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New possibility: Reflections on the statement of the Canadian House of Bishops

In the mid-1960s the Anglican Church of Canada commissioned the well-known agnostic writer and journalist Pierre Berton to offer his insights into the declining status of the Anglican Church in our country. As an outsider, Berton did not pull any punches; his greatest criticism was that Anglicans had developed a cloistered church culture that was cut off from Canadian society and for that reason risked becoming irrelevant. Rather than challenging the nation with its prophetic voice, the Church had grown complacent in its own little corner of society. Berton’s opinions were published as The Comfortable Pew (1965), and the general views that it expressed continue to haunt Canadian Anglicanism to this day.

For some, the recent House of Bishops’ statement (Feb. 29, 2016) will no doubt be a disappointment, as the church once again demonstrates its moral sluggishness and isolation. According to Berton, an institution that claims to be prophetic cannot affirm the most recent developments in public opinion; it must somehow be able to anticipate where the public mood is drifting. But in the Anglican Church the instruments of unity that exist on diocesan, national, and communion levels ensure that as things move, they move carefully. As human beings we are liable to err and for this reason, knowledge of the Spirit’s activity in the Church cannot be easily assumed. The certainties of Berton’s understanding of the prophetic can quickly lead to impatience with this kind of discernment, and it can lead to resentment towards organized religion in general. It sets a standard for the Church that the Church cannot meet, and then resents the Church for failing to meet it. Sadly, for the past few decades, mainline Protestant Churches have frequently been found dragging in the wake of progressive moral advances. In certain cases, the Anglican Church of Canada has rightly been called to account by our society. The residential school system for indigenous Canadians is an obvious example, and today there is widespread consensus among Canadian Anglicans that the Church has much to be sorry for. Moreover, the moral narrative that stems from the residential school system influence contemporary discussions regarding same-sex marriage: there is a genuine and understandable fear that the Church will once again act as the agent of exclusion and intolerance.

But not all “moral advances” can be easily located in an overarching narrative of progress. In a confusing and chaotic moral landscape it is tempting for Anglicans to give up on the patterns and forms of corporate discernment that allow us to hear God’s voice. To this end, as hesitating and cautious as the Bishops’ statement may be, something very important was said, something that might even approach prophecy, albeit in a very different sense.

Despite the pain and distress we feel at our own differences, yet we strongly affirm that we are united in striving for the highest degree of communion possible in the spirit of St Paul’s teaching of the nature of the body of Christ and our need for one another in Christ, where no one can say, ‘I have no need of you’ (1 Cor. 12.21).

One could quibble about what the “highest degree of communion possible” actually means, but the force of the statement is that Christian unity and mutual forbearance are at least as or more important than proceeding with a canonical amendment that could pull the Church apart.

A casual glance through social media reactions demonstrates that this seemingly measured statement has already cut across the grain of Canadian society. The statement quickly stirred outrage and indignation from certain individuals, such that one can only wonder what will follow. But regardless of individual bishop’s views on the matter at hand, the statement is powerful and the reactions may prove its power. Traditionally minded Christians in Canada have good reason to wonder if their society needs them, in the Pauline sense of the word “need.” At least for the time being, it seems our bishops and spiritual leaders are willing — perhaps grudgingly in the case of the “mortified” progressive voices — to risk the hostility and criticism of our culture for the sake of making this affirmation and for the health and common life of our Church.

Thus, the statement evinces a conscious distance from Berton’s understanding of the prophetic. But there is more than that: a movement towards a different, more traditional understanding of the prophetic vocation of the Church. This understanding is accompanied, in this case, by a willingness to tolerate views that run contrary to the ebb and flow of popular opinion. But this is not the heart of the matter, at least as far as the House of Bishops is concerned. What matters most is the strong affirmation that the Anglican Church of Canada must attend to its God-given communal nature, not merely as an unfortunate contingency but as the grounds of its divine vocation. Following the strong affirmation that was made along these lines at the Primates’ Meeting, the Canadian House of Bishops has publically acknowledged the inherent complexity of lurching forward into new territory without consensus, legislative or otherwise.

This may not be the kind of prophetic witness Pierre Berton was thinking of — indeed it may appear to some like a return to a certain kind of moral complacency or cowardice. But it actually opens up a new possibility, should the agreement among the bishops endure. In a culture in which individualism has all but destroyed communal identity, in a culture torn apart by ideological and racial divisions, the Anglican Church of Canada suddenly finds itself in the place where it can powerfully affirm that in journeying together we might discover the Spirit’s leading and will for the Church.

In this sense, none of us — liberal or conservative — know exactly what the Anglican Church of Canada should be in the future. It seems there will be a vote at General Synod on the marriage canon (according to the Chancellor of General Synod, David Jones), which means that between now and then there will be no shortage of maneuvering among various parties. In an article in the Anglican Journal, the Primate, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, estimated that a third of the bishops were “wrestling” with the decision (Tali Folkins, “Bishops split three ways over same-sex issue: Hiltz,” March 3, 2016 ). It is difficult to see an entirely happy ending in any outcome.

What is clear is that changing the marriage canon would do severe damage to the Church’s unity, both nationally and globally. In the words of our primate, a bishop is called to be “a good shepherd of the flock of Christ, one who builds up the body of Christ and one who is a focus of unity for the whole church.” To the degree that this conviction reflects the House of Bishop’s statement, they should be commended. And we should continue to pray for their ministry as we pray for the whole Church, that somehow in the coming months and years, the power of God working in us may do more than we could ever ask or imagine.

Other posts by Dane Neufeld are here


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