THE ANGLICAN Church of Canada has just done an end run around its own marriage laws. For more than three days it agonized over its approach to same-sex marriage, upholding traditional marriage on Friday and then leaving room for same-sex marriage as a local option in certain jurisdictions.On Friday July 12th the governing body of the church, General Synod, meeting in Vancouver, defeated on 2nd reading a motion to change the Marriage Canon to allow for same-sex marriage.
Then just three days later the House of Bishops issued a statement recognizing the reality of local option.
The Friday motion had required a two-thirds majority in each of the three orders of laity, clergy and bishops. It did pass in the orders of laity and clergy but not in the order of bishops. Twenty-three bishops voted in favour while two abstained and 14 voted against it.
Three bishops who were expected to vote in favour of the change were all absent through illness: Melissa Skelton of New Westminster (the diocese hosting the Synod), John Chapman of Ottawa and Peter Fenty of Toronto.
Over one-third of the bishops opposed the motion as did over one-quarter of the clergy and almost one fifth of the laity. This is a church that is still, three years after its last General Synod, not of one mind.
How each member voted has been recorded but will not be revealed until the minutes are released.
Primate Fred Hiltz had asked Synod that there be no applause after any speeches or votes. When the results became known, no one cheered but several delegates ran from the room in tears.
The defeated motion declared “that Canon XXI (On Marriage in the Church) apply to all persons who are duly qualified by civil law to enter into marriage.” And “A minister may only solemnize a marriage between persons of the same sex if authorized by the diocesan bishop.”
Terms such as “man and woman” or “husband and wife” were either dropped or changed to “parties to the marriage.”
Over forty delegates spoke to the motion. Bishop Joey Royal, a suffragan bishop of the Arctic, for his part, said that the Chancellor of General Synod, David Jones, at the last synod was wrong to conclude that because the Marriage Canon did not mention same-sex marriage it therefore did not forbid it. Royal pointed out that this is what is known as an “argument from silence.” He said that the Marriage Canon did not mention polygamy either but was not, therefore, permitting it.
It was this very argument from silence that led Chancellor Jones in 2016 to give the go-ahead to any diocese that wanted to hold same-sex marriage rites despite the fact that the motion had only passed first, not second, reading.
In 2016 several bishops issued statements saying they would in fact allow same-sex marriage in their dioceses, in line with the Chancellor’s comments and Memo.
The Rt. Rev. Michael Bird, Bishop of Niagara, quoted the Chancellor’s judgment that the Marriage Canon “does not contain either a definition of marriage or a specific prohibition against solemnizing same-sex marriage.” Moreover, “Anglican conventions allow bishops to authorize ‘liturgies to respond to pastoral needs within their dioceses, in the absence of any actions by this General Synod to address these realities.’”
In 2016 the order of bishops actually passed the motion to allow for same-sex marriage. (Twenty-six bishops voted for the motion and 13 opposed it. There were no abstentions.) However, it only passed in the order of clergy by a single vote.
But over the past three years, as various bishops have retired and new ones have been elected, the House of Bishops has become somewhat more theologically conservative.
Yet the current House of Bishops is by no means a white male enclave. Of the 43 bishops, 13 are women and twelve are Indigenous.
There had been much preparation for a close vote. The Rev. Canon Martin Brokenleg gave a moving meditation on “How do we walk together, how do we live well in our diversity after the vote, no matter what the outcome is?”
But while a close vote had been expected, there seemed to be genuine shock and dismay when the motion failed on second reading. That night requests were made from the floor to revisit the issue before synod closed on Tuesday.
Then on July 15th, at the beginning of the Monday afternoon session, Primate Fred Hiltz read a message from the House of Bishops to General Synod. Before doing so he asked all the bishops to stand but a number remained seated. The statement admitted that the bishops “are not of one mind” but that “We are walking together in a way which leaves room for individual dioceses and jurisdictions of our church to proceed with same-sex marriage…”
The message reads in full:
We, members of the House of Bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada, see the pain and anguish inflicted on LGBTQ2S+ people, on members of the General Synod, across the Church, and in the world, as a result of the work and the vote on the matter of Canon 21, concerning marriage. We see your tears, we hear your cries, and we weep with you. We have caused deep hurt. We are profoundly sorry. Although the bishops are not of one mind, we look with hope to the “Word to the Church” and its affirmations which General Synod 2019 overwhelmingly approved on Friday, July 12. We are walking together in a way which leaves room for individual dioceses and jurisdictions of our church to proceed with same-sex marriage according to their contexts and convictions, sometimes described as “local option.” Together, we affirm the inherent right of Indigenous peoples and communities to spiritual self-determination in their discernment and decisions in all matters. Although we as bishops are not able to agree, in the name of Jesus Christ, we commit to conduct ourselves “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2-3).
There were no signatures attached to the letter nor was any dissenting opinion given.
Many delegates and observers are thankful that the Marriage Canon was preserved. Some, however, are also asking how, in this nebulous situation, this will play out for clergy and congregations who differ theologically from their bishop.
One bishop’s take
The Anglican Planet asked Bp Royal for his interpretation of the House of Bishops’ message and his understanding of how it might unfold.
“Everyone across the spectrum is feeling the heartbreak and pain of people. That is real. There is no doubt about that. Grief and pain are real among conservatives too, but same-sex marriage is not an answer to pain. Violating the teaching of Scripture is not the way forward.”
“We were seeking ‘caucus solidarity,’ that this is the general feeling of the large majority of the House of Bishops. There were dissenting voices in the House. It does not mean we all agree that the local option is a correct interpretation of the Marriage Canon. Nor are all the bishops of one mind regarding the affirmations [cited in A Word to the Church]. We did not all vote for them.
“The local option for same-sex marriage is descriptive of what is happening on the ground (since 2016 several dioceses have authorized same-sex marriage) but it is not prescriptive. There were dissenting voices in the House of Bishops. For the vast majority of conservatives, whether they are Indigenous or non-Indigenous, the clear teaching of Scripture is the decisive factor.
“In a church that affirms the ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’ I can’t make sense of what local option means in this context or in the global Church. This is something that has not yet been fully acknowledged despite repeated pleas from all across the Communion to not proceed with same-sex marriage. The truth is we’ve unleashed a monster and no one – not conservatives, not liberals – can predict how this will all play out in the coming years.
“This time around the argument for same-sex marriage is not pastoral concerns (as it was after General Synod 2016) but the Chancellor’s Memo that what is not prohibited is allowed, a Memo I dissented from publicly. And built on that Memo are the affirmations and built on them is local option. Even before the House of Bishops’ message was released a number of bishops announced that they would authorize same-sex marriage in their jurisdictions.
“We live in a broken church. Local option is just one more sign of that pervasive brokenness. Lord have mercy on us.”