This is the second article in our Anglican Church and Same-Sex Marriage series. See our Invitation to Dialogue if you would like to add your voice on this important topic which crosses ecclesial and denominational borders. You need not be Anglican to participate.
Anglican Church of Canada says no to same-sex marriage (CTV)
Anglican Church of Canada rejects same-sex marriage amendment (Globe and Mail)
Southwestern Ontario Anglican Diocese to allow same-sex marriage (CBC)
Pastoral Guidelines for Same-Sex Marriages (Anglican Diocese of Toronto)
Confused by these headlines? Who wouldn’t be? How can “yes” and “no” be said at the same time, by the same church, in the same week? Are marriages of LGBT+ Christians accepted or rejected in the Anglican Church of Canada?
My intention is not to attempt a theological analysis of same-sex marriage, but rather to ensure that readers of Orthodoxy in Dialogue are aware of the process of discernment that engaged Anglicans behind the headlines, and to provide some commentary on the shape that Anglican pastoral and spiritual practice will take going forward.
There is a history of struggling with the presence of LGBT+ people in the Anglican Church of Canada that extends back, at least, to the formation of Integrity in the mid-1970s. [See Integrity USA. Integrity Toronto seems to have a restricted-access website.] Integrity sought to foster both voice and inclusion of LGBT+ Christians in the life of the church.
To some extent, the struggle in the Anglican Church has mirrored my personal struggle. I arrived at the doors of an Anglican parish church in 1976, newly excommunicated from a charismatic/pentecostal congregation, hoping to find a place where I could safely explore my faith in Christ. The tradition from which I came regarded homosexuals as sick, an abomination, and unredeemable. There was a great scandal in my church following the arrest of my Sunday School teacher in a bathhouse raid. Confusion of homosexuality with pedophilia was not uncommon.
I was greatly surprised by the gradual realization that close to half my Anglican parish—including some priests, choir members, church school teachers—were closeted members of the LGBT+ community. They openly accepted me, understood the painful rejection I had experienced, and supported my healing and my growth in faith. The conflict between abomination and faithful Christian, or unredeemable sinner and compassionate priest, caused me considerable psychological and spiritual tension. The concrete reality of their lived faith pushed me to rethink the perspective I had inherited uncritically. Theologically, my experience would be best expressed in Luke Timothy Johnson’s words:
…[T]he human body is the preeminent arena for God’s revelation in the world, the medium through which God’s Holy Spirit is most clearly expressed…. [T]he task of theology is the discernment of God’s self-disclosure in the world through the medium of the body. Therefore, theology is necessarily an inductive art rather than a deductive science. (The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2015: p.1)
Similarly, the rising voices and visible presence of Integrity members motivated some Anglican theologians and biblical scholars to begin a re-examination of the basis for the exclusion and rejection of LGBT+ people from the life of the Anglican Church. The often-made suggestion that this is a pitting of liberal against conservative, biblical authority over biblical rejection, or the influence of secular culture in the church, is an over-simplification. The history and breadth of the considerations made in the Anglican Church in the past forty years have touched on biblical authority and interpretation, theological anthropology, sacramental theology, canon law, and the fundamental nature of human relationships.
Indeed, these sorts of considerations continued right up to the date of the Anglican Church of Canada’s 2019 General Synod, where the change to the marriage canon was considered. (See the essays by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat from June 21, 2019 onward at Empire Remixed in response to essays prepared by a variety of writers at The Living Church beginning June 18, 2019. See additional commentary at ABC Religion & Ethics and a reflection on the Canon by Alan T. Perry.) Those I know on both sides of the debate take Scripture and the received tradition of the church seriously.
