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What We Need From Our Bishops

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. 

In answer to the question What do humble lay people and parish priests need from their bishops? two experiences stand out.

The first may seem indirect, but when my sister fought cancer, as she did for many years, the hardest temptation she faced were all the siren voices on the sidelines scorning the advice of her doctors and offering quick and pain-free solutions. Her cancer was deep and complex. It required harsh treatment. And every treatment was harder than the last. She told me about the company of fellow cancer patients who arrived at the clinic and had to circle the block repeatedly in order to build up their nerve for the next dose of chemotherapy.

But hard as the treatments were, they worked, rising from the mainstream tradition of medicine that had the expertise, seriousness, and confidence to lead her through. And someone whose life was at risk from the beginning was given another quarter-century, realizing her hope of seeing her sons grow to maturity, presented in fact, with four grandchildren before she died.

The second experience, I think, connects the dots. In 2004, the Diocese of Toronto held diocesan-wide seminars on same-sex blessings. Every bishop, priest, and synod delegate was required to attend. The case in full, both its merits and demerits, was presented, and when it was all over, I asked a lay delegate — bright, able, engaged — who worked in the provincial courts, and whom I was meeting for the first time what she thought. She said: “I was completely baffled. How, on one sitting, am I supposed to understand a matter as complex as this?”

The motion coming to General Synod from the Council of General Synod (COGS), which COGS was prevented from even studying, assumes that the doctrine of the church is simple and transparently clear. And it assumes that simplicity and quick adaptation is the expectation of every member, in particular the lay members.

It is not!

Because all have submitted themselves to the mainstream traditions of medicine, law, or the Christian faith know — and know gladly — that they are entrusting their lives to a living tradition beyond what any one person can fully understand, but who know it has been public and open for all to see over many generations, who have every reason to trust it and certainly understand what stands at the center: the Hippocratic Oath, the Presumption of Innocence, the Apostles’ Creed.

By the way, the motion also assumes that the delegates will accept this as a new, fresh, and inspired path.

Wrong again!

After all, Synod delegates do not live in caves. On every corner stands an independent or congregational church whose members may do as they wish, as quickly as they wish, with their doctrine and discipline. There’s nothing fresh about what COGS presents. But there are plenty of red flags waving about denominations that act in haste because they either drink too deeply from modern society or react too strongly against it.

What do humble lay people and parish priests need from their bishops at General Synod?

They need a House of Bishops that will ensure that the church remains true to Jesus Christ and faithful to the living and catholic tradition from which it has descended. They need a ship tough enough to steer through storms and hold its course. They need captains at the helm brave enough for the challenges, strong enough to remain true when facing waves of popular opinion and societal scorn.

And they need a House of Bishops that is confident enough to counsel patience when needed, to say no when necessary. The doctrines of the church, and similar fundamentals, are conservative by their very nature. It has nothing to do with recalcitrance and everything to do with care about that which is most precious, that which has been received as a gift.

And saying no?

There are times when individuals and groups are so far outside the boundaries of the tradition from within which they speak that to act on their recommendations can do nothing else than insert contradiction, division, and demoralization.

Here is a perfect example of a motion to be quashed before seeing the light of day.

Because the members of COGS were prohibited from debating the motion before approving it, suggesting the very worst about the motion’s integrity.

Because in a divided church this is a clearly partisan motion, revenge by the progressive party for the failure at the last General Synod to steamroll over the historic standards of Scripture, liturgy, canons, and discipline and charge forward with a top-to-bottom revision of the church.

And because it is untimely. Why in the world now, when the most recent church-wide study before COVID gave the church only a few more years? Why in the aftermath of COVID would COGS scream down a road that has no chance other than to further divide and discourage the church?

What do humble lay people and priests need from their bishops?

A House of Bishops that will ensure that the church remains true to Jesus Christ and part of the living and catholic tradition from which it has descended.

A House of Bishops that is confident enough to counsel patience when needed, to say no when necessary.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Dean Mercer is incumbent of the Anglican Church of St. Paul, L’Amoreaux.

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