Release – General Synod 2016

Bishop’s Updated Release
General Synod 2016
The Marriage Canon

The Diocese of Central Newfoundland
The Anglican Church of Canada
The Rt. Rev. John Watton   B. Th. – Bishop of Central Newfoundland  
 34 Fraser Road Gander, NL A1V2E8
 (709) 256-2372   (T)   (709) 256-2396 (F) 

July 18th, 2016

My Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ

May God Bless you richly in His love.

Shortly after my ordination as your bishop I had to prepare myself, and as best I could, our delegates for General Synod 2016. This preparation was obviously limited because it could only take place within a short time frame of new Episcopal authority and responsibility. Your delegates who attended worked extremely hard to pay attention, pray and share with people from across our national and international Church.  I am very grateful for their ministries at Synod.  

Through all of the discussion around the Marriage Canon, we must give thanks for all of the important work our Church does through diocesan and provincial partnerships as well as was our international outreach, a newly formed social and ecological investment task force, relationships with Indigenous peoples and the formation of a self-determining Indigenous church.

To say this synod took us beyond spiritual and physical exhaustion is a huge understatement. Each of our delegates in their commitment to work within the General Synod toward the process of the vote, offered themselves through hours of listening to presentations, debates, accusations and posturing. If you followed the news feeds of social media and popular broadcasters you would have read stories of procedures being questioned, bullying, manipulation and so on.  I can say that there is truth in this, but both “sides” of the argument need to ask forgiveness in this regard.  

When delegates attend General Synod, they are reminded that they are not to vote the diocesan voice, but speak and vote as members of the larger Church. That is important, but given the division in the larger Church, it is in my opinion, very important for delegates to have an understanding of the way our parishes have received the revelation of Christ and how He is leading us as a diocese.  I shared that concern and conviction with our Primate before General Synod and with our delegates at Synod. Our delegates were very concerned with how this vote was going to affect us at home. I asked them to feel released at this time and vote as they felt led. Each of our delegates voted from their hearts and with conviction. Each one agreed that as a diocese, we had to return to deep conversation in our diocese about the Marriage Canon, and who we are in Christ.  As they represented you I was honoured to have been with them.

A statement sent by the House of Bishops to the Council of General Synod (CoGS), and released publicly Feb. 29, created an assumption across the country that the House of Bishops would not pass the vote. Many of us as clergy and laity were dismayed at this because his statement was, and remains, a challenge to the credibility and authority of the House of Bishops. No order of the Church – Lay, Clergy or Bishop should use an influence that could affect the outcome of such an important vote. We all know that if this vote was defeated, there would have been three years to revisit and offer the motion again, three more to vote on first reading, and then three more if it was to pass at that time; another nine years of this weight upon us. In my desire for the dialog to continue, and for our diocese to do what we must do to prepare for the next Synod, I voted in favour of the motion. I voted in favour of the process that I feel we need to engage and undertake.  It was not a doctrinal statement from me in any way because I know that this cannot become doctrine unless passed in 2019 by the General Synod.  I have often shared my opinion that far too much time has passed and that enough damage has been done. Most of us have been praying for guidance and resolution.  I see the three years we now have as a gift and call from the Holy Spirit to meet in true counsel.

The long years of waiting and debate are coming to a tangible focus, if not to a close. I know that however this vote goes in three years, the debate will not end; but The Diocese of Central Newfoundland now has a clear mandate and time frame in which to come together to form our vision and clarify our Mission.

This mandate is more important than you might think at first.

Because the revision to the Marriage Canon explicitly provides a clause stating that no diocese bishop or clergy has to follow the canon on marriage, a new autonomy is emerging in the Church. Bishops will have to ensure their diocese is very clear on this matter and that clergy who apply for parishes understand diocesan polity, and how such polities may be in contrast to the canons of the Anglican Church of Canada.

In discussion with various diocesan bishops, I listened to stories of years of waiting for our National Church to make a decision about marriage. Their stories contained narratives of sacrifice, pain and suffering. Through it all many of these bishops who longed to change the Marriage Canon years ago, called for patience within their dioceses, and made every effort to stay within the canons of the Church.  I believed that in some way a vote in favour would show a growing understanding of the trials of other dioceses and a desire to learn about them. I shared this in discussion with many at General Synod. Other bishops shared this hope as well. I also believed and hoped that if these bishops and dioceses saw others willing to move forward with the discussion, another three years would be a blessing to the Church; a time in which we could all wait and walk together in prayer and discernment. I hoped they would find the courage to help rebuild our unity by waiting.  I am deeply disappointed that a number of bishops, in spite of the passing of first reading have declared they will no longer wait, and are authorizing same sex marriages immediately.  
This shows how important it is for us as a diocese to prepare for what is to come. It is a clear call to be ready.

Since I have returned from Synod my discernment that as a diocese we are not of one mind has been confirmed.  There are some who feel that this change is a serious departure from the faith that they know, or the culture that they come from. There are some who feel this change is being driven by a Church bowing to culture in an attempt to survive. There are some who feel that biblical authority is being rejected. Some have lost confidence in various levels of leadership. Some feel that the witness of the Canadian Church is an error that will jeopardize our relationships worldwide with other Anglican Provinces. Some feel that changing our Marriage Canon will endanger the lives of people associated with Anglicanism who live in countries or jurisdictions that have severe laws against homosexuality. There are also some in our churches who feel that this measure is long overdue. For some it is a culture adaptation that the Church must understand. Others feel that after generations of developments in science, biblical studies global realities and interfaith understandings how we interpret scripture must be different. Some believe this change is God’s doing. There are some in our churches who simply don’t know what to think.

