The word is very near to you: Synod Reflection

Deut 30:9-14; Ps 25.1-10; Col 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

“The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe”

It’s been a busy few days in the life of the Anglican church of Canada, as the General Synod meets in Vancouver until Tuesday.  General Synod is our national governing body, and its membership is drawn from the house of bishop as well as elected clergy and lay people from all dioceses.  It meets every three years.  Its deliberations are framed in a context of regular prayer and worship.

Three significant items were covered in the first two days..

Yesterday, a new national leader was elected to replace Fred Hiltz, who is retiring.  Bishop Linda Nicholls is currently bishop of Huron, and she will be installed as Primate at the Synod’s final Eucharist on Tuesday.  She becomes the first woman to hold the position in the history of our Church.

We delight that finally the glass ceiling has broken, and that there are now women, ordained and lay, at all levels of leadership in the church.  We pray that our new primate, as well as the many other women bishops, priests and deacons, may be models for women all over the country, inspiring them to consider whether God is calling them too to this particular vocation.

On Friday morning, the outgoing primate Fred Hiltz, issued an apology on the spiritual harm done to the indigenous people of these lands – First Nations, Inuit and Metis.

And the self determining Indigenous Anglican Church was created within the Anglican Church of Canada, with Bishop Mark McDonald – until now National Indigenous Anglican Bishop – made Archbishop of this new entity.

The Anglican Church of Canada has been wrestling with issues of reconciliation and affirmation of indigenous people for some time, and the church’s apology and the intentional raising of the profile of indigenous Anglican ministry are overdue developments, as we and the nation at large continue to work to bring about justice and reparation for harm done in the past.

Neither of these two items of importance are likely to get much publicity in the national media.  It is to the debate of Friday evening that the eyes of reporters were particularly focused.  Because on Friday evening, the second reading of the proposed change to the marriage canon was put to further discussion and its second vote.

For those who do not follow church affairs in great details, the debate to make marriage available to all, including same sex couples, started some time ago, and an amendment to Canon XXI – the marriage piece of legislation of the church – had been put forward to the last Synod in 2016.  This amendment was making explicit the wish of many in the church that marriage should be available to all those who can legally marry.  After much drama about electronic voting and bishops, it passed by just one vote over the 66.6% required.

The constitution of the Anglican Church of Canada requires changes of this order to be read and passed twice by synod.  On Tuesday evening, as many of you will know, this was lost in the house of bishop by one vote.

For a community such as ours at Christ Church Cathedral, dedicated to living out the vision of a church open to all, striving to be truly inclusive, with a thriving group of LGBTQ2S and queer members contributing to all aspects of our ministries, this has been a day of conflicting emotions.  Those lurking on social media will have seen the expressions of bewilderment and grief expressed by many at this outcome.

Doubtless, analysts will dissect the many reasons of why we got to where we are.  I have been involved in pushing the church on this issue since I became an Anglican in the mid-1980s and perhaps I have got used to the institution telling us one thing and then doing the other.

Nevertheless, despite the outcome, there are many items of good news even in what happened in Vancouver on Friday:

  • Though this process seems interminable, we have in fact come a long way. Over 75% people at Synod were in favour of a change in the legislation, and it is only because of the requirement of a supermajority in the three separate houses of bishop, clergy and laity that the motion failed by such a small margin in the house of bishops.
  • A memorandum produced for this synod and outlining the history of the whole process of integrating lgbtq2s members of the Anglican Church of Canada has enshrined the fact that we have all been called by God and are beloved members of the church.

I know it does not always feel like that, but nevertheless that clock cannot be wound back.
Church lawyers have reminded us that Canon Law as written does not in fact prohibit same gender marriage.

  • Diocesan bishops are already empowered to allow same sex marriages and this has been the case in this Diocese and many others in Canada since 2016. Christ Church Cathedral will continue to be a place where we welcome couples who wish to marry irrespective of their gender.

How on earth do we make a connection between all this and our Gospel reading of the Good Samaritan today, one may ask?

In this familiar story, we are reminded of the response of Jesus to one of the many church lawyers who was trying to trap him with yet another question, one which arose because people did not like the company that Jesus was keeping.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life”, the lawyer asks.

Jesus flings back the question at him: “What is written in the law”?

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus confirms that this is of course the right legal answer.  But the lawyer is not happy.

After all, neighbor can be a pretty wide concept, unless the law literally means the people we know who live next to us.

So he tests Jesus further just to be sure.  And his question is not about the extent of the good that the law may or may not require of us, but instead about the limits of neighborliness – how far one might extend the good that one might do?

And the answer does not really go the way the lawyer thought it might, and may leave us to ponder too.

Because Jesus could have given the example of a good practicing religious person stepping across boundaries and helping someone beyond the pale, like a Samaritan.  Jews of the time, who were following their purity codes strictly, would have been forbidden to even break bread with a Samaritan, never mind helping one in their hour of need.  So the point would have been made: good religious people have to help those around them regardless of their status.  It may seem obvious to us, though it was not a wise answer to a cunning man eager to trap Jesus breaking the law.

And of course, this is not the answer that Jesus gives at all.  Instead, he presents the unthinkable as the right answer.  The one person who is part of a group ostracised by society is the one who becomes the template of good neighborliness, extending the generous, compassionate and unconditional love of God to a total stranger, of whom nothing is known at all.

Compared to the priest and levite who pass by doing nothing, it is easy to see how even the lawyer will have to recognise who are the two neighbors in that story.

I don’t know about you, but this story is one that always makes me feel guilty.  I am often rushing here and there, and in central Montreal, I am often encountering people who could do with lavish expressions of love and care. Often though, like the priest and the levite of this story – though not for purity reasons – I pass by and fail on one of the most explicit measures given to us by Jesus.

Over time, I have come to recognise that the church, the body of Christ, allows us to express that love in many places and to many people because we are many with different interests, personalities and ways in which we respond to Jesus’s command. Our neighbor is the one who looks after us when we are in need, without questions or qualification.  And so should we be to others too.  And that task is shared between all of us.

My friends, the failure to pass the amendment to the marriage canon is a small set back on the trajectory of the liberation of the people of God to becoming who we truly are, precious and beloved in God’s sight.

So let us continue to look around us to identify new neighbors, and keep faith in the one who continually brings upheaval where church lawyers seek simple answers, in order to fully unveil the glorious tapestry of God’s creation..



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