Canadian Bishops’ Voting Powers Stay Intact, for Now

By Jason G. Antonio

After delegates did not approve a revised marriage canon in 2019, General Synod has punted to 2025 a motion that would have reduced bishops’ voting powers.

On the final day of a long General Synod in Calgary, Alberta, the Anglican Church of Canada’s Chancellor David Jones and General Secretary Alan Perry presented two motions: one would reduce the percentage required to pass motions; another would drop the requirement of two consecutive synods approving canonical changes affecting discipline, worship, or doctrine.

After the marriage canon motion failed in 2019, delegates directed the Council of General Synod to review the composition of the membership, rules of order, and procedures of General Synod and propose possible changes.

A two-thirds majority — roughly 67 percent — is required in each order of laity, clergy, and bishops to amend the Declaration of Principles, constitution, and canons dealing with discipline, doctrine, or worship. The church implemented this stipulation in 1983.

This makes it possible for a minority — one-third plus one — of any order to block a change, despite most of each order and more than two-thirds of the entire General Synod being in favor. The change that Jones and Perry proposed — “to make General Synod more nimble,” their report said — would have reduced the voting requirement to 50 percent in each order and two-thirds of all members of General Synod.

Delegates spent almost an hour discussing the proposed changes to the voting requirements — and briefly touched on the second issue — before voting to postpone both matters to 2025.

Heavy Responsibility

The Rev. Noel Wygiera of Calgary explained that he recently celebrated 25 years as a priest, which made him reflect on his responsibilities and relationships with others and the church. It also made him realize that bishops are burdened with decision-making at diocesan and national levels.

“We set them apart to be shepherds of the flock. We set them apart to wisely make decisions for the good of the church,” he said. “While this might be undemocratic, it is our way.”

When Anglicans pray the Nicene Creed, they don’t profess belief in a democratic church, Wygiera added. While the number of bishops is small, that group bears a larger responsibility to uphold the church than do laity or clergy.

Finn Keesmaat-Walsh, a lay delegate from Toronto, said that while having orders is beautiful and each group plays a special role, “a just church” would not allow a small minority to defeat a motion.

Keesmaat-Walsh referred to the marriage canon failure in 2019, when 72.1 percent of the house was in favor, but 14 bishops were opposed, and the motion failed. Keesmaat-Walsh thought this change would make the Anglican Church of Canada more equitable.

“My voice as a lay youth delegate is just as important as [any bishop’s]. Each one of our voices is just as important. Each one of our votes is just as important,” Keesmaat-Walsh said. “And I think that this will help that become the reality in how we make decisions.”

During their synod in May, Indigenous delegates discussed everything but had no debates, and instead relied on a consensus decision-making model, said Amos Winter of the Diocese of Mishamikoweesh. If there is disagreement, members give the issue to the bishop, who decides in consultation with the elders and senior clergy.

“Yes, we might disagree with our bishops sometimes, but they are put there by God,” he said. “They are given that ultimate call from the Most High, anointed and appointed by God to take that burden and carry the people to the promised land; that’s their ultimate goal.”

Wisdom is for Everyone

When Anglicans are baptized, they are anointed with the sign of the cross, guaranteeing them as Christ’s own and making them full members of the church, said Bishop Shane Parker of Ottawa. He supported this change because he believed it respected the integrity of the body of Christ, “the community of the baptized, where wisdom dwells.”

While the three orders have different viewpoints and levels of responsibility, he wasn’t convinced that wisdom was bestowed on one order over others during ordination or consecration. Instead, he thought God bestowed wisdom on everyone at baptism.

What brings wisdom is experience, and bishops acquire plenty of experience traveling around their dioceses, visiting urban and rural parishes, said the Rev. Alan Getty of Calgary, and hearing many things from many people. That acquired wisdom is one reason the episcopal order has a stronger voice.

“In a representative democracy, you are elected to represent your constituency, and might I suggest that the constituency of our bishops is much greater than that of either laity or clergy combined,” Getty said. “They speak with a voice greater than anyone else because they connect with so many more people … and can bring so much more experience, which I think gives them that wisdom.”

Getty said the motion also eroded the church’s apostolic identity.

Setting the Bar High

Bishop David Greenwood of Athabasca said that when he makes important decisions, he prayerfully discerns the healthiest course for his diocese and church by consulting with Jesus Christ, the Bible, early Church Fathers, and other bishops.

“In my mind, guarding [the Faith] implies responsibility. In Christ, I am responsible for the health of the church and of my diocese. And everything I do is focused to it; it is my entire job,” he said. “I falter and I fail and I try.”

The church’s forebears deliberately set the voting standards high to guard the Faith, Greenwood said. He thought approving the motion meant delegates wanted to be free of constraints, and to have less oversight and “presumptuous” guarding — and more advice and friendship. But, he said, offering advice and friendship don’t carry the same weight of responsibility that a bishop is called to bear.

Nigel Shaw, with the Military Ordinariate, thought the motion was balanced and allowed the church to respond to a changing world. He believed every order should have its perspective and the ability, through a majority vote, to approve or reject a motion.

“The ability of bishops to provide that safeguarding of the Faith is retained. If a majority of bishops feel that a motion is inappropriate, it will not pass,” he said, noting that lowering the threshold makes it easier for a majority to approve or veto a vote.

“We are a democratic nation, and I don’t feel that it will hurt the church to embody a bit more democracy and equal voice in its orders,” Shaw said.

Governing the Church’s Speed

The Rev. Rick Reed from Saskatchewan recalled riding go-carts as a youth and learning that a device called a “governor” prevented the machine from going too fast. He suggested that bishops played a similar role at General Synod.

“And our Anglican tradition has always held a special role and respect for our bishops, even though we don’t always agree with them,” he said. “This proposal … diminishes this reality and takes away from their important calling in our church and … will change the church forever.”

Reed thought there should be more consensus on important issues, while he didn’t think Jesus wanted the church to remove synod’s governor device and make decisions with lower thresholds.

While the postponed governance motions may come back to the next General Synod, changes could also be made by the Council of General Synod. Chancellor David Jones, chairman of the Governance Working Group, announced that he will retire within the year.


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