Last weekend the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada voted to prohibit the blessing of same-sex unions in the church. This lamentable decision and the interminable debate that has swirled around the issue are indicative of a deep malaise within the Anglican Church.
In recent years the church has seen a precipitous decline in its traditional congregations and in its ability to attract new adherents. This dwindling public support reflects a failure of leadership on many fronts, including evidence that it is the bishops themselves that have mishandled the homosexual issue over the years -- and, incredibly, it was the bishops who defeated the recent same-sex motion.
Anglican leaders have failed to think through what a modern Christian church ought to be, and in the process they have failed to update the practices and procedures that govern the church and shape its identity. The church must engage and fully appreciate the legitimacy of its members.
Too often church leaders have been content to allow their own assumptions and procedures to go unchallenged -- to allow an overly rigid patriarchal system to continue when it clearly doesn't work any more.
Anglicans are often saddled with leaders who are the product of a selection process that is thoroughly out of date and self-serving for those who are at the top. There is no evident understanding of the elements of democracy and the importance of public engagement. For example, the supreme leader of the world-wide Anglican communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is actually chosen by the British prime minister and, as the provocative American bishop John Spong has pointed out, this can result in a highly personal choice that leads to plain incompetence at the top of the church hierarchy.
Earlier this year the Ottawa Diocese of the Anglican Church convened a special synod consisting of priests and lay delegates for the purpose of choosing a new bishop. In the run-up to the selection, church authorities were at pains to underline that the process of selection was not to be "political." Rather it was to be a process of "discernment" -- a cut above the grubby world of politics.
Once nominated, the candidates for bishop were not supposed to engage in a public "campaign." There was, therefore, no serious debate, no give and take in the public arena, no testing of new ideas. In a series of regional meetings candidates were asked to respond to set questions that were given to them in advance. To ensure that things didn't get out of hand, questions or comments from the audience were prohibited.
In this highly controlled environment, candidates were free to say anything, imply anything, promise anything, without fear of being questioned on their record of achievement, past decisions, or revealed attitudes.
The problem with this approach is that nominees tend to get judged on their image rather than hard content, innovative ideas, or proven track record. The emphasis is on style ("relaxed," "sincere"), imagery ("passionate"), and lack of content ("above the fray"), rather than on substantive ideas that might solve the problems of the church. It's an approach that ends up emphasizing the superficial aspects --the hurly-burly political aspects that church authorities regularly decry -- without the benefits that come from the give and take of an open democratic debate.
What happened in Ottawa is typical of what happens in the church throughout Canada -- the vast majority of Anglicans are simply not involved. Rather than see leadership selection as an opportunity to fully engage its members, the church chooses to persist with practices that are rooted in attitudes of exclusion. It's little wonder, therefore, that we end up with a house of bishops that is as far removed from reality as the current crop seems to be.
This is a direction the Anglican Church should consider: in a baptismal church all members should have a say in choosing a new bishop; in a dynamic progressive church, fully attuned to the human environment in which it operates, bishops should have limited terms of, say, four years in office.
Maybe if these kinds of changes were undertaken, bishops would come to the job better prepared to actually lead and to deal with problems before they bring the church to the brink of disaster.
Perhaps they would give the kind of clear moral leadership that is obviously required today.
Blair Williams is a lifelong practising Anglican and former professor of political science at Concordia University.