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We need all voices at the table, says Bishop Colin Johnson

By Bishop Colin Johnson of Toronto
3/12/2005
[Anglican Church of Canada]  I suspect that very few Anglicans had ever heard of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) before last month's communiqué from the Anglican Primates' meeting in Northern Ireland. 

The Primates requested the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church of the United States to consider voluntarily withdrawing their representatives from the Anglican Consultative Council for a three-year period leading up to the next Lambeth Conference of Bishops in 2008. (ACC meets this June and would not normally meet again until 2008 in any case.)

The Primates also asked both of our provinces to present at a dedicated session of that June ACC meeting our understandings that led us to decisions we have made through our own constitutional processes.

ACC members are bishops, priests, deacons and lay people, appointed by the 38 autonomous provinces of the Anglican Communion, each sending one to three members, depending on size. Canada, as one of the provinces, is represented by Bishop Sue Moxley (Nova Scotia), Canon Alan Box (Ottawa), and Suzanne Lawson (Toronto) at these triennial meetings to discuss matters affecting the life of the Communion. 

ACC is advisory not legislative, as are all the bodies of the Anglican Communion outside each of the provinces' boundaries. This makes the Anglican Communion different from, for instance, the Roman Catholic Church with a Pope and a powerful bureaucracy centralized in the Roman Curia where binding decisions are made that affect every Roman Catholic. 

For Anglicans, statements by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference of Bishops, the ACC and Primates' Meeting are not binding but thoughtful recommendations, persuasive because they represent the considered thinking of senior representatives of the worldwide church. But they carry weight only as they are received and adopted by the individual provinces. They do not govern our church. 

For Canadian Anglicans, the senior legislative body is General Synod for certain weighty matters and the diocesan synod with the bishop for almost everything else. That's why the Primates' communiqué speaks in terms of "request," "voluntary" and "best influence to persuade."

What binds us together, however, is not governing bodies but a wide network of relationships. We have roots in common prayer, a shared tradition, mutual affection, tangible support and common interests that transcend boundaries. Canadian Anglicans are key contributors of volunteers, staff, expertise and money to partnerships in mission, theological commissions, international co-ordinating committees, companion dioceses, ecumenical dialogues, development projects and emergency relief. 

These bonds of "mutual affection" have been seriously strained, even to the threat of breaking, by very different understandings of authority, theological and biblical interpretation and ecclesiology (how the church is understood, organized and governed) that have found an intense focus in our day on issues of human sexuality. 

This is not an exclusively North American issue but one that is experienced in different ways in different cultural contexts across our world. We need to hear about their experience and understanding, and they ours, if we are truly to understand each other, even if we do not come to agreement.  

There is no unanimity even here. But in a church that was historically formed in, and still highly values, tolerance and diversity, I do not think unanimity is either realistic or even desirable. 

That said, we need to create a sense that we belong to one another even if we quite strongly disagree. Real care needs to be taken to recognize that positions other than our own may be valid, not in the sense that we necessarily think they are correct but that we recognize the people who hold them are acting not out of malice but with the same degree of integrity that we espouse and are also seeking God's truth.

I don't think we serve our Lord and his church well by entering into the sloganeering, recriminations and emotional reactions that have proliferated.

Is it not significant that the Primates' meeting was "characterized by generosity of spirit, and a readiness to respect one another's integrity, with Christian charity and abundant goodwill"? 
Whether this is an idealized version of what happened or not, it should surely set the tone for how we are to deal with one another in matters of contention and painful disagreement. And as a bookend after their recommendations, the Primates say, "These strategies are intended to restore the full trust of our bonds of affection across the Communion." The goal is communion across the diversity of our tradition.

The communiqué goes on to condemn, with the very strongest term used in the church - "anathema" - "the victimization or diminishment of human beings whose affections happen to be ordered to towards people of the same sex." It affirms them as "children of God, loved and valued by him, and deserving of the best we can give of pastoral care and friendship." And it asks the ACC to initiate the listening and study process that has been requested at successive Lambeth Conferences.

Sometimes in the midst of a heated family dispute, the parties need to take a "walk around the block" to cool the emotional temperature so that more constructive discussion can occur. Unlike many such situations, though, this proposed "withdrawal" is a temporary measure, with a clear end date, and defined opportunities in the meantime to contribute to the discussion of the issues. I also note that Canadians and Americans will continue to participate in the Primates' Meetings, Lambeth Conference and other intercommunion activities. 

I am disappointed that the Canadian and American churches have been asked to voluntarily withdraw their representatives on ACC. It is the only "Instrument of Unity" that includes clergy and laity as well as bishops. I am especially concerned because I think that conversations to resolve contentious issues need to include those who do not agree. It is important for full discussion to have all the voices present at the table, including those that represent the Christian experience of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. We have an important part to play in this because in many parts of the world, such conversations have only just begun, and in other places, they are impossible because homosexuality is illegal.

I respect the fact that people who are thoughtful, caring, prayerful practising Anglicans are struggling with these issues, praying, studying, and coming to different conclusions. The Primates or even the majority of bishops gathered at Lambeth cannot simply curtail that discernment process.

The Windsor Report says, "Whilst this report criticises those who have propagated change without sufficient regard for the common life of the Communion, it has to be recognised that debate on this issue cannot be closed whilst sincerely but radically different positions continue to be held across the Communion." (para 146)

Living with one another can be a very difficult thing, but it is possible. The will is involved in an act of love. Do we have the will to treat each other as children of God who are also beloved and from whom we need to learn something of God's gracious purposes for his creation?