A St Michael Report author talks of what it DOESN'T mean

Chris Ambidge
Editor, Integrator

Dear Chris,

Thank you for your balanced and thoughtful article on the St. Michael Report. As part of the Theological Commission that drafted it, I found both your approval and your concerns useful in trying to understand where the Report is going from here, and how it may be helpful or unhelpful to the Church.

I do, however, have one major concern with the piece: it tends to reinforce the widely-held misapprehension that the Report implies that same- sex blessings must be treated as a matter of canon (and would thus require a two-thirds vote by orders at two consecutive General Synods).
This is an interpretation that I consider disastrous for the Church, and I am disappointed to see it further disseminated in Integrator.

The history of this interpretation of the Report is quite troubling. It arose, I believe, from a written opinion the Chancellor presented to the Council of General Synod at its May meeting, at the same time the Report was presented. The Chancellor finds that, should General Synod accept our opinion that same-sex blessings are a matter of doctrine, the most appropriate way to deal with it would be through canonical change.

But the Chancellor also makes it clear that he is expressing an opinion, and not a formal ruling. His report makes it clear that the question is considerably differentiated and open to opinion: the Declaration of Principles says that doctrinal matters are to be settled by General Synod, and canons on doctrinal matters need a 2/3 majority vote by houses at two General Synods to pass; but it does not state that all doctrinal matters must be handled by canon. As your article mentions, General Synod has in the past dealt with significant doctrinal matters by resolution rather than by canon: the approval of the Book of Alternative Services, the ordination of women, and, one might add, the admission of children to Holy Communion.

In the event, it will be General Synod (should it accept the St. Michael Report's finding) that must determine, by a simple majority vote, whether to require a canonical change on this issue.
Unfortunately, this differentiated opinion of the Chancellor was taken up by a number of sources and passed on as a simple, absolute fact. The press report that appeared on the National Church website stated categorically that this would be the consequence of the Report being adopted by General Synod. This has since been corrected (at my insistence), but the damage has been done: this press report was circulated to the dioceses together with the St. Michael Report, and in many cases I suspect it, and not the Report itself, is what got read. Bishop Michael Ingham of New Westminster, unfortunately, has also been a vehicle for this misinformation, as in some of his public statements (such as the one you quoted) he accepts and promulgates the view that this will now have to be a canonical matter.

To set the record straight:

1. The St. Michael Report nowhere suggests that same-sex blessings should be dealt with by a change in the canons. We quite intentionally did not make that statement.

2.Nor is that implied by our decision. The constitution of General Synod (the Declaration of Principles) does not say that doctrinal matters must be canonical. General Synod has dealt with other doctrinal matters by simple resolution. The decision on which path to follow is a second decision, separate from the determination of whether or not the issue is doctrinal, which General Synod will make for itself.

3.The Commission was quite conscious of its mandate and vocation as a "theological" commission. Our opinion that same-sex blessings are doctrinal is a theological, not a canonical opinion. We consider the issue to be doctrinal in that it is connected with a number of fundamental Christian teachings, and that any change we might make has to take place in the context of a common theological reflection on these connections.

4.The Commission's call for "intentional, deep, prayerful listening" is an attempt to move the discussion beyond rhetorical manipulation and power struggles to an open and common discernment. Any attempt to reduce the Report's finding to a political tool (such as by "raising the bar" through procedural manoeuvring) is profoundly counter to the intention and spirit of the Report.

5.The Report is clear that any action on this matter should be accompanied by theological reflection and discernment. It also states that action does not necessarily follow a completed process of discernment; but that action and reflection often occur simultaneously (para. 12). Therefore, one cannot use the Report's finding to justify an indefinite delay on any movement on same-sex blessings until some future day when all things will be clear.

None of this is to imply that the Report is anywhere near perfect. It is a consensus document, not the Report that any one member of the Commission would have liked to have written. However, I hope I have made it clear that some of the assumptions made about the Report's implications are unwarranted and ignore some of the careful distinctions we have attempted to make.

In particular, I hope that we can begin to put the brakes on the rumour that the Report implies that same-sex blessings should be handled as a canonical matter.

Canon Paul Jennings
Director of Pastoral Studies
Montreal Diocesan Theological College

From Integrator August 2005

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