Peter Toon assesses the first significant report from the Panel of Reference and though it has been widely criticized across the Anglican Communion finds some hope in its temporary, pragmatic truce for a bitter dispute

Anglicans in and around Vancouver in British Columbia have been waiting a long time for the publication of the findings of the Panel of Reference with regard to the request by some parishes for alternative episcopal oversight and even jurisdiction. Now the short report is available (at ) and all sides are digesting it and considering its recommendations, which are not revolutionary or radical but, in Anglican terms, reasonable. Nevertheless they are much less than what the petitioners wanted.

To appreciate what the Panel recommends, we need to be aware of a major trend within the Anglican family of churches. In order to address the problems of contemporary Anglicanism as a global ‘Communion,’ Anglican Polity is slowly being developed – with apparently little dissent – towards a conciliar form of global interdependency. Individual provinces, which are legally autonomous, are recognizing that they need to become less independent and more interdependent, if the Anglican family is to be not merely a federation of provinces but a real communion and fellowship of regional churches.

Then the idea of each and every Province committing to ‘An Anglican Covenant’ to guarantee a basic conformity in doctrine and morals seems to be catching on, not least in the Global South. And to help reach the practical reality of minimal conciliar polity with a pastoral heart to it, there are in place the Instruments of Unity – the See of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Primates’ Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council – which are all learning how to be what they are told they really are.

We need also to be aware of two recent major Anglican reports, which have had a great impact on this conciliar commitment. Much was made of the reality of Communion and of establishing the Instruments of Unity in The Virginia Report (1998). And much was made of the need for interdependency between provinces, strengthening the Instruments of Unity, and the creation of An Anglican Covenant in The Windsor Report (2004). The latter has become as a second bible for many in the Anglican world. The Primates will be discussing the response of The Episcopal Church to The Windsor Report at their February 2007 meeting in Tanzania.

In order to put the ongoing trials of British Columbian Anglicanism in context, we need to recall that The Windsor Report dealt with the erring diocese of New Westminster, which had approved the use of public Rites for the Blessing of same-sex unions (see §136–9 for an account of how this approval came about). In judgement, the Commission stated in this report that the diocese had acted in ways incompatible with the Communion principle of interdependence and that fellowship had suffered immensely (§122–3).

In British Columbia itself, not a few of the churches within the diocese saw their diocesan problems not in these Anglican terms but rather in moral, biblical and theological terms. For them, without any doubt or hesitation, the blessing of same-sex couples was wrong, contrary to God’s will and to the good order of the Anglican Church of Canada. In contrast, ordaining women was not a problem for them. Thus, after the first public Rite of same-sex Blessing took place in 2003, they found themselves in serious dispute with their bishop, Michael Ingham, and unable to receive his ministry.

Like most disputes in which theology, personality, property and canon law are mixed together, it was and remains a complicated and not always coherent story. Some clergy and laity followed their consciences and left. Out of these was eventually formed a Network of churches (ANiC) which is now under the pastoral supervision of the Archbishop of Rwanda – and he recently appointed its first female rector.

Others remained in their parishes and missions and appealed for help to the ‘Archbishop of Canterbury’s Panel of Reference for the Anglican Communion,’ which had recently been set up at the request of the Primates’ Meetings of October 2004 and February 2005. So, in effect, this minority (basically evangelical churchmen) were accepting the reality of an emerging conciliar polity and appealing to the primary Instrument of Unity, the See of Canterbury, through his Panel of Reference (chaired by Archbishop Carnley of Australia) to provide alternative oversight. However, and this is important for us all to note, a fledgling conciliar polity, as is the present Anglican one, cannot be expected to work quickly, however desperate is the situation. Thus if appeals are to be made to the Instruments of Unity for guidance or determination, petitioners must be prepared to be patient, very patient. There is no Anglican Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith in Lambeth to give an instant ruling.

The Anglican approach, which seeks to create space for the peaceful resolution of conflict and controversy, without resort either to centralized authority or confessional over-definition, cannot and will not move fast. Bearing all this in mind, Anglicans in difficult situations may be well advised to pray for the virtue of patience if they want to stay aboard the Anglican ship at this time of crisis and change.

The Panel of Reference Report was posted on the website of the Anglican Communion Office on 12 October 2006. For those who had not been too influenced by the recent actions, declarations, protests and promises of the Global South, had assessed soberly the situation of the Anglican Communion in the West, and knew that there is a General Synod of the Church in Canada due in 2007, there are no major surprises in the recommendations of the Panel. However, to understand them all, we need to realize that the Church of England (unlike certain African Provinces) is actually in communion with the whole of the Anglican Church of Canada, and so are the majority of Anglican Provinces around the world. Certainly the Canadian Church, like the American, has been asked not to take part in the Anglican Consultative Council for the time being, but it has not been expelled from the Communion.

