By Mark Michael

Five prominent conservative priests of the Diocese of Toronto have issued a plea to the Anglican Church of Canada’s House of Bishops for a “20-year ceasefire” in intra-church conflict about human sexuality. In an open letter published in response to their Diocesan Synod, they propose establishing a church-wide system of divided episcopal oversight. Clergy would be given the right to follow their own convictions, affiliating with bishops who either accept the church’s “received teaching” or the “experimental” endorsement of same-sex marriage.

“The outer limits cannot at present,” they say, “be contained in the same body because the resulting tension is both destructive and fatal. [Our proposal] is to declare a 20-year ceasefire and to give what has become two distinct realms the freedom to conduct their ministries according to their truest lights and to show the fruit of their ministry. Call it the Gamaliel Experiment. Keep it simple. For the sake of the unity of the church, limit the division to bishops and clergy. Parishes would retain a certain independence and remain able, as they now are, to seek and request a change in direction when a successor is appointed.”

The signatories include two professors at Wycliffe College, Toronto: theologian Ephraim Radner and New Testament professor Catherine Sider-Hamilton.  Diocesan priests Dean Mercer and Murray Henderson joined them in issuing an open letter to the House of Bishops before last summer’s General Synod, calling on them to uphold a traditional doctrine of marriage. Canon lawyer Ajit John, the fifth signatory to the recent letter, also wrote an essay published on Covenant last week expressing deep concern about conservative clergy being forced to “get with the program” on same-sex marriage in progressive dioceses.

“What General Synod and the Toronto Synod revealed,” said signatory Dean Mercer, “is that, under the banners of “experimental” and “loving,” the rift in the church over fundamentals is complete — doctrine, discipline, liturgy and canon law.  The church has become a bundle of contradictions. We hear the argument that a degree of contradiction reflects the vitality of the church.  But some contradictions are destructive.  That is what we see.  And either the church becomes one thing — a progressive sect – or strong provisions need to be offered to protect its self-declared identity as a broad church.”

Mercer’s “bundle of contradictions” is reflected in the varied ways that Canadian dioceses have responded to the Canadian House of Bishops surprising rejection of a proposal to change the doctrine of marriage at last summer’s General Synod. Many dioceses, including Toronto, have continued to allow same-sex marriages as a “local option.” These dioceses appeal to a 2016 memorandum by David Jones, General Synod’s chancellor, who held that that the church’s existing marriage canon does not specifically forbid same-sex unions.

Conservatives have sharply criticized Jones’ memorandum. Sharon Dewey Hetke of the Anglican Communion Alliance told TLC, “An aspect of this conflict is the sense of betrayal of process.  After years of agonizing conversations, wrestling and discernment at all levels of the church, we are told that the canon we have been discussing is not really the hinge for this discussion after all… some leaders in our church are simply determined to proceed, regardless of canons, and even due process. There is also a sense that a chancellor’s opinion (not a ruling, although some are calling it that) which has never been debated or substantially discussed on the floor of synod, has simply been allowed to usurp the discussion–as one writer put it, we have done an ‘end run’ on marriage.”

Toronto, the church’s largest diocese, has allowed same-sex commitment ceremonies since 2010 and same-sex marriages since 2016.  Bishop Kevin Robertson, a Toronto suffragan, was married to his same-sex partner in a ceremony in the diocesan cathedral in December, 2018. According to the diocesan website, 25 of Toronto’s 217 parishes are authorized to perform same-sex marriages, and an additional five parishes also bless same-gender commitments.

On October 19, diocesan bishop Andrew Asbill announced plans to revise the existing diocesan process for authorizing the practice, while consulting “with the primate, the House of Bishops, the College of Bishops, clergy and lay leaders to more clearly understand what we mean by ‘local option.’ He said, “We are working toward the day when all may be welcomed to be married in the Church. Every couple who desires Christian marriage in the Diocese of Toronto will have that opportunity. And every priest who wants to officiate at same-sex weddings will receive permission. It’s my hope to have new procedures in place by Pentecost 2020.”

The open letter specifically responded to Toronto’s November 9-10 diocesan synod, characterizing “the ruling ethos of the diocese” revealed by it as “living by the open sexual ethic of the local option, in public defiance of the church’s canons, according to a faith that is unrecognizable by the received standards of the Christian faith and indistinguishable from the secular mores of Canada’s cultural elite.”

Toronto suffragan bishop Jenny Andison, who serves as area bishop for York-Crediton Valley, disputed the writers’ contention that traditionalists are no longer valued. “I am not sure the language of a ‘ceasefire’ is particularly helpful, since the position of the College of Bishops in Toronto is that we are a ‘big-tent Diocese’ where there is a cherished place for those who believe Christian marriage is between one man and one woman. It has been repeatedly affirmed [that] those who hold to this view of Christian marriage are welcome to hold, teach and practice this theological position.  Clergy who hold to this position are found across the breadth of our diocese, in parishes large and small, rural and urban.”

