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As we enter this divisive debate, what are the rules?

As we enter this divisive debate, what are the rules?

By Rt. Rev. Ronald C. Ferris

Anglicans in Canada are facing a divisive controversy. The issue has
come onto the General Synod 2004 agenda following a decision in the
diocese of New Westminster, where the bishop and that diocese have
implemented the blessing of same-sex unions. This is being done in
opposition to the expressed wishes of much of the Anglican world,
including the Lambeth Conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the
1997 guidelines of the Canadian house of bishops as well as their
October 2002 meeting. The global primates, meeting in October 2003, also

As we enter a national debate that is potentially divisive, what are the

Many Anglicans believe that the blessing of same-sex unions is contrary
to Scripture, that it would overturn a 2,000-year moral tradition of the
church, and that it would be contrary to the Articles of Religion, the
marriage liturgies, and Marriage Canon. How would such a decision be
constitutionally possible? Could General Synod authorize implementation
of same-sex blessings by local option on the basis of a simple majority
vote? Or by canonical change, as a matter of doctrine, worship, and
discipline, requiring a two-thirds majority vote at two General Synods?
Or only after fundamental constitutional review and re-agreement by
constituent dioceses?

Anglicans view themselves as a comprehensive Christian community
encompassing wide polarities, yet bound together in a single, unified
structure, built upon a common commitment to Holy Scripture and our

In the past century, two streams of Anglicanism have co-existed,
accommodated to one another, and I believe, enriched one another. These
two streams could be characterized as Salvationist and Liberationist.
The Salvationist stream emphasizes a unique salvation available only
through the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the necessity of conversion to
newness of life, and right living as the outflow of receiving the gift
of salvation. The Liberationist stream emphasizes the Creator's care for
all of humanity, Jesus as a liberator enlightening human progress, and
the obligation of all believers to seek justice. These positions are not
mutually exclusive, but rather highly compatible. Christ and the
Scriptures testify that righteousness and justice are but two sides of
the very same thing. "Mercy and truth are met together; Righteousness
and peace have kissed each other." (Psalm 85:10).

The presenting issue for this unity crisis in the Anglican church is the
blessing of same-sex unions. But that is just the first of many issues
coming at us. Signals of upcoming issues including bisexuality and the
blessing of common-law unions were clearly present in the
deliberations of the last General Synod. Inclusion has been one of the
principal themes of theological education for the past two decades.
Inclusionism taken to the extreme undermines many basic Christian
teachings. Ultimately an inclusionist gospel is embarrassed by exclusive
claims for Jesus Christ. The bold New Testament proclamations of Jesus
as "the way, the truth, the life" become an offence.

The overall unity issue cannot be easily avoided. Every diocese and
congregation will ultimately have to face questions about what are the
outward boundaries of tolerance. With more and more dioceses taking
independent actions, albeit for what they see as justice reasons, are we
to give up our vision of a single church which is a bridge to ecumenical

We know (from observing the United Church of Canada, the Episcopal
Church of the United States, and the diocese of New Westminster) that
wherever a church proceeds to the implementation of same-gender unions,
four kinds of division inevitably result. The four kinds of division are
attrition, external splits, internal rifts and distancing between
congregations and their governing bodies.

Some would argue that these perceived threats to Anglican unity are
exaggerated. They argue that we have come through many other changes,
and they feel that the talks of disunity are mere posturing. But other
changes were largely preceded by widespread consensus and were
supportable by some measure of Scriptural warrant. In this instance,
division is not simply a risk, but a present reality.

Many are calling for local option and alternate episcopal oversight as
solutions to insoluble differences. It will take some time to discover
whether these will be devices to keep the church together in the midst
of transitory controversies, or whether they are, in fact, separation

General Synod will feel tremendous pressure to downplay its own
constitution and ground rules. It will no doubt be tempted to give
rushed or tacit approval of local option. It may well devise some new
process of education in the hopes of finding fresh opportunities for
compromise. Some are feeling that dialogue easily turns to persuasion
and that middle ground is simply a stopping place towards an
unacceptable destination.

Though we are Anglicans, our ultimate loyalties are to Christ and his
whole church. Our branch is but one vessel of the Holy Catholic Church.
We know that our church is coming into a storm that all sides wish we
did not have to go through. We do not know what the future holds. Will
it be common, or will there be many new expressions of the Anglican
church, some flourishing, some floundering? We need to suffer our griefs
and losses with charity and good will to all. We need to prepare
ourselves to enter unfamiliar terrain.

Ronald Ferris is bishop of Algoma, Canada.

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