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General Synod and A Word to the Church

By Dane Neufeld

Prior to the vote on amending the marriage canon to include same-sex marriage at the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, a document called A Word to the Church, which included five basic affirmations, was passed by 87% of the delegates. The affirmations were presented by the Council of General Synod, and attempted to describe the disagreement within our Church, and to outline some basic commitments that were common to all Canadian Anglicans.

It could be argued that if we had all gone home after voting on these affirmations, much of the pain that resulted from General Synod’s other decisions could have been avoided and we may have been the better for it. But as it happened, we proceeded to the debate and vote on the marriage canon amendment, the failure of which unleashed an avalanche of protest, accusation, and ill will that in many ways will form the lasting characterization of General Synod 2019 for many of those who were present.

While it seemed that A Word to the Church was the kind of document that could have forestalled or even avoided the debate on the marriage canon amendment, we now know that for many, the truce it offered was contingent, at least in part, on successful passage of the amendment itself. When the canon amendment failed, people turned to A Word to the Church, the second affirmation in particular, as the warrant for “local option,” the discretion of individual dioceses to determine their own approach to same-sex marriage. As a result, these affirmations have suddenly become one of our leading sources on Christian marriage, because it is no longer clear what purchase the canon itself has on our common life.

What follows are a few brief reflections on the character and limitations of the affirmations which we passed at General Synod, not as a matter of doctrine, voted on by orders, but as a statement with a status that is unclear. Much more could be said about this document and its various implications, but the conversation has to begin somewhere.

Affirmation #1: Indigenous Spiritual Self-Determination

Whatever the action of the church at this General Synod, we affirm the right of Indigenous persons and communities to spiritual self-determination in their discernment and decisions regarding same-sex marriage.

Whatever the spirit in each delegate’s own mind, this affirmation was intended to give space to indigenous Anglicans to discern their own way forward on this question. However, it does seem that at least some delegates anticipated that this affirmation would mollify indigenous opposition to the canon change. While of course indigenous delegates were not of one mind, we can be fairly sure that this anticipation was misguided. Whatever self-determination means, as the vocation evolves, I think most Canadian Anglicans do not want to close our ears to the witness of indigenous Anglicans, as they pursue their own calling within our Church. In some respects, we should expect that as the indigenous Church grows and engages the Scriptures and their traditions and history, their witness within our Church will become more pointed and urgent.

Affirmation #2: Diverse Understandings of the Existing Canon

We affirm that, while there are different understandings of the existing Marriage Canon, those bishops and synods who have authorized liturgies for the celebration and blessing of a marriage between two people of the same sex understand that the existing Canon does not prohibit same-sex marriage.

This is the strangest of the affirmations and the it is the one that generated the most debate. When one delegate questioned the chancellor’s memo distributed in 2016 which argued that the existing canon does not prohibit same sex marriage, no one rose to defend this particular interpretation of the canon. The memo itself, and the “understanding” that many have taken of the canon, represents a now established position that needs to be discussed and engaged.

That this affirmation has now formed the foundation of local option for many bishops is peculiar because at no point have we even discussed or debated the diverse understandings of the canon. If our personal understandings of canons now form the basis of our action, we might wonder about the integrity of any common decisions and procedures. Is this a one-time, never to be repeated exception, or have we implicitly given up on a mutually binding order? Time will only tell what kind of precedent we have now established.

Affirmation #3: Diverse Understandings and Teachings

We acknowledge the ongoing reality that there is a diversity of understandings and teachings about marriage in the Anglican Church of Canada, and we affirm the prayerful integrity with which those understandings and teachings are held.

The final three affirmations are perhaps the most noble spirited, if perhaps overly aspirational. We know from the debate on the floor of synod itself that many people did not seem to affirm the prayerful integrity of traditionalists on this matter. At the same time, traditionalists themselves may not hold the progressive view in a much higher regard. Is this too much to ask of vying theological parties? It certainly begs the question of why God would allow the prayerful integrity of Christian people to lead them into such a fundamental disagreement. Either God has desired this division, or we lack prayerful integrity, or some combination of these things has led us into a state of incomprehension. General Synod was saturated in talk about the Holy Spirit but all that invocation could not deliver us from the ugliness and hostility of division. Though I am sure there is such a thing as good disagreement, I do not believe we witnessed it at General Synod.

Affirmation #4: Our Commitment to Presume Good Faith

We affirm our commitment to presume good faith among those who hold diverse understandings and teachings, and hold dear their continued presence in this church.

This will certainly be difficult because our convictions on marriage are not mere viewpoints, but they are rooted in moral and spiritual realities as well. No matter what our position on the matter, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that somewhere along the way, someone who holds the opposing view from us went astray in their reasoning and discernment. The Scriptures themselves provide a varied framework for understanding false teachers, those who are mistaken, those who have been led astray, those who are ignorant, confused or divisive. These things are not all equivalent but it would be hard to argue, scripturally, that some of these postures should be held dear within our Church.

It was hardly surprising when the sentiments of this affirmation in particular evaporated at General Synod, because it is extremely difficult to articulate our differences without implicating our opponents in some kind of serious error of spiritual judgment. All the preparatory work with table groups on good conversations was helpful and meaningful, but in the end, it was not powerful enough — how could it have been — to keep a lid on the passionately held convictions and judgments of delegates. It seems to me we will need something stronger than the presumption of good faith to hold us together, something like the suffering, cruciform love of Christ.

Affirmation #5: Our Commitment to Stand Together

We affirm our commitment to walk together and to preserve communion, one with another, in Christ, within this church, within our Anglican Communion, and with our ecumenical partners.

Again, our inner resources to follow this final affirmation will be severely tested and we will need a theological foundation strong enough to weather insults, relational wounds, and the spiritual clouds that descend over a divided Church. The notion of impaired communion has now entered into our ecclesial landscape and that should put us on edge. We will not be able to gloss our way to unity, nor can we bury our heads in our own work and simply hope for the best.

In this regard I can only speak as a conservative, for whom remaining within the Anglican Church of Canada will depend on our ability to build networks and community amongst ourselves, even as we engage the larger Church. It will be important for us to deepen our theology of marriage, our scriptural engagement, and not blunt its edges to try and keep the peace. I think this can be done while continuing to work with and befriend those who disagree with us. We should seek greater clarity on what we think and believe, without exaggerating the ways we have been offended, nurturing our wounds or speaking dismissively or harshly of others. I hope that this can be reciprocated by those on the other side of the issue. Midway through synod I was contemplating my other marketable skills, but by the end I was motivated once more to return to my ministry, to serve Christ within this Church which is still, no doubt, his.

A Word to the Church has some descriptive value, as it lays out our situation, and it has provided a temporary resting place where we can catch our breath. But going forward, it carries too many unchallenged assumptions and internal inconsistencies to offer us much help. I have some sympathy with those who have questioned the value of the legislative process for doctrinal decisions, but the finality of the vote, in this case, pulled the mask off some of our well-intentioned but inadequate pieties. Our divisions, if they are to be somehow overcome, cannot be managed or controlled but only given over to God in humility and self-surrender. May God give us grace to persevere and follow our Lord until the end.

The Rev. Dr. Dane Neufeld is the rector of All Saints Fort McMurray


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