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Toronto election stirs new controversy



Photos: ACC Diocese of Toronto

The Rev. Riscylla Walsh Shaw, the Rev. Kevin Robertson and the Rev. Jenny Andison were recently elected as bishops suffragan in Toronto. Some are questioning the legitimacy of the whole election.

By Sharon Dewey Hetke

ON SEPT. 17, the Diocese of Toronto elected three new bishops – and in doing so escalated the conflict over same-sex relationships in the Anglican Church of Canada.

Over three separate elections, a slate of 12 candidates was winnowed down and three Toronto priests emerged as new suffragans (assistant bishops) to oversee areas in Canada’s numerically largest diocese. 

In the first election, on the 7th ballot, The Rev. Riscylla Walsh Shaw was chosen to oversee Trent-Durham (replacing Bp. Linda Nicholls who is now coadjutor in the Diocese of Huron); in the 2nd election on the 4th ballot, the Rev. Kevin Robertson was chosen to serve York-Scarborough (replacing retired Bp. Patrick Yu); and in the 3rd election, The Rev. Jenny Andison was chosen on the third ballot to serve York-Credit Valley (following the retirement of The Rt. Rev. Philip Poole).

Robertson, 45, has served as a priest in the Diocese of Toronto since 1997 and is in a same-sex relationship but is not married to his partner. 

In early July, several Toronto clergy, The Rev. Dr. Catherine Sider-Hamilton, The Rev. Dr. Dean Mercer and The Rev. Murray Henderson, had written to the Nominations Committee, to Archbishop Colin Johnson and to Chancellor Clare Burns, asking about the legitimacy of the whole election, given that one candidate’s manner of life was in conflict with the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. If the slate includes a candidate who is not duly qualified (because he has taught or held something contrary to the church’s doctrine and discipline in the last five years) then the election as a whole is out of order, they argued. 

Sider-Hamilton, priest-in-charge at St. Matthew’s, Riverdale and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College, told The Anglican Planet, “Our point from the beginning had been ‘Why is this legitimate?  It doesn’t look legitimate to us.’ I’ve always thought that the whole diocese was owed an explanation and at least a kind of heads-up: ‘We, as a church, if we are declaring same-sex relationships/marriage to be part of the church’s teaching…and not contrary to it, are doing something really new’.” (Background information circulated prior to the election did not mention Robertson’s relationship.)

Two months after sending the letter, the writers received a response from the Chancellor simply including instruction on how to bring a charge of an ecclesiastical offence and an affirmation that everything was considered to be in order with regard to the coming election. The three clergy then wrote to the Archbishop declining to pursue charges and again requesting an explanation. 

Just days before the election, a fuller response was received from Archbishop Johnson. He made reference to the 2004 General Synod’s affirmation of “the integrity and sanctity of committed adult same-sex relationships” (reaffirmed at GS 2016), to the approval at General Synod 2016 on first reading of a change to the Marriage Canon, and to Chancellor David Jones’ statement leading up to the July General Synod vote that the marriage Canon as it stands “does not contain either a definition of marriage or a specific prohibition against solemnizing same-sex marriage.”

As the elections were about to begin on the morning of synod, Sider-Hamilton rose to make a formal protest on the floor before the 500 or so delegates. 

“I just couldn’t sit there as if this were another normal election. It wasn’t; it was groundbreaking and actually promotes a change to our teaching as a whole church on marriage,” she explained.

In response, Archbishop Johnson said that Robertson held his (the Archbishop’s) appointment, was a priest in good standing and that the election could therefore proceed.

According to the Diocese of Toronto website, after the vote Robertson said, “I think General Synod (in July) was a turning point for the national church and my election today is a turning point for our diocese, and I’m honoured to be a part of that.”

In her comments to TAP, Sider-Hamilton also made clear that the opposition to Robertson’s candidacy and election – before, during and after synod – should not be taken as in any way a personal attack: “As we also told the Archbishop, the fault does not lie with this one candidate. He is, in the first place, living a lifestyle that the Archbishop has approved… My problem first of all is with the diocese, and the leaders who are responsible for holding the teaching of the Church and are allowing themselves to be lead by majority opinion in one city. The people who are responsible for upholding Canon law – the Nominating Committee, the Chancellor and the Bishop – are not doing so,” she said.

Episcopal election results in Toronto must be approved by the Ontario Provincial House of Bishops. So Sider-Hamilton, Mercer and Henderson wrote immediately following synod to that House, expressing their dissent and objecting to the lines of reasoning in Archbishop Johnson’s September letter to them, including his reference to Chancellor Jones’ remarks to General Synod. Sider-Hamilton, Mercer and Henderson said it was an “astonishing claim that there is no settled definition of marriage in the church and further astonishing that this tendentious and undemonstrated claim should serve as the basis for proceeding without any chance for a critical response.”

Despite this letter, the Provincial House approved the election of the three bishops. (There was no bishop sitting in the Diocese of Algoma at the time of the approval. Bishop Stephen Andrews, a theological conservative, had just retired and the seat was vacant.) 

Next Sider-Hamilton, Mercer and Henderson wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, “to protest the election itself and to dissent publicly from the diocesan and provincial concurrence with its results,” and to request his intervention. (See the full letter on page 7.) No reply has been received at press time.

In comments following the election, Archbishop Johnson said, “We’re at an early stage in this experience; I think many parts of the world do not understand it, so it will be a challenge for them, but it will be an opportunity for us to explain how and why we have made this choice today.”

This choice is also having immediate effects on some parishes in the Diocese of Toronto. Dr. Roseanne Kydd, Chair of the Anglican Communion Alliance, told TAP that the September election “has come as a great shock to many who had no inkling of this possibility.” She also expressed concerns for church unity, saying, “Some of the laity most consistent in their parish attendance and giving have already left. ACA has made every effort to provide support for those finding themselves in this distressing situation, often with a helpful outcome.” While recognizing the option of leaving for theological reasons, Kydd said the ACA continues to “encourage those in these environments to seek to stay where at all possible.”

Asked by TAP if he might be willing to consider some form of alternate episcopal oversight or shared episcopal ministry for conservatives (like the model adopted in Montreal in 2011), Archbishop Johnson’s office declined to comment. 

Two of Toronto’s bishops-elect, Walsh Shaw and Robertson, voted at General Synod in favour of the change to the Marriage Canon; Bishop-elect Andison abstained.

Walsh Shaw, Andison and Robertson will be consecrated on Jan. 7th, 2017 at St Paul’s Bloor Street.   TAP

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