The Panel had to work within this context and recommend that which upheld the integrity of the Anglican Church in Canada as a Communion member. It could not seriously consider recommending that the protesting churches and missions be ‘transferred’ from their diocese to some other province or network and thereby cease connection with the Diocese of New Westminster and the Province of Canada. So, following the guidelines of The Windsor Report for reconciliation (§147–155), and accepting the classic distinction between the jurisdiction and oversight of a diocesan (territorial) bishop, it presented recommendations which make real demands on both sides (but greater upon the petitioners than the diocese) as well as on the Province of Canada.

All in the Canadian Church from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean would surely do well to accept them even if they do not wholly agree with them. The protestors are being asked to pay the heaviest price, but this will work out for their maturity in Christ if they are able to accept their commitments gracefully and wait patiently for the Lambeth Conference of 2008 before taking any precipitate action, or being filled with unrealistic hopes from voices in the Global South.

At the centre of the recommendations are these two:

(a) In the present temporary situation, the Panel recognizes that an agreed scheme of extended episcopal ministry needs to be offered to a number of clergy and parishes within the Diocese of New Westminster, which will both provide for their spiritual needs and offer assurance of continuity for their distinctive theological tradition.

(b) Such a scheme should be achieved within the Anglican Church in Canada itself, at national or provincial level. The bishop of a diocese is subject to the general ecclesiastical law of the church or province concerned, and one would look to the Anglican Church of Canada for action to be taken in the first instance. The provision of a scheme of Shared Episcopal Ministry [SEM] by the Canadian House of Bishops in 2004 offers a model which we believe to be appropriate, with some additional safeguards designed to take account of the special circumstances prevailing in this case, given the protracted and deep divisions which exist. It is also recommended that the emergence of this working situation – of an Episcopal Visitor being deeply involved in the parishes – be strengthened and protected by various safeguards made on both sides, by the diocese and the protesting parishes. For example, the diocese will eradicate from its records all charges against the clergy and parishes, and the latter in turn will pay their diocesan quotas and conduct themselves in such a way as to be obvious members of the diocese.

The situation has not been made easier for the dissenting parishes by the comment of Presiding Bishop Venables of the Southern Cone: ‘Given that the Panel of Reference process has taken twenty painfully slow and drawn-out months to do what was considered desperately urgent at the onset, it is now tragic to receive a report that fails to address the crisis in New Westminster adequately. It simply does not reflect the depth nor the severity of the crisis that has been precipitated by Michael Ingham’s actions.’ Bishop Gregory obviously thinks that the parishes should have been cut free from New Westminster altogether and put under the pastoral guidance of a Global South Bishop. But the Panel could not recommend that radical route without abandoning clear Anglican principles as is indicated in their report.

The Archbishop of the West Indies, Drexel Gomes, also of the Global South, made a much longer and more thoughtful comment but still critical of the Panel’s work. It ends in this way: ‘While one appreciates the legal logic displayed by the Panel, one cannot help but conclude that the Panel has failed to understand the political and theological reality of the situation in which the applicants find themselves… In the circumstances, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the Province of Canada provide a secure resting place for the applicants while the Province prepares for its General Synod. Christian charity demands no less.’

The final sentence is where we need to focus. Primates of the Global South do no service to the besieged folks in and around Vancouver by criticizing the Panel. Rather, the petitioners need godly counsel based on the wisdom of Scripture. Until the Conciliar Polity through the Primates’ Meeting and the Lambeth Conference has had a chance to address these controversial matters – that is, at least until July 2008 – everyone needs to be on his best Christian behaviour and be patient, and especially those who claim to be ‘orthodox’ and ‘biblically-based.’ And the whole Communion should pray earnestly for the General Synod in Canada next year that it will be graced by heavenly wisdom and understanding and so walk obediently in the way of Christ.

For the Canadian Church to provide appropriate and adequate oversight of the protesting parishes is surely not too difficult for it to achieve quickly and graciously. Perhaps under pressure now from the Global Communion they will see the need to do what is needed and right speedily. Certainly they ought so to do and Bishop Ingham also needs to change his militant attitude and humble himself under the mighty hand of God, and receive positively the content of The Windsor Report and act upon it.

Meanwhile the besieged parishes themselves will probably suffer loss of membership and other privation in the year or two ahead. However, if they intend to stay fully Anglican and genuinely Christian, they have little alternative but to remain where they are, be faithful, and pray for Christian grace, aware of what St Paul wrote, ‘We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose’ [Romans 8.28].