In October of 1851 the Anglican bishops of North America convened a meeting in Quebec to develop some common policies on a number of issues. One particular concern was pressing the British government to enable the gathering of Synods outside of England. A bill was brought to parliament in 1853 to do just that, but it failed to pass.
Following the example of Bishop Selwyn of New Zealand, who invited lay delegates to attend his clergy visitation in 1851, Bishop John Strachan asked the clergy of the Diocese of Toronto to do likewise for the visitation in October 1853. Once gathered, Bishop Strachan declared the assembly to be a Synod. The first of its kind in the Anglican Communion.
The next time you are in St. James Cathedral, I invite you to take a moment and stand at the foot of the chancel step and face the altar. Look to the left, at the first stained glass window in the nave. The bottom portion of the window commemorates this first “unconventional” Synod. Bishop Strachan presides as the delegates, both clergy and lay, gather round. The scene takes place at Holy Trinity, Trinity Square. It was a momentous occasion, when decision-making, planning and the work of the diocese became the shared endeavour of clergy and laity. Episcopally led and synodically governed would become a reality 168 years ago.
Still standing at the foot of the chancel step, now look to the right. The first window in the nave depicts the Day of Pentecost. In beautiful hues of yellow, gold, green and blue, the scene captures the moment when tongues as of fire came to rest on each of the disciples. Alight with the power of the Holy Spirit, the followers of Jesus would break out into the streets of Jerusalem to become instruments of grace and love. The Church would come to life in a new way.
This November, we will convene the 160th regular session of Synod for the Diocese of Toronto. This time, it will be in an unconventional way – online, a first for our diocese. Some of us love gathering for Synod and others not so much. I happen to enjoy Synod. I enjoy seeing my friends and colleagues. I enjoy sharing a table with a parish from a different part of the diocese. I relish the cluster of conversations that happen around display tables, by the coffee stand and around the bar. I enjoy the formal dinner, the debates on relevant issues and the thoughtful engagement of ideas. And yes, I agree, there are moments that are a bit, well, dry. Yet these moments matter somehow, too. I will miss gathering in person this year. And yet, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to assemble virtually in these precarious times.
The stained-glass windows on the right and on the left in the nave of the cathedral remind me that we should never take Synod for granted. It is a critically important gathering of the Church. The juxtaposition of these two seminal scenes in our church history also remind me that our gathering is to be steeped in worship and praise. We gather in humility. We draw together to honour one another in a spirit of Christian love. We have opportunity to look back and give thanks to God for bringing us safely to this moment in time. We have the occasion to address issues that are pertinent to our times: climate change, poverty and lack of affordable housing, reconciliation with our Indigenous siblings, supporting congregations and leaders through this pandemic.
We have come this far along the way through trouble and lockdown by being vigilant and doing our part alongside other front-line workers. Deeper still, we arrive together knowing that we are never alone. God our creator, Jesus our Saviour and the Holy Spirit our inspirer call us to look to tomorrow with confidence and hope, just like our biblical ancestors did before us.
The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. (Psalm 9.9)