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From Our Bishops

Archbishop Johnson shares thoughts on General Synod

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

You will have heard the difficult and confusing results from General Synod around the amendment to the Canon on Marriage.  What happened and where do we go from here?

According to our rules of order, this motion required a 2/3 majority affirmative vote in each of the three orders, laity, clergy and bishops.  After a lengthy presentation of the Commission’s Report on Friday evening, we had three periods of discussion in small table groups of about 8 and in larger circles of about 20-25 on Saturday and Monday morning.  We moved into a legislative debate on the motion presented with two amendments on Monday afternoon that extended long into the evening.  About 60 people spoke in the debate. A few on both sides spoke disparagingly of the other side. The vast majority were generous and thoughtful.  A number were truly eloquent.

When the vote was taken, a recorded vote as requested under the rules of order, it appeared that the motion had passed but it quickly became apparent that it had achieved more than 2/3 votes among the bishops and laity but failed by one vote among the clergy, 66.23%, just shy of the 66.66% required.  A great silence filled the room.  There were many tears, there was no elation.  People were deeply concerned for each other.  A few members left the floor of Synod in their pain.

After prayer and some procedural motions, we adjourned to the next morning.

On Tuesday, members of Synod were asked to consider what the next steps should be spiritually, symbolically and structurally.  Two important decisions were made.  A motion was debated and approved by a large margin to reaffirm the 2004 declaration of General Synod (subsequently passed in the same form in the Diocese of Toronto special synod of November 2004) “affirming the sanctity and integrity of monogamous, adult, committed same sex relationships.”  A motion to release the electronic record of the vote immediately was passed.

Just before General Synod concluded that afternoon, we were informed that the released electronic record contained an error – the General Secretary, a cleric, was noted as casting an affirmative vote the previous evening but mistakenly not counted in the results.  With that vote properly counted, the motion to amend the marriage canon had reached the 2/3 level of approval in all three orders and was therefore carried.  A great silence filled the room.  There were many tears, there was no elation.  People were deeply concerned for each other.  A few members left the floor of Synod in their pain.

In fact, over the period of 18 hours, all sides of the contentious issue had their hopes achieved and dashed, their hearts broken and their emotions bruised.

The next months will require considerable prayer and restraint.  The bruising, confusion and pain of General Synod are echoed in our Church and certainly in our diocese.  We need to provide the greatest pastoral generosity to each other who will be in very different places, and have been formed in very diverse contexts, theologically, spiritually, scripturally, experientially.

We need to be tender with one another, recognising in each other the image of God redeemed by our Saviour Jesus Christ, a beloved child, the desire of God’s heart and will.

And we need to remember that what unites us is far more central than what divides us: our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and our service together in his mission in the world.

Nine years ago, by a very large majority, this General Synod affirmed that same sex unions were not a matter of core doctrine, that there was a legitimate range of theological commitments about marriage and about homosexuality and pastoral practices that attend that. Our official position is that this matter is important but it is not at the level of core belief about which we require unity.

For me that means that we need to welcome and hold place for those who are convinced that the church must proceed with same sex marriage and for those whose convictions forbid them from doing so.  Both have a place in the Diocese of Toronto.

The canon change contains two provisions that I think are vitally important to remember.  The first is the provision which continues to exist in the canon and has always been present: no minister is under any compulsion to preside at any marriage.  That provision continues to be used by clergy who, by conviction, will not marry divorced couples, but even more frequently by clergy who, for pastoral convictions, decline to marry couples for any number of concerns.

The second provision is contained in an amendment that I successfully proposed to the motion presented on Monday: “no minister shall solemnize any marriage between same sex couples without the diocesan bishop’s permission”.  It changed the original proposal that would have made same sex marriage the required norm from which a diocese or bishop would have to “opt out”, to a permissible rite to which one would have to “opt in.”  It requires a pastoral conversation between the cleric and the bishop, not only about the intentions of the couple, but as importantly about the convictions of the cleric, and the context of the parish and community.

This is part of what I said in the debate:

“I stand here to witness that God blesses our church now with the prayerful presence and sacrificial service of LGBTQ parishioners and clergy, all of whom are members of families, some of whom are civilly married, many of whom want their marriages to be solemnized with the rites of the church they are part of.  I speak to support the change to the marriage canon as an outcome of a long and prayerful discernment of how God is calling our church to engage in Christ’s mission to our world today.  I believe it is the right thing to do.  I believe that the time to do it is now.

“But first I urge you to support this amendment [to provide an opt in provision] because it will provide simple and pastorally appropriate accommodation for those who cannot in conscience or conviction go there yet, or perhaps ever.

“I, as much as anyone in this room, and more than most, have worked hard to keep our Communion, our national church and the people in my diocese together and in dialogue.  This demands honesty both about where we agree and where we disagree, both at the level of ideas, at the level of assumptions and at the level of practice. It involves a tough willingness to continue to learn from each other and to try to understand one another. And it means that we cannot try to dictate or control one another. 

“The freedom of conscience in the Anglican experience is not only in superficial matters but even as we approach critical doctrinal issues – how we have understood baptism, the Eucharist, the scriptures, the outward and the inward expression of our faith.  We have a broad and messy tent.  Personally I’d like to clean it up, but I have lived long enough and I have been ordained long enough to know that such a house cleaning is more about me making the church to be what I would be comfortable with.  It usually has little to do with how God wants it to be.  The Anglican Church is an uncomfortable place for those who cannot deal with ambiguity.

“This amendment provides for some ambiguity, not everyone will be satisfied, various places will do things different ways but I believe it respects the diversity which is inherently part of the Anglican tradition and respects the integrity and dignity of dioceses to make the choices that they feel persuaded to make for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Synod has just happened.  The motion will now be referred to each diocese and province for consideration (not approval) and return for final reading in General Synod 2019.  In the meantime, I believe a pastoral response is needed – one that takes into account the differing convictions and contexts of our clergy and people.

Over the next weeks and months I will consult and work on a pastoral protocol regarding same sex marriages that, at this time I think, might mirror the approach we have taken with the blessing of same sex unions.

The 21 bishops, clergy and laity of the Diocese of Toronto represented you well.  The over 60 volunteers and staff who provided the local arrangements and hospitality welcoming Synod to Toronto were outstanding and made us proud.  Believe it or not, there were other important matters that were considered in Synod, but I will speak to you about those later.

Yours faithfully,


The Most Rev’d Colin R. Johnson,
Archbishop of Toronto

(See the Archbishop’s original video and follow-up message.)