Archbishop Fred Hiltz: Sermon from the Opening Eucharist of the 41st Session of The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada

Imagine with me for just a few minutes that tiny little community that was the infant Church—Peter and John and James and Andrew and Philip and Thomas and Bartholomew and Matthew and James son of Alphaeus and Simon the zealot, and Judas son of James together with certain women including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem.

They had just returned from the mount called Olivet where the risen Lord had commissioned them saying

“You shall receive power when the Holy, Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

When he had said these things, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.

And now they are back in the city. One wonders how they spoke with one another about all they had heard and seen, how they understood Jesus’ commission and how would they go about the work given them? What did they make of Jesus’ reference to the Holy Spirit? How would the Spirit come upon them? Where might it take them? Would they plant new communities of faith? How would they nurture them? What trials might they face? How might they suffer for the sake of the Gospel? How might their witness be remembered in time?
While we might wonder about all these things, we know this one thing, that according to Luke “they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer”. (Acts 1:14) Prayer one supposes that they be ready to receive the Holy Spirit whenever and however it would come. They simply trusted in Jesus’ word that they would be empowered, graced and guided for the work entrusted to them. They prayed expectantly.

Now look around this room. We too are a tiny little community—a microcosm of the Church we love and lead. We come mindful of our calling to know love and follow Jesus in serving God’s mission in the world. (Vision 2019) We know ourselves to be commissioned through our baptism to

  • proclaim by word and deed, the Good News of God in Christ;
  • seek and serve Him in all people, loving our neighbours as ourselves;
  • respect the dignity of every human being;
  • strive for justice and peace among all people; and
  • safeguard the integrity of creation making every effort to sustain and renew the life of the earth.

We come mindful of our calling as the Body of Christ—members one of another, all endeavouring through our various ministries to fulfill the mind and heart of Christ our Lord.

Knowing our need for fresh outpourings of the Holy Spirit in renewing the particular witness of the church where we live and the overall witness of our Church across the country and around the world, we come singing (#643, Common Praise)

“Holy Spirit, come with power, breathe into our aching night.
We expect you this glad hour, waiting for your strength and light.
We are fearful, we are ailing, we are weak and selfish too.
Break upon your congregation; give us vigor, life anew.
Between these lines is an incredible humility and honesty about the state of the Church and an abiding trust and joy in what it can be.

Holy Spirit, come with fire, burn us with your presence new.
Let us as one mighty choir sing our hymn of praise to you.
Burn away our wasted sadness and enflame us with your love.
Burst upon your congregation, give us gladness from above.
Between these lines is an incredible humility and honesty about the state of the Church and an abiding trust and joy in what it can be.

Holy Spirit, bring your message, burn and breathe each word anew
deep into our tired living till we strive your work to do.
Teach us love and trusting kindness, lend our hands to those who hurt.
Breathe upon your congregation and inspire us with your word.”

Between these lines is an incredible humility and honesty about the state of the Church and an abiding trust and joy in what it can be.

Breaking, bursting, breathing… these are powerful, vigorous and life giving images of the Holy Spirit’s coming to renew us in that ancient call, that great commission “You are my witnesses”.

Now look around the room again. We are the General Synod of The Anglican Church of Canada assembled in its 41st Session. We come from dioceses and territories and spiritual ministries all across Canada. While we came as delegates elected by synods and assemblies of the church local, we are now members of this body whose care and concern is for the whole Church and its witness to the Gospel of Christ. This is the body that through the years has recognized moments when that witness has had about it an integrity worthy of that Gospel and mourned moments when that witness has lacked such integrity. This is the body which has celebrated witness that has been strong, spirited and steadfast and confessed witness that has been misguided, messed up and marred. This is the body that through its history has done much to draw us together in mission, to nurture the bonds of affection we hold for one another as partners in mission. This is the body that since it’s inception in 1893 has drawn our Church together “not for harmony” as our first Primate Robert Machray said “but for strength.” He assumed harmony across our Church and prayed for strength in building up our common life in the service of the Gospel.

This is the body that through its history has also wrestled with numerous issues within the Church and in the world at large over which we have often found ourselves in deep disagreement. Many of the issues have centred around inclusion—the place of women in the councils of the Church, the place of women as priests and bishops, the place of young people and their voice and vote, the place of children at the Eucharistic table, the place of those married and divorced and wanting to marry again, the place of religious communities whose life transcends diocesan boundaries, the place of Indigenous Peoples from status as observers, to guests, to partners, to members in Synod, and the place of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning people within the Church and their equality of access to all the ministrations of the Church including the solemnizing of their marriages.

Look around this room. We gather knowing that in the Church at large there is much interest in the work to which we turn our attention in the next five days. We know the eyes of many are upon us, many will be following our proceedings as they are live streamed and through social media, many of you will be communicating with the Church.

Look around this room. We reflect the orders of all the baptized—the laity, the clergy, the bishops; voting in unicameral session. There is a transparency about our way of working that is really quite wonderful albeit challenging at times.

