Friday, June 17, 2011

Only in Canada you say? Pity . . .

It's been nearly a month since last I blogged, but recent Anglican developments right here in Canada give me the perfect opportunity to get back in the proverbial saddle.

First, the excellent news that the Supreme Court of Canada has declined to hear an appeal from Anglican dissidents in British Columbia. The dissidents had purported to remove their parishes from the jurisdiction of the Anglican Church of Canada. In doing so, they continued to occupy the parish property. The courts at every level ruled against them, and with the Supreme Court's decision to dismiss the appeal unheard, their legal options have run their course. The Diocese of New Westminster responds here, and the dissidents here.

I'm struck by the dissidents' special pleading that the outcome "should be of great concern to all Christian denominations." It would seem to me that Christian denominations should be happy to know that the Canadian courts are not going to redefine a denomination's polity and ecclesiology. The dissidents had been demanding that the courts force the Anglican Church of Canada to replace its heirarchical ecclesiology with a congregational polity. The courts have, quite properly, declined to turn Anglicans into Baptists.

Second, we've had a series of documents produced by the Anglican Church of Canada dealing with the proposed Anglican Covenant. The Anglican Covenant Working Group has issued a study and consultation guide (.pdf) supported by a website. Unlike the biased and intellectually dishonest propaganda pieces from the Anglican Communion Office, the Canadian materials present a balanced view and allow for an open discussion of the proposed Covenant on its merits. Of course, if the Anglican Covenant was supportable on its merits, the ACO wouldn't have to be afraid of a balanced debate.

In addition, the Governance Working Group has produced its own legal analysis (.pdf)of the proposed Covenant, with an executive summary (.pdf). Virtually the entire analysis points out the various weaknesses of the proposed Covenant, including the multiple and overlapping roles and ill-defined authority of the Standing Committee, the deficiencies in procedural fairness and the virtual exclusion of lay people from any meaningful participation in any part of the process.

Canon Alan Perry of Montreal provides his usual excellent analysis of the study materials and the legal analysis. Much of the other online coverage I've seen has focussed on the balanced approach the Canadian church has taken - in stark contrast to the Orwellian approach of the ACO or the passive aggressive stitch-up currently underway in the Church of England. One commenter even suggested that the very balance of the Canadian materials was "devastating" to the Covenant.

When I was young, Red Rose Tea used to advertise their product by suggesting that this particular Canadian tea (a different blend than in the United States) was the envy of even the tea-loving English. Each ad ended with a variation on the tagline, "Only in Canada you say? Pity . . ."

It appears that the same is true for an honest analysis of the proposed Anglican Covenant.


Don Hansen said...

I am not an Anglican. I am a Lutheran, which probably gives me no right whatsoever to offer comment. Nevertheless, the Waterloo Declaration which came as close to merging our two denominations as the word "darn" is to cussing, affords me the privilege of at least being interested in what is happening with the Anglicans.

There is no doubt that part of the problem originates with the Anglican Church moving towards a more liberal view of same sex relationships. I will not comment on this issue. Another part of the problem has to do with process and I would like to comment on that.

Firstly, it has been my experience that change, especially radical change that is implemented in an institution who governs itself from top to bottom can be met with suspicion and mistrust from those on the bottom. For the most part, I think there is nothing wrong with that. It keeps those in power humble and honest. The democrat in me says that real radical change must come from the bottom up if it to be change that actually means something.

Secondly, one of the things that define me as being a Lutheran is to have a healthy suspicion of all things bishop-like. I view the practise of having bishops simply as a carry over into the 21st century, of an aristocratic way of governing. At one time (maybe they still do) bishops even referred to themselves as “princes of the church.” Granted, this may be my old adolescent rebellious streak towards authority coming through as I enter my 50s, but I tend to take what bishops say with a grain of salt and some healthy suspicion. Just because they wear purple shirts and amethyst rings and falsely claim to have direct lineage to St. Peter means nothing to me. They are just people with an opinion like anyone else who has put thought and effort into an issue.

So begs the question: why will the bishops not just let these dissents leave along with their properties if they want to? After all, they have paid for them many times over and have faithfully maintained and cared for them for most likely decades. The bishops have many other congregations they can be lord and master over. I can understand their frustration when someone (especially someone they have lost absolute confidence in) says to them: “you can go if you wish but you cannot take your property with you.”

The answer of course to this question without getting into theology, is that if they are allowed to go, others may follow suit and that type of freedom is a serious threat in an institution that operates from the top down.

Aristocrats fought tooth and nail preventing the serfs who actually worked the land from owning it themselves. Aristocrats used courts and armies and other friends in high places to hang onto these lands and powers until the serfs took it away from them.

Malcolm+ said...

You are absolutely welcome to comment here Don. Thanks for dropping by.

The presenting issue here was and is the blessing of same sex unions - although the dissidents (who oppose such blessings) like to dress it up with a series of fairly weak accusations of rampant heterodoxy, especially on Christology. But really, it's just about gays.

