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OF SYNODS AND THE CHURCH

It is now nearly eight years ago since I wrote an essay entitled “The General Convention Church” which one may still read at “Anglicans Online.” I was accused by one writer, whose response may be found at the same site, of disloyalty to a church of which I had only been a member for a year or so! I am not disloyal to the Episcopal Church and I haven’t changed my mind about synods.

When I was serving as a bishop in what is now called the Anglican Province of America, our annual diocesan synod and less frequent General Synod meetings were times of refreshment, fellowship, faith and encouragement. Many people paid for travel and board who were not delegates, because these were family meetings. They went home renewed. I claim no responsibility for this and gather that the same holds true to this day.

Yet at no time did anyone claim that these meetings were the sites of special revelations from the Holy Spirit vouchsafed by majority votes! Indeed our first Anglican ancestors reminded us that synods may and do err. I remain convinced that the pretensions of those who claim that General Convention is the occasion and site of special visitations of the Holy Spirit to be erroneous and wrong-headed.

The claim is sometimes justified by reference to what is called the first Council of Jerusalem, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. There decisions were made and St. Luke suggests that these decisions “seemed good” to the Holy Spirit and the Church. The decisions made were not only about the baptism of Gentiles, but that kosher laws about meat should obtain to all Christians who should also abstain from improper sexual activity. If we examine these decrees through the lens of St. Paul’s writings, the nearest we have to preceding and eye-witness testimony, what was at stake was a recognition that God was calling the Gentiles into the kingdom and that in that kingdom, there were to be behavioral norms which set Christians apart from those who frequented pagan temples, purchased and ate meat “offered to idols” and perhaps gave in to the sort of sexual antics sometimes associated with pagan rites or the behavior of “pagans”. That not all of these regulations survive is obvious as one notices when non-kosher meat is served at parish dinners.

Was this meeting a synod or a proto-synod, or do we now read backwards into another time and age the theories about representative and democratic institutions our church claims and boasts about to the rest of the Anglican Communion? Be assured the other Provinces all have synods and all are “democratically” elected. But are they oracles of God? Did the infant churches beyond Jerusalem elect deputies and expect a special work of God? Did God promise that synods would be special signs of his Presence? Now I would not argue that they cannot be places where the faithful are inspired and renewed, although I’ve been to American General Conventions since 1970 and “inspired and renewed” are not words which come easily to mind!

In his sermon at the memorial service for the Rev. Professor Charlie Moule recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury remarked that Moule challenged an ideal of the Spirit which made the Spirit autonomous of the works and presence of Christ. There’s a splendid insight here. The Persons of the Trinity are “autonomous” and yet bound together without contradiction. The Holy Spirit “makes present” Jesus in whose “face” we see the Father. The Holy Spirit does not tell us new things but makes the eternal “nowness” of the Gospel, once delivered to the saints seem ever new in the church and through the church to us. Synods do not play the role of a Joseph Smith or a Mary Baker Eddy, nor in a different context are they collective forms of papal infallibility. They meet to do the business of the local church and to make sure that all things are done “decently and in order.” God speaks to us collectively in the Church normally through Word and Sacrament and not through synods and votes. It is time we restored synods to their use and function without burdening them with pneumatic or oracular pretensions.

One Response

  1. Sorry you don’t feel the Holy Spirit is present at the gatherings of our Convention. If not then, you must REALLY feel that She is not present at our small local gatherings. Of course we get Her wrong sometimes. But I truly believe we do the best we can in “translating and interpreting,” in discerning and legislating. And God help us if the Spirit is NOT present! Believe what you will — she is there!

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