Part of a series leading up to the Anglican Church of Canada’s 2019 General Synod. Previous installments may be found here.

By Cole Hartin

The church is changing. The center of gravity is shifting from North to South. Historic denominations have been hollowed out. Global Christianity has grown increasingly Pentecostal. The Church is not what it was even 20 or 30 years ago.

This is especially the case in the Anglican Communion.

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In the past years the Episcopal Church has essentially ceased to be episcopal. General Convention now makes the doctrinal calls over the heads of bishops, who become liable to disciplinary action based on those doctrinal changes. Conversely, the Anglican Church of Canada has reemphasized episcopal authority, upholding the personal convictions of bishops even if these convictions are innovative or out of step with commonly held Christian doctrine and biblical teaching. The collapse and reconstruction of episcopal identity has been played out within the larger cultural discussion of sexual freedom, and this impinges on the witness of the Christian Church.

Currently, in the Anglican Church of Canada, ethical and theological questions have been put aside as the canonical validity of same-sex marriage is coming to the table. Each bishop has settled these questions in his or her own mind: either same-sex marriages should be celebrated regardless of canon law, or they should not be, regardless of canon law.

As we approach General Synod 2019 the legal questions become: Should our current canon law be reinterpreted to allow for the decisions certain bishops are already making? Should canon law be rewritten to allow for them?  Or should we steer clear of canonical expansion, simply allowing bishops and their dioceses to carry on as they will? We have yet to see how this has all to be settled.

No matter how General Synod turns out, the question that all Anglicans face is how to move forward in their own vocations as Christians, especially if they believe their bishops to be undermining the words of Jesus.

Generally speaking, there are four possible scenarios in which individuals may find themselves, two of which would involve some tension, and two of which would not:

  1. One broadly favors same-sex marriage, and has a bishop who has performed or will perform such marriages.
  2. One broadly favors same-sex marriage, but has a bishop who does not.
  3. One broadly favors the traditional Christian teaching on marriage, and has a bishop who also does.
  4. One broadly favors the traditional Christian teaching on marriage, but has a bishop who performs or is in a same-sex marriage.

This essay considers the situation of Christians who occupy this fourth position. What responses are available for them?

Before these suggestions, allow me to offer a word about how we approach our bishops. We should assume, with charity, that they have the best intentions, even if we believe their actions are deeply wrong. Our bishops are our fathers and mothers in the faith, but like our biological mothers and fathers, they can get things wrong.  We must correct them gently, offering good reasons and persuasive arguments while respecting them, knowing they are not trying to dismantle the faith, even if we believe they have grievously erred.

My hope is that for conservative bishops (or priests or deacons or lay people), our progressive brothers and sisters would treat us the same way, not as those who are actively trying quench the Holy Spirit, but as those who are honestly convinced we are keeping to God’s will, though they believe us to be seriously wrong.

With that in mind here are seven practical tips for conservatives who are struggling to come to terms with their lives under a bishop who they feel is opposing the teaching of Christ:

  1. Love and Pray for Your Bishop(s)

An important initial response should be the commitment to continue to love and pray for one’s bishop, no matter how wrong they appear. Bishops need our prayers when things are going well, and all the more when they are pressed to make difficult decisions. All of us must approach them as Christ’s beloved servants.

Pray that God would give them grace, open their eyes to his truth, and desire what is best for them.  Don’t harbour hatred or bitterness in your heart.

  1. Communicate with Your Bishop(s)

From here, it is appropriate to let your bishops know where you stand. Send them a letter or email telling them. Before stating your concerns, remind them you are praying for them, that you love them, but that there are serious issues of concern to you. Gently offer a reasoned response to their decisions.

  1. Lay People: Survey the Shifting Landscape

The next step is to assess the individual circumstances. What will it mean for you as a lay person? How will it affect the congregation where you worship?

These are questions that individuals will have to discern for themselves. If you are a lay person living under the authority of a bishop who endorses or is in a same-sex marriage, will this affect you on a day-to-day basis? Are you heavily involved at a diocesan level, or are you probably only going to encounter your bishop once a year? Prayerfully consider how you might be faithful to Christ throughout this time. If you are able to live respectfully with them while dissenting, be blessed as you do so.

  1. Ordained People: Survey the Shifting Landscape

Matters are more complicated for the ordained. Are you willing to serve under a bishop with whom you profoundly disagree in teaching and in witness? Some may be able to do this in good conscience. Others may not.

What are the options? Ideally a priest will remain the pastor of the parish she has been called to serve. This might mean requesting alternative episcopal oversight from a bishop who continues to uphold the received doctrine of marriage.  If this is not an option, be forthright about your bishop and ask them about next steps. It may mean moving to another diocese.

  1. Ordained and Lay together: Request Alternative Episcopal Oversight

While there will be questions that need to be addressed within parishes first, if lay people and clergy together that feel unable to serve their bishop as he or she moves forward with a new vision with marriage, talk to him or her about alternative oversight. There is precedent for this in other Anglican churches, as a well as canonical precedent in the Anglican Church of Canada. A conservative diocesan or retired bishop may be able to give leadership to parishes who feel they can no longer in good conscience serve with their diocesan.

  1. Network

You are not alone. Seek out other Anglicans committed to the renewal and defense of the faith. Pray with them, support one another, spur each other on to faithful witness. Seek out ecumenical friends who have been through the same sort of situations. Ask for their prayers and wisdom.

  1. Remember the Mission

We strive for unity and mutual understanding as Christians because all of us together have a mission to proclaim the gospel and make disciples of all people. Our fractiousness not only consumes time and energy, but diverts us from the mission God has given to all of us. Recognizing our common mission will help us work together for Christ’s sake as we resolve our differences.

As we seek to move forward in this time of great change within the Church, we must remember that ultimately the Church is God’s. It is Christ’s body, and he is the head, leading and forming it where it must go. Our hope is not in our planning or strategies but in God who is making all things new. We must respect the way the Church is ordered, even as we groan with all creation, eagerly awaiting our adoption and the redemption of our bodies. We live in faith, looking forward in hope.

The Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin is assistant curate at St. Luke’s in Saint John, New Brunswick. He recently finished his PhD at Wycliffe College, working on the interpretation of Scripture in the Victorian Church of England.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin is assistant curate at St. Luke’s in Saint John, New Brunswick. He recently finished his PhD at Wycliffe College, working on the interpretation of Scripture in the Victorian Church of England.

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[…] one level, Cole Hartin’s article “Episcopal Authority in a Changing Church” offers fair and practical pastoral advice to folks who find themselves in deep tension with their […]