The process by which such blessings were approved in the Diocese of New Westminster is significant. Although clearly a liberal, Bishop Michael Ingham withheld his assent the first two times the diocesan synod voted in favour, and after the third time, assented with a series of conditions. Even when change does come from the bottom, there will be those on the bottom who stand on the losing side - and that's what's happened here.

Nowadays, any reference to "prince bishops" is usually a criticism of someone's leadership style. In North America, at least, a fairly high view of the episcopate does not lead us into an unthinking deference to bishops. They are people who have been placed in a position of leadership - in North America, selected by an open and democratic process. Any leader is illserved by overweaning deference and I don't think too many Canadian bishops are too ill-served in that respect.

On your final point, it is a matter of polity. In your tradition, I understand the polity is more or less congregational and that it is, if not common at least well established, for congregations to vote themselves out of one synod and into another. In our polity, the fundamental unit is the diocese, not the congregation. Thus congregations are fundamentally creatures of the diocese.

It's also worth remembering that the founders of those congregations (and in most of the BC cases, those who heavily endowed the congregations) were intent on establishing congregations that would be part of the Anglican Church.

At the end of the day, though, in my experience, virtually every case of an Anglican congregation proposing to split from the Anglican Church of Canada or the Episcopal Church in the United States has been entirely clergy driven, even when lay allies of the cleric have been given the public role.

Like the neoconservative movement, what we have here is the right wing wrapping themselves up in populist rhetoric and pretending to be the poor, oppressed little guy. It's all a bit like the multi-millionaire robber barons the Koch brothers financing the Tea Party movement, frankly.

keith nethery said...

In his comment, Don Hansen suggests break away groups should be able to take the property with them as they have paid for it many times over. I think that assumption needs to be challenged. The assumption is that those who over many decades (in the case of some churches over a century) would automatically be in agreement with the break away group of the day. One needs only pull out some old church photo directories to show that may well be false. Churches tend to have significant turn over of members, oft times associated with new clergy who take things in a specific direction. People come and go from churches on a regular basis for a variety of reasons. I am currently in a church that is just 60 years old, and while there is a core of people who have been here for a significant amount of time, there are hundreds (dare I say a thousand or more) who have come and gone! How can we say with any certainty, that they would back what we are doing today?
Another example. I am a former member of a Calgary Church that is in process of jumping to Rome. I can state with 100 per cent conviction that I am against that move and would not want any of the dollars I gave in support of that church to be used for the purpose of leaving the Anglican Church of Canada. I am less sure, but would think, there were many who attended that church at the same time I did who would agree with me. I have checked the church website, and some 20 years removed from my attendance at that church, none of the names in leadership are familiar to me. I think we can say with a very high degree of certainty that the current members of break away churches would be in support of what their leadership is doing. I am equally certain that when we go back a decade or two or three, to suggest there would be such blanket support,would be less accurate.

Don Hansen said...

I appreciate what my friend Malcolm and Keith are both saying.

Firstly, yes Malcolm, you may be correct in saying that the right wing is using the issue of same-sex relationships for their own political gain. That is likely happening in some cases. Nevertheless, I think it is risky to assume that is what is happening in all circumstances.

For some is it an overall conservative ideology which motivates them. For others, it is the traditional authority and interpretation of scripture verses the authority of bishops and their councils, many of which have contradicted themselves on different issues for centuries. For others it is a human rights issue. For others it is to purge the church of homophobia. For others it is an issue of governance. For others it is freedom to choose and to be given the choice, to leave an institution that they have lost confidence in. For others it is an issue of unity.

Secondly, for Keith, I should have perhaps made it clear that I live in a rural area, in a village of less than seven hundred people. I forgot that in urban congregations, that the turnover of membership can be great. There can be an entirely new congregation in an urban church every few years.

However, our denominations are not entirely made of big urban congregations. There still are a large number of rural congregations where the vast majority of worshippers have been worshipping together for decades. Many are descendants of the original pioneers who started the congregations. There is no such turnover of membership as one often witnesses in an urban setting. In this sense, I may be correct in stating that they have in fact supported, maintained, and paid many times over for the church building they have been worshipping in and so it is possible for them to view themselves as the rightful owners of the property. Just as it was wrong for me to assume that urban congregations have static memberships as one sees in a rural setting, it may be wrong for you to assume that there is the fluidity of membership in all congregations that one sees in big cities.

Personally, I want our denominations to adopt a more liberal attitude towards same-sex relationships. I also want this change in attitude to happen without conflict and hurt feelings. Unfortunately, this is not happening and it is creating division in our denominations and congregations. I must also be concerned for the unity of the church. I now must choose which is the more noble way to go: to adopt a more liberal attitude towards same-sex relationships and risk splitting the church or choose to maintain the unity of the church risking the label of being homophobic in the process. If we make a choice that will no doubt offend some of our congregations, then we should be gracious enough to allow those dissenting congregations the same choice to divorce themselves from the rest of us if we move in a direction they in good conscience cannot accept.

