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There Is Virtue in Waiting

At its General Synod this year the Anglican Church of Canada will consider a Constitutional change that would diminish the role of its House of Bishops in ordering the life and affairs of the church. In view of this proposal, and for the sake of informed, responsible decisions at the Synod, we have gathered essays from historians and theologians about the role of the historic episcopate within Anglican ecclesiology. 

By Dane Neufeld

What follows are a few comments on the proposals made by the Governance Working Group (GWG) that will be presented to the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada this summer. Unfortunately, these comments are not likely to be more interesting than the proposals, but I would like to assure readers that beneath the dry, housecleaning appearance of these proposals, there are weighty and serious theological matters to consider. These matters include the nature of Christian doctrine, the role of bishops, and the character of ecclesial discernment.

The proposals of the GWG that are being placed before General Synod are essentially aimed at making it easier for General Synod to change canons related to doctrine. As routine as these proposals may seem, they clearly stem from the direct experience of GS 2019 and the failure of the marriage canon amendment to pass a second reading. It is obvious from the documents presented to the Council of General Synod that a number of specific circumstances from 2019 have been thoroughly discussed.

There are two main proposals that impinge upon a wide variety of larger theological concerns. First, there is a proposal to remove the need for two successive synods to amend canons that deal with doctrine, worship, or discipline. While there may be no God-given time frame in which to make these decisions, the rationale for shortening the time frame to just one General Synod is threefold: modern communication methods make the sharing of information much easier, the composition of successive synods is often very different, and this would allow the church to change its doctrine much more quickly, in response to “more quickly changing circumstances” (5).

On the matter of the changing composition of successive synods, it is difficult to grasp the point. In part, the fact that different people, though not entirely, comprise each synod ensures that the circumstances and context of each synod do not have a disproportionate influence on the whole. This is a good thing, especially when related to central teachings of the Church: one group of delegates cannot make the change on their own, and whatever they approve will need the blessing of another whole group of representatives. This is indeed cumbersome, but if we are to believe that the Holy Spirit is our guide in these matters, in theory we should not fear entrusting the gospel, given to us in jars of clay, to our brothers and sisters in the Lord who will gather after us.

The point about modern communication methods is also interesting. Of course, great books have been written about the development of doctrine, and there is a whole theological tradition that discusses this very topic, but it would seem there is not enough time to get into this kind of thing. The world is quickly changing, the church must quickly change as well. This new provision could be so successful that we could conceivably change our doctrine every three years if needed, a time frame which may itself prove onerous in due course. Why not every year? If the wonders of modern communications are the decisive element when considering the doctrines of the Church, why would we stop at every three years?

As everyone knows, there is value is pausing before taking advantage of the lightning speeds of modern communication. If anything, modern communication has only served to underscore the importance of careful and prayerful discernment in the life of a community, which I understood was more at issue in this procedure than waiting for the mail to arrive. Though it only takes days for matters of importance to be devoured and forgotten in our media cycles, one would hope that the Church could witness to a more enduring and stable reality that is set apart from, and not trying to catch up to, the frantic pace of modern media. There might be a reason to change the time frame of two successive synods to alter church doctrine, but I would hope for something much deeper and theologically reasoned than what has been offered here.

The other proposal of note recommends that canons of doctrine, worship, or discipline be amendable by two-thirds of the entire General Synod and only a majority of each house. Again, we are not aware of any specific scriptural voting procedure or method, but the rationale for such a change should probably be substantial and rooted in theological and spiritual reasoning. The rationale given, however, is largely statistical. Because one-third of the bishops could veto a motion, in essence, 6 percent of the members of General Synod could ruin it for all the others. While I did not know that the number was 6 percent, I was generally aware that a small number could defeat a proposal. I also understood that was part of the idea. The agreement of the houses represents the different areas of ministry within the Church, which we all understand is not directly proportionate to the numbers of people. The time may come when there are as many bishops as priests, and as many bishops as lay people in our Church, but we are not there yet.

Bishops are indeed representative figures in our church, not merely of population, but as it says in the Book of Alternative Services, “You are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church” (636). This commitment to represent the teaching of the Church — “I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the word of God” (BAS, 635) — and its unity across time and geography is really the central calling of bishops. The rationale for this amendment suggests that we should be gravely concerned that 6 percent of General Synod could veto the desires of the rest, while the amendment proposes a situation in which General Synod could overrule nearly half of the House of Bishops. Would we feel comfortable as a Church making a major change to our doctrines that only half of our bishops supported? In an already divided church, this feels like an invitation to further division. If this is what we want as a Church, we should say so, defend it, and not bury it in the latent implications of a governance working group.

Perhaps one thing that unites us as Anglicans is our love of indirect discourse, especially in the face of controversial matters. It is much easier to discuss canons than sex, much easier to speak about the details of procedures and voting than the character, possibilities, and limitations of our sexual lives, carried out within God’s creation. While some will say that we have been talking about these issues for decades, some of us wonder if we have even begun. What guidance does our church offer today for young people navigating the powerful and confusing reality of sexual desire?

These proposals from the GWG take indirect discourse to a whole new level. I too would feel uneasy and nervous about an initiative to get at the heart of the matter on human sexuality. At this point it may not even be possible. But these shortcuts and end runs only make the situation worse. One cannot bracket out elements of the Christian life from theological reality, or avoid the theological implications of one problem by diving into another. Every direction we turn, we are held accountable: “Where can I go from your Spirit” (Ps. 139). If it is not sexuality, then it is episcopacy, the development of doctrine, the consensus of the Holy Spirit, and the character of the Church as Christ’s body.

In the end, there is not an exact number or ratio in our voting procedures that will guarantee a truthful outcome. As our articles say: “councils … may err, and sometimes have erred” (Article XXI). The authority of any council is dependent on Scripture: “it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s word written” (Article XX). I am aware that this does not make complicated matters simple, but perhaps our fundamental orientation toward complex doctrinal questions should be driven primarily by further and deeper scriptural engagement. If there is no agreement, if the way forward is not clear, rather than trying to force certain outcomes, maybe we are being called to a deeper openness to God’s guidance, and to a unity in the Holy Spirit that is patient and kind.

Dane Neufeld is the incumbent of St. James, in the diocese of Calgary. He and his family moved to Calgary 2 years ago, after 7 years in Fort McMurray, where he served as rector of All Saints. Dane is a proud graduate of Wycliffe College and a lover of the great outdoors.

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