We acknowledge that in previous Synods we have often done our work of discernment and decision making well, and sometimes not. We acknowledge at times we have exhibited a patience with one another that befits our calling in Christ and sometimes not. We acknowledge that in our efforts to lift every voice we have fallen short in our capacity to hear the voice of the Spirit whispering into our proceedings a word of wisdom and grace.

Coming to this Synod we are especially mindful that in those matters over which we disagree deeply we are called to find ways to remain in fellowship one with another, to abide in that communion to which Christ calls us, to strive as St. Paul counsels “If it be possible so far as it depends on you live peaceably with all”. (Romans 12:18)

In this regard, the General Synod in 2010 in Halifax will always be remembered as one of our finer moments. Let me cite just a few sentences from the Sexuality Discernment Statement that emerged from our work in that Synod. It noted that

  • Our conversations were marked by grace, honesty and generosity of spirit towards one another.
  • In the transparency and openness we have experienced with one another, we have risked vulnerability but it is in such places that we grow closer in the body of Christ and behold each other as gift. Abiding with each other, and with God we are sustained through struggle, patient listening, and speaking from the mind and heart together.
  • For many members of General Synod there is deep sadness that, at this time, there is no common mind. We acknowledge the pain that our diversity in this matter causes. We are deeply aware of the cost to people whose lives are implicated in the consequences of an ongoing discernment process. This is not just an ‘issue’ but is about people’s daily lives and deeply held faith commitments.
  • …despite all our differences we are passionately committed to walking together, protecting our common life.

I hope some measure of the grace and goodwill reflected in that statement will be characteristic of the manner in which we conduct ourselves in the work of this General Synod.

While our work may be hard, let us draw comfort and strength for the task in knowing that we are being upheld in waves of prayer by:

– the faithful throughout our Church in Canada and around the Anglican Communion
– our Full Communion Partner, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC)
– those churches with whom we are in ecumenical dialogue
– in prayer vigils in diocesan cathedrals, in parish churches, Sacred Circles, and through social media
– and in the round of daily offices of the religious communities associated with our Church—SSJD, CSC, OHC, SSJE, and a number of new expressions of religious communities across Canada and in the community of St. Anselm resident of Lambeth Palace in London.

Brother James Koester, the Superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist wrote to me on June 23rd saying,
“I know that we are keeping you specifically and General Synod more broadly in our prayers. I know this Synod will not be without its challenges, but I trust it will also be with its graces.”

We are particularly blessed in that hour by hour, and day by day, the Synod is being upheld through the ministry of the Anglican Fellowship of Prayer. Members of the Fellowship will be gladly receive us in the Room for Prayer, to give us space and time to pray alone, or to pray with us. I encourage members of Synod to avail themselves of this ministry.

All who pray with and for us have an understanding of a Synod for what it truly is—an assembly of the People of God from every jurisdiction within the Church gathered to do its work under the presiding of the Holy Spirit. Accordingly they join us in prayers that the Holy Spirit will come and hover, settle and abide with us, to grace and guide, enlighten and lead.

Knowing we are surrounded by those so deeply committed to praying for us, I trust dear friends, that we will pray for one another too—as fellow members of Synod everyone endeavouring to the best of their ability and in accord with grace given to live up to the theme that draws us together and then in five days time sends us out—“You are my witnesses”. There will be times when we formally pray for one another in Synod—in our morning, midday and evening devotions, and in particular moments within the conduct of our business. There will be other moments too—outside the formal sessions. In this respect I remember very vividly the manner in which Archbishop Rowan Williams invited the bishops at the Lambeth Conference, 2008 to muster the courage to speak to someone with whom we knew a conversation would be difficult.

“Go and ask him or her to pray with you” he said. “Don’t discuss, don’t negotiate, just ask to pray: you never know what might happen. See what God can do. however you find a way to do it, I simply hope and trust something may be possible there, because in our reflections and in our quiet, we may need to draw out some of our fears as well as our hopes for the weeks ahead—the fear that we may find ourselves excluded, powerless: that the Church we love becomes a Church we can’t recognize.”

The Archbishop’s counsel proved to be very helpful in the life of that conference and I commend it for our life in this Synod.

As that tiny little community gathered in that upper room in Jerusalem knew its commission by the risen Lord, so may we gathered in this room know afresh his call “You are my witnesses”. As that tiny little community devoted itself to prayer in an eager anticipation of the coming of the Holy Spirit so may we devote ourselves to prayer, that in all our work in this Synod we may know the gracious accompaniment of the Holy Spirit.

Let us pray.

“O Holy Spirit of God, abide with us,
inspire all our thoughts;
pervade our imaginations;
suggest all our decisions; order all our doings.

Be with us in our silence and in our speech,
in our haste and in our leisure,
in company and in solitude,
in the freshness of the morning and
the weariness of the evening;
give us grace at all times humbly to rejoice in
your mysterious companionship,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen”
(John Baille)

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