How General Synod delegates may discuss the place of gays and lesbians in the Anglican Church of Canada could more closely resemble the Zulu concept of "indaba" than the wild and wooly debating style found in the House of Commons.
The process was introduced in a 90-minute session at General Synod 2010 in Halifax, and emphasized respectful listening and dialogue rather than what synod has known in the past: long, heated debates with winners and losers.
On Monday, June 7, members of the Anglican Church of Canada's governing body will meet in "discernment circles" to begin a series of conversations around the issue of sexuality. The aim is that these will lead to a pastoral statement about a divisive issue for Anglicans around the world.
General Synod members also heard reports about developments on the issue of human sexuality over the last three years.
The Primate's Theological Commission (PTC), which consulted with dioceses and parishes about whether blessing same-sex unions is a "faithful, Spirit-led development of Christian doctrine," reported no consensus "despite significant hard work." Instead, two commission members -- the Rev. Jamie Howison (Diocese of Rupert's Land) and Canon Gary Thorne (Diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island) -- offered reflections about the work of the commission, which released its findings in the 2009 Galilee Report.
While there was "by no means a clear consensus on what the church could or should do," according to Howison, commission members agreed that the issue of human sexuality was one "of significant doctrinal and theological weight" and therefore, "we needed to think theologically and not merely tactically or pastorally."
Howison said he had experienced a "little epiphany" while serving on the commission. "I have long suspected that the labels of 'liberal' and 'conservative' were becoming less and less helpful, [but] I actually experienced something of their collapse. Positions of pro and con could not be reduced to narrow or open-mindedness, to being more or less immersed in Scripture or with an identification to any particular theological school of thought."
None of this would have been possible "had we not been able to speak openly and listen respectfully," said Howison. "There were moments on the commission when we strained, really, really strained in hearing each other. But the seriousness of the task did press us into some very close quarters. [Still] ... we discovered that it was never insurmountable, this challenge of doing theology together."
The commission realized that "in rooting our work in Eucharist, in daily prayer and Bible study, a solid foundation had been set," he added. Shared meals and coffee breaks, walks and late night socials helped forge friendship and understanding, he said. "After all, it's very difficult to sit defensively in your theological corner when you listen to someone tell a great story or share a significant piece of their life," he said. "That doesn't mean that our differences weren't real or that perspectives weren't passionately held. But in our friendship in Christ we were allowed a small taste of what it means to be together, participants in the body of Christ."
Howison said he still believes the church should move forward on the issue of sexuality, but that "I am increasingly convinced that for such a movement to mean anything at all, it would need to come about not through debate and through divisive votes on the floor of a synod but rather through something closer to what we lived out on the commission." He expressed hope that such a process will evolve at synod.
Thorne said commission members had struggled with the question of whether or not they were theologically equipped to reflect on the issue of sexuality. In spite of this, he said, "We listened carefully to one another, we worked hard in producing material that would be helpful. We developed trust and respect for one another, we learned enormously from each other, we grew in friendship in Jesus Christ."
The faith, worship and ministry committee discussed why it had also been unable to achieve a consensus on preparing a theological rationale for the marriage of same-sex couples. Committee members felt that creating a rationale for one side posed real problems, explained Janet Marshall, committee chair.
"The task is not to do one or the other," said Marshall. "Rather, our job is articulating the fullness of all perspectives within the debate."
Some members also struggled with producing a rationale contrary to their personal convictions and beliefs, noted Marshall. However, she said, "unexpected gifts" arose from these struggles. "One of my convictions is that to be able to truly understand each other we need to be able to clearly, carefully and fairly articulate the position of those people with whom we most profoundly disagree."
Bishop Michael Bird of Niagara and Bishop Colin Johnson of Toronto shared their own dioceses' dialogue with dioceses from Africa. This took the form of exchanges of discussion papers and last February, a face-to-face meeting in London. Throughout, it was made clear that the dialogue was not about changing people's positions.
Eventually, the dialogue moved to "passion for the Lord's ministry," said Bird. Johnson talked about how the dialogues have helped to break down stereotypes and "deepen partnerships that are not focused on sexuality but the mission of God in his church."
Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, noted that in Canada, several dioceses either allow same-sex blessing rites or are considering it, subject to a decision arising from this General Synod. Despite these developments, he said, the Canadian House of Bishops' October 2008 statement still stands. It affirms a continued moratorium on same-sex blessings while recognizing that it would be difficult for some dioceses to implement it.
"We've not revisited or altered that statement as a House," noted Hiltz. "It is what it is." And while the landscape has changed, he said, "what we're keeping is a plan for us to continue to walk together and pray together."