Archbishop reflects on changing the marriage canon

Posted on March 7, 2016

By Archbishop Colin Johnson

A proposed change in the Canon on Marriage will come before our General Synod in July. Because statements from the gathering of the Anglican Primates in Canterbury in early January and from the Canadian House of Bishops that met at the end of February have received some considerable attention, I want to outline and comment on these recent developments.

Primates’ Gathering

Our Primate, Archbishop Fred Hiltz has given a fulsome report of the gathering of Primates which he attended, in addition to the communique from that meeting and the press conference given by the Archbishop of Canterbury and some other Primates. These are available at http://www.primates2016.org/articles/2016/01/15/communique-primates/ and http://www.anglican.ca/news/a-reflection-on-the-meeting-of-the-primates/30014029/. Many have found these documents distressing, either because they think the Primates have gone too far in their authority and conclusions or alternatively that they have not gone far enough.

The Primates of the Anglican Communion are official representatives of their Churches. They hold a moral authority but not jurisdiction. We are autonomous Churches within a Communion of Churches that are independent, interdependent and mutually accountable. That means, I think, we need to take the Primates’ opinions into consideration as we make decisions in our own Province, and about how the proposed change affects relationships within the Communion and ecumenically. It is one factor, though not a definitive one, in coming to our own conclusions.

The Instruments of Communion (Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ gathering) are just that: “instruments” in maintaining and nurturing relationship and communion, not binding legislative bodies. Note the terms within the names: “consultative,” “conference,” “gathering.”

There is no easily defined magisterium in Anglican polity. The teaching authority is diverse and diffused. This is confusing, frustrating, delighting, challenging, and distinctively Anglican. And it means that there is considerable room for nuance and ambiguity within Anglicanism, even on important issues. That does not mean that anything goes, but it does mean that the boundaries are generous, particularly in pastoral matters.

The Diocese of Toronto shares in that diversity. The full range of theological, liturgical and political opinion is expressed in this Diocese including on the subject of same-sex unions and marriages. The recent Primates’ statement does not change this.

The majority at the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada in 2004 approved a resolution affirming the integrity and sanctity of monogamous adult same-sex unions. The overwhelming majority of our Diocesan Synod agreed later that same year, even as it narrowly rejected formally blessing those unions. In 2011, by consensus, our Synod supported a pastoral approach to allow such blessings in some circumstances. Our process was adopted by General Synod in 2012, which in the absence of consensus across the church on blessings, asked for the most generous pastoral responses. To be clear, the debate was about blessing of same-sex unions but not marriage of same-sex couples.

Changing the Canon on Marriage

The Canon on Marriage is a canon of the national church and does not come under the purview of a diocesan Synod. General Synod 2013 required that a motion to change the Canon on Marriage to accommodate same-sex marriage be brought to the next General Synod in 2016. That resolution also asked that the Council of General Synod respond to a number of questions to support this.

The Commission on the Marriage Canon, established by CoGS, produced a fine and succinct report that is a significant contribution to the debate both in Canada and more broadly. It also suggested some intriguing possibilities. It is worth study.

As required, a proposed motion was drafted. The Constitution of General Synod requires that this motion be approved by a two-thirds majority in each of the three Orders. If there is approval at First Reading, the resolution is then sent for consideration by the Synods of each of the four Ecclesiastical Provinces and the Synods of each of the 30 dioceses over the next three years. Then in General Synod 2019 the Second Reading of the motion with any amendments requires a two-third affirmative vote in each of the three Orders in order to become effective in January 2020.

House of Bishops’ Statement

The Canadian House of Bishops met in February to continue its study of the proposed change to the Marriage Canon to include same-sex couples. We did not vote for or against the motion, nor did we ask that the Council of General Synod withdraw the motion. The bishops were not exercising a legislative function – that takes place in General Synod – but our pastoral and teaching responsibilities. Accordingly, we expressed concern that a legislative process may not be the most helpful way of dealing with this matter.

As bishops, our ordination vows compel us to guard the doctrine, discipline and unity of the Church, both within the diocese, and in the national and international Church. We have “the care of all the churches” before, during and after Synod.

The bishops’ communication to the Council of General Synod and to the Church is not a direction to any of the Orders of General Synod to vote in a particular way. Furthermore it implicitly states that the Order of Bishops will not vote as a block at General Synod, but rather individually, like all the other members of Synod, as they feel led by the debate and the Spirit. There is considerable diversity of opinion in the House and there is no unity of discernment or a common mind theologically that we can achieve at this time.

The communication also observed that we did not think it likely that this draft motion would succeed in achieving a two-thirds majority in the Order of Bishops when the vote takes place. We believe that this is a fact, regrettable for many, including myself, but one that needs to be reported to CoGS and taken into consideration when the process for the discussion at General Synod is being developed. I think that communicating this was the right thing to do in the interests of being honest, transparent and realistic.

This does not take the issue off the table – even those most opposed to same-sex marriage recognize that. It does suggest that we need to be realistic about expectations and that we need to consider creative alternatives to the “all eggs in one basket” approach. Unlikely as it may be that some bishops will change their minds and the motion will pass, that does not preclude different results with amendments or alternative motions.

Finally, one of the truly significant points in the communication was that, in spite of these differences, all of the bishops pledged to participate in ongoing discussions with members of the Church and all continued daily to share in Holy Communion together, a powerful sacramental sign of community. This has not always been the case in the past and is not the situation internationally. Unity does not require uniformity, nor is it the only goal, but it is one of the charisms of episcopal ministry and a good for which Jesus prayed, and it must be a factor in any decision.

Where does this leave the Diocese of Toronto?

The current practice of the Diocese of Toronto has not changed with the recent statements:

  • We recognize that some of our clergy and postulants are openly partnered or in civil same-sex marriages. They are a valuable part of our clerical family. They are, or will be, available for placement in parishes that will affirm this.
  • There is, and will continue to be, a significant place for both clergy and laity who do not support these decisions. This includes placement in parishes large and small, membership on decision-making bodies like Diocesan Council, and representation on policy and administrative groups.

Times of discernment are always difficult. There are those who know with total certainty which direction the Holy Spirit is leading – unfortunately not all of them agree on which direction that is! Most of us will continue to pray and ponder, study, and listen to each other and to the Spirit as we seek to determine in our time, the mind and wisdom of Christ, who continues as head of the Church, his body.