The question on many Christian minds in the Diocese of Central Newfoundland may very well be: “What now?”  Let me outline my plan as it is presently:

  1. As soon as possible our synod delegates will meet to discuss and pray about what we have been through.
  2. There will be a Regional Deans meeting early in September to provide the most current information to be shared through the Diocese, and to ask the Dean’s guidance and wisdom as to how each deanery would be best served, and enabled to contribute to a process of discernment.
  3. We will be forming a plan of action to do the work needed to have Diocesan discussions meetings and sharing.  It will happen.

Please remember that I still need time to settle into the Bishop’s office and that our new executive officer and I are going to need orientation and adjustment to these roles and ministries. Synod office is undergoing a process of discernment in relation to forming a new productive and engaged ministry team that works to serve our people and clergy. I am also fully engaged in the pastoral and parish work required of your bishop. Communication will be of the highest priority.

Here is my commitment as your Bishop:

  1. It is important to remember that the Marriage Canon changes have only been through a first reading. Regardless of the responses and actions bishops in other dioceses, the Marriage Canon has not been changed and the next three years are meant to be a time for the Church to reflect in dioceses and provinces in preparation for General Synod in 2019.
  2. As Bishop I state: I will not authorize same-sex marriages in the Diocese of Central Newfoundland until such a time as the Canon has been formally changed by General Synod and the Synod of the Diocese of Central Newfoundland decides whether or not this change is acceptable for us. That means: If and when the time comes that The Anglican Church of Canada canonically approves same sex marriages, we will, at a duly called and constituted synod, call for a vote to choose our option.  I give notice that I will not concur on a simple majority vote. I would expect the same requirement of two-thirds majority in both houses of the Clergy and Laity to be a standard for the Diocese of Central Newfoundland.
  3. I will concur with the decision of the Synod of the Diocese Central Newfoundland. The motion to change the Marriage Canon declares that it is up to the bishop of the Diocese to decide whether or not to authorize same-sex marriage in their own diocese. The motion to change the Marriage Canon and add a conscience clause is seen by many as inadequate in relation to providing protection to bishops, clergy, and parishes. I will not either authorize, or permit those blessings without the formal mind of synod being expressed.
  4. Any Clergy in our diocese who conducts a same Sex Marriage before such time as:

i.  The General Synod has passed the second reading of the motion and
ii. The Diocese of Central Newfoundland has by Synod approved such marriages, will be considered to be in violation of both canons.  The bishop must act in accordance.

Any clergy having a struggle with waiting, or feels led to follow the example of dissenting bishops should contact me immediately. I acknowledge that some dioceses are under huge pressure from their parishes and their clergy to proceed with same-sex marriages, we are not. Our conversation must be different, but no less pastoral. These canons must be upheld if there is to be any chance of unity in this process.

*Please see the footnote regarding the rationale some bishops are using to proceed.

I reiterate that I voted in favour of this first motion, because through it the Synod of the Diocese of Central Newfoundland is enabled to make its choice through prayer, discernment, listening, counsel and love. This first reading also enables and challenges me as bishop to act, shepherd and love – both as a diocesan bishop and bishop of the Church.

I don’t know when our diocese will be ready to make any changes. Some are ready, some are not. I implore everyone to commit to this process of walking together to an unsure destination. Please come to the starting place, but let us come gently to one another, laying before Jesus’ gaze any anger, frustration, fear, judgement or militancy rising from our faith. Once our Lord has spoken to our hearts and blessed all that we offer, we will then be ready for conversation at the common table of His love.  We will be ready to be  included with the ones described in 1 Peter 3:15 -16, as those who have in our hearts sanctified Christ as Lord, always ready to make defense to anyone who demands from us an accounting for the hope that is within, but doing so with gentleness and respect.

Friends, thank you in advance for your patience and forbearance with your new, but confident bishop.  Jesus Christ is my Lord, I know Him faithful in the shadow of death, in the realms of doubt, and as a gentle but firm teacher through each season of life.  It is His intent for our diocese as well.

Brothers and Sisters, thank you again for the high and holy privilege of being your bishop, friend and colleague. Please continue in your faithful prayer, efforts for the Church, and the unity of our witness in Newfoundland and beyond, that Jesus Christ is Lord and for our mission of making him known in all the world.

In the Love and Faith of Jesus

* General Synod chancellor Canon (lay) David Jones, who announced in synod Monday, July 11, that the marriage canon in its present form does not explicitly prohibit same-sex marriage.

In Jones’s words, the statement said, the canon

“does not contain either a definition of marriage or a specific prohibition against solemnizing same-sex marriage.”

It’s also clear, it continued, that Anglican conventions allow bishops to authorize

“liturgies to respond to pastoral needs within their dioceses, in the absence of any actions by this General Synod to address these realities.”

Some Bishops will use this statement to proceed with their plans to authorize same sex marriages. At any rate it has raised many questions about our understandings of the authority inherent in the orders of our Church, and whether that authority has any right of discipline.

Back to Releases and Updates