The open letter also connected this progressive vision with the drastic decline in church participation charted in the statistical report recently received by the church’s Council of General Synod on November 9. The report set 2040 as the church’s “zero-member date” if current trends remain unaltered. The open letter’s authors proposed their twenty-year “ceasefire” as a plan for “the last leg of the journey” for the Anglican Church of Canada, and as an opportunity for each side of the conflict “to be judged by the fruit of their ministry for the sake of Christ and his church.”

Titling their proposal a “Gamaliel Experiment,” emphasizes this desire to see the fruit of the two sides. In Acts 5, Gamaliel, a prominent Pharisee, called for mercy for the apostles when they were arrested for proclaiming the resurrection. Gamliel said to his fellow members of the Sanhedrin, “In the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:38-39).

Andison affirmed that the ministry of conservative churches and clergy is valued and often vibrant: “In the Diocese of Toronto we have the size and flexibility to not have to create separate structures in order to enable people with differing views on the nature of Christian marriage to flourish in ministry,” she told TLC. Such flourishing is already happening!  Of the over 40% of our nearly 200 parishes that are numerically growing or are numerically stable, a good number of them would be led by clergy who hold to the traditional view on marriage.”

Mercer, however, believes that the dramatic decline is related to hostility against traditionalist “One clear element in decline is the departure of many traditional members of the ACoC,” he told TLC, “including many who have had the heart and skills for evangelism.  This is quantifiable:  the ACoC has lost (and driven out) traditional members as well as the skills to grow in the face of the larger forces of decline.  Finding a way to keep traditionalists in the church is a growth-oriented calling that a responsible House of Bishops should want to pursue.”

The open letter proposed few specifics, but like the Episcopal Church, the Canadian church authorized shared episcopal ministry in 2004, building on the recommendations of the Windsor Report.  Steps were taken toward shared episcopal oversight in the Diocese of New Westminster, and it was first implemented in the Diocese of Montreal in 2010, after the then-bishop decided to permit same-sex blessings.  The arrangements in Montreal terminated with the retirement of Bishop Barry Clark in 2015, according to Bishop Stephen Andrews, Principal of Wycliffe College.

The open letter specifically appeals to the way that alternative oversight within the Episcopal Church has been coordinated by the Communion Partner Bishops. Six active Canadian bishops are currently part of that body. The proposal, though, bears some resemblance to the more extensive arrangements used to accommodate those who oppose the ordination of women in the Church of England. That system, though, specifically asks parish churches to opt into the alternative structure.

“Versions of alternative oversight are out there and functioning, and they include both TEC [the Episcopal Church] and the Church of England,” said Mercer. “That’s our point.  It’s a hard time, alternative oversight is less than ideal, but provisional measures are functioning elsewhere and, in pursuing these, all parties do their best to avoid schism.  The circumstances that led to the provisions offered in TEC and the Church of England exist here.  Why not similar provisions of support?”

Canada’s Diocese of the Arctic declared itself in impaired communion with the wider Anglican Church of Canada last July.  The decision to be a “self-determining church” was declared after a series of diocesan bishops, including new primate Archbishop Linda Nicholls, declared that they would continue to permit same-sex blessings, even though the canonical change failed in General Synod.

Bishop Joey Royal, a suffragan in the Arctic and a Communion Partner told TLC that he didn’t know if the open letter signatories see their proposal as similar in any way to the statement from the Arctic bishops. “Our statement was addressed to our fellow bishops with the intention of differentiating ourselves from those who see the current marriage canon as permitting same-sex marriage. We view the canon as definitional and thus disagree with the Chancellor and those who have accepted his opinion. I think the question we’re all facing is: how are Canadian Anglicans to work together in such a way as to allow everyone the greatest chance of flourishing?”

Andrews thinks that dramatic decline and inter-church divisions are creating a challenging context for the students being trained for the Anglican ministry at Wycliffe College, one of Canadian Anglicanism’s largest seminaries. “Some students are nervous about what the future holds for them, but I don’t know how much their anxieties would be lessened by some policy on shared ministry,” Andrews told TLC. I continue to be impressed by the courage and witness of our graduates who have chosen to serve the Church at a time of great transition and insecurity. A number have been ordained or have taken up appointments in dioceses where their bishops would hold theological views that contrast greatly with their own.

“I know that at the [Toronto diocesan synod] a couple of grads spoke quite compassionately and compellingly about what it was like to hold traditional views in a divided Church. I have been told that the bishop found their contributions moving.”

Ephraim Radner, Ajit John and Stephen Andrews are members of the Living Church Foundation.