Malcolm+ said...

Rural or urban, I think it is a little risky to make ANY assumptions about what a previous generation of worshippers would think today. I don't know enough about Lutheran liturgical history, but in much of the Anglican world, the worshippers of a century ago would more likely be scandalized by the coloured stole, the candles on the altar and the priest not standing at the end of the table than they would be by, for instance, the ordination of a woman or even of a "discrete" gay man. Any attempt to apply the assumed opinions of past members to the present situation is an exercise in applied anachronism, and it is hardly surprising that those with the weakest arguments will assume that the pillars of the past will agree with them.

But the other queestion is polity, Don. The church is not the property of the members - not in anybody's polity - but of the Church and of Christ. That which has been given to the institution has been given to the institution.

It's bad enough the Church sometimes avoids speaking prophetically for fear of the actions of current and future donors. It would be a travesty if the threat of having past support removed as well controlled her utterances in the present. It would be as if you or I left our political party and demanded a refund of all the donations we had ever made - and not just us, but our parents and grandparents as well.

I understand that the congregational polity of Lutheranism (at least in North America) allows for congregations, property and all, to depart one synod for another. The episcopal polity of Anglicanism does not allow for that and never has.

But to a very great extent, this entire discussion misses the mark. In virtually every case where Anglican parishes (or dioceses) have purported to leave their diocese or province, it is never led by the laity who have or have not been worshipping there for generations. It is always led by clergy - often clergy frustrated by the perceived limitation of their advancement. One is moved to wonder whether a particular CANA bishop's ire towards the Episcopal Church is driven primarily by issues of theology or by TEC's failure to recognize his brilliance and make him a bishop.

keith nethery said...

@ Don
I have served two multi point parishes in two different provinces, and grew up in a small town Anglican Church, so I do have a sense of what drives these churches. I would meet you half way, in that I agree that these small town congregations tend to be much more static in their make up, with long standing membership the norm. But there are two observations here. Oft times "a family" dominates the congregation which tends to exclude others from participating in setting the direction; and small town congregations are equally influenced by clergy leadership as their big city cousins, although it admittedly takes a longer time frame for that influence to be worked out. I followed a 20 year incumbent into one church and it took two years for them to even admit he was gone.
I think you generalize too easily. I do think that some members of the laity are as invested in taking congregations in a particular direction as their clergy and in fact I would go so far as to say that there are times lay people seek out a particular style of clergy to aid them in their drive to a particular theology. I have no doubt that the current rift in the Anglican Church is driven by authority and prestige ie if I can't get it in the current structure, I'll create a structure in which I can get it. But it would be my suggestion that this in not solely a clergy thing.
But it is also important to say I have seen this play out in many directions in many sizes of congregtions and under many theological banners. The I'm right and you're wrong syndrome is not the exclusive territory of any group or faction.
What I truly believe is that division is not part of the solution. People roll their eyes and call me simple when I say what I'm about to say, but I'll say it anyway. Jesus created one church and we are not given permission to divide it. And that is much harder work, much more life giving and relationship building than hunkering down in our "camps" and refusing to deal with the issues that challenge us

Malcolm+ said...

Keith - I'll concede that clergy in those situations don't act in a vaccuum. However, the capacity of laity to engage or disengage the wider denomination at will tends to mean that a desire for schism is generally clergy led, even if they are able to generate lay support. Moreover, we've seen in every US example so far that, when church properties are returned to the denomination, some significant minority (at least) will return with the building. For these folk, the sectarianism was irrelevant to them. They simply continued to worship where they had always worshiped regardless of who owned the property.

I'll agree that the reasserters have no monopoly on this behaviour. I learned early on that not all "Father knows best" clergy were conservatives. Later I learned that they were not all Anglocatholics. Eventually I discovered they weren't even all men.

keith nethery said...

Wise observations. I think the bigger issue we face is not clergy and/or laity lead revolts, but clergy and/or laity disinterest. While for you and I the issues that have caused division are of central importance, it seems to me the vast majority of people just want to come and sit in the pew on Sunday morning, nod at the proper places (or more likely nod off) and proclaim what a good person am I for going to church. While I may disagree theologically with those who have jumped ship from the ACoC, I can admire the engagement they seem to have created amongst those who attend. I wish we could leave behind the bickering and work on education, action, outreach and faith building. Certainly there are many who are excited about faith, passionate about what it means in their life and in their world. But there are too many who for whatever reason can't or won't engage in a conversation with God, an understanding of faith, and an open place in their hearts for a life of interactive love.

Malcolm+ said...

Lack of interest or investment is certainly a concern - although some of those who simply "stay with the building" may actually be invested in the right thing: worshipping God in a community of believers.

I don't know if you're familiar with Natural Church Development, which uses a survey instrument to measure congregational health in eight key areas. Apparently "passionate spirituality" is the most common "critical factor" (ie, lowest score" among Canadian churches generally and mainline denominations in particular.