion groups.

There were opportunities to discuss the strategic plan, which the primate endorsed strongly. The church must centre its work on mission and pay special attention to the Anglican Communion’s “Five Marks of Mission.”

General Synod doesn’t actually approve the detailed budget, but a thorough presentation by the financial development management committee and Treasurer Michele George spelled out exactly why the Anglican Church must end large annual deficits and start building up depleted cash reserves.

Delegates fairly easily accepted that CoGS, the governing body between triennial meetings of General Synod, had to become a more streamlined and less expensive body to maintain…and reduced it by 11 members. This means that 11 of the church’s 30 dioceses won’t have representatives on CoGS now, but the primate pointed out that everyone would be heard through the church’s many committees.

He also made a point of praising the U.S. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of The Episcopal Church, who spoke on the sixth day of synod. He echoed her sentiments that the U.S. church is being unfairly treated by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Communion.

In his presidential address, his tone was conciliatory, not angry. He insisted his church remain open to the process that might bring about an Anglican Covenant that the Archbishop of Canterbury wants so badly. “Let’s see where the process leads,” he told delegates.

As usual, the most dangerous issue at General Synod appeared to be sexuality. A motion to formally establish a “local option”-stating that bishops and diocesan synods could decide whether or not to allow priests to bless same-sex couples-was narrowly defeated in 2007 by a few votes in the House of Bishops. The practice wasn’t endorsed, but neither was it forbidden.

With new delegates and especially new bishops, it was certainly possible that the same motion might be passed in this synod. Under Hiltz’s leadership, however, movers and shakers in the church decided that a new discussion process would take place in 2010, and a repeat of the heated, acrimonious debate of General Synod 2007 would be avoided.

Modeled after the “indaba” groups at the Lambeth Conference in 2008, dozens of sessions took place. Discussion went around the circle and every delegate got a chance to participate and be respectfully listened to…or to pass.

Fifteen groups met three times each. Comments were carefully summarized. A meticulously written document was produced. There was no consensus on the issue, or as the document put it, “no common mind.”

The primate took time to speak about all this to a group of about 50 delegates and others at a session organized by the Anglican Communion Alliance, until lately called the Essentials Federation. This group of conservative Anglicans is very much opposed to where they feel the church is headed on sexuality issues. Still, they want to stay.

They asked hard questions and Archbishop Hiltz gave straight answers. At the end of the meeting, most stood up and applauded-something unimaginable three years ago.

Of course, it helped that the Primate had chosen to promote restraint. And it helped that some people who attended General Synod 2007 in Winnipegweren’t attending General Synod 2010 in Halifax. Still, the primate wished out loud that former Anglican Church of Canada bishops Donald Harvey, Ron Ferris, and Malcolm Harding might return and help their former church by working with disaffected Anglicans in a shared episcopal ministry.

The sexuality discernment document was adopted after a respectful debate. It called for more theological and scriptural study, not legislative action. “There can be no imposition of a decision or action for endorsement, but rather we are challenged to live together sharing in the mission of Christ entrusted to us, accepting that different local contexts call at times for different local discernment, decision and action.”

In other words, in those dioceses where same-gendered couples are blessed, they will probably continue to be blessed; in those dioceses where the bishop and many of his priests and people object to blessing, they won’t be performed. And the Anglican Church of Canada will continue on as one big family. Maybe not all its members are happy, but the family unit remains intact.

It seemed that to the primate, as important as keeping peace at home, was keeping peace with the Anglican Communion. Archbishop Hiltz can now send the document his General Synod adopted nearly unanimously (only about 10 dissenting votes) to Canterbury and suggest this is an example of “gracious restraint” that many seem to want.

The Number Two man in the Anglican Communion, Secretary General Canon Kenneth Kearon, a most diplomatic Irishman, wouldn’t comment on what synod had done. “That’s up to the instruments of the Communion,” he said. But his demeanour seemed happy. At one point during a break in the proceedings, he was heard whistling.

The synod has been successful for most, but challenge remains.

The national office downsizing job will be very difficult; it requires both firmness and compassion. Vision 2019 and the Five Marks of Mission will have meaning only if the primate insists people pay attention to them.

CoGS has to be very careful when making decisions that affect dioceses, especially the smaller dioceses (and some larger ones also) that aren’t on the council. The reaction of the Archbishop of Canterbury and other members of the Communion will be most important; how the Covenant process moves forward is critical.

All sides in the sexuality debate will need to show a willingness to listen. Synod has called, once again, for theological and scriptural study of human sexuality and listening to everyone, including gay and lesbian Anglicans. Comments by a few bishops during the debate suggested they felt that this might not be a priority.

Skipper Hiltz avoided rocks, but the ship hasn’t reached safe harbour yet.

 

Neale Adams is a contributing editor to the Anglican Journal and former editor of Topic, the newspaper of the diocese of New Westminster.

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Neale Adams
Neale Adams is a freelance writer in Vancouver. He was former editor of Topic, the newspaper of the diocese of New Westminster.

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