In 1984 the late Archbishop of Toronto, the Rt. Rev. Terry Finley, asked members of Integrity, who were calling for LGBT inclusion, to meet with members of Fidelity, an Anglican group committed to a traditional view of human sexuality. The groups met for dialogue over several years. Once they got past the need to convert the other, they were able to get down to the business of understanding one another. Understanding and friendship emerged, and eventually the two groups found room to pray together and celebrate the eucharist together. This in itself is significant. (From my interview on July 22, 2019 with Chris Ambidge, who holds an MDiv from Trinity College; he is a long-time member of Integrity and served as a lay delegate from Toronto to the 2019 General Synod.)
A detailed history of the discussions and resolutions of General Synod from 1992 to 2019 is outlined in the document A Word to the Church on the website of the Anglican Church of Canada. This includes the commissioning of theological study, study and discussion at the parish level, a 2004 resolution “affirming the integrity and sanctity of committed, adult same-sex relationships,” and in 2007 an acceptance that “the blessing of same-sex unions is a matter of doctrine, but it is not core doctrine in the sense of being creedal and should not be a communion-breaking issue.” It acknowledges a diversity of understandings of marriage (listing seven) and that it is “possible to hold and act on divergent views in good faith, and that missional context would necessarily inform pastoral practice.” The document contained five specific affirmations pertaining to the diversity of understanding and practice.
A Word to the Church passed at General Synod and now applies to the whole of the Anglican Church of Canada. In short, Anglicans in Canada have affirmed their diversity in understanding and practice in the matter of marriage, and, at the same time, their commitment to walk together in disagreement.
What failed on the floor, however, was a change to Canon XXI on marriage that would have explicitly included a reference to same-sex marriage. While this was most painful to LGBT+ Anglicans and their allies—indeed, many saw it as outright rejection, and several burst into tears on the Synod floor—the understanding of Canon XXI as it is currently written is that while it does not overtly include same-sex marriage, it also does not specifically prohibit same-sex marriage.
In 2016, when the revision of Canon XXI was passed on first reading, in spite of the need for a second reading in 2019 to make it church law, four bishops said they intended to move forward on the matter immediately. The Dioceses of Niagara, Toronto, Ottawa, and New Westminster began to solemnize same-sex weddings. (We have celebrated two in my parish, Toronto’s Church of the Redeemer. Both involved long-time members, faithful couples who have contributed much to the life and witness of the church.) Following the votes at General Synod 2019, at least eleven more dioceses announced that they will follow suit, either immediately or at their next provincial synod. This is half of the Anglican dioceses, but numerically it represents nearly 75% of Anglicans in Canada. (Interview with Chris Ambridge.) Most are requiring a process of consultation within a specific parish before offering same-sex marriage; some are requiring the permission of the bishop in addition to consultation, while others are leaving the matter to the discretion of priest and parish. While a particular diocese may move forward on this, no parish or priest will be required to solemnize the marriage of same-sex couples if they are not willing to do so.
What do I make of this?
First, allowing for variety in understanding and practice makes room for the church to fully understand where the Spirit is calling her. It is abundantly clear from sections of Acts, Romans, and Colossians that differences in understanding and spiritual practice were part of life in the primitive church. The inclusion of the Gentiles in Acts 10 and 11 offers an example of how the direct experience of one of the apostles became the catalyst for a re-evaluation of the received tradition and an expansion of the vision of the church. Paul’s epistles make it clear that differences continued to be a matter of concern even after that decision was made.
For many Anglicans, after forty years of prayerful study, discussion, and consideration, the way forward seems clear: 81% of lay delegates, 73% of priests, and 62% of bishops voted for the legislative change to Canon XXI, and some 85% voted to affirm A Word to the Church. But no one is forced to comply, and we will continue to journey together prayerfully and assess how such diversity enriches or diminishes the mission of the church.
Second, the Anglican Church of Canada is attempting to live out a model of communion that runs counter to most historical models. Too often we have broken communion with those who believe differently, failing to fully interrogate how the Gospel is faithfully understood and lived out in differing contexts. I say this considering the personal and painful experience to which I alluded earlier, but also from the vantage point of looking at the history of churches that have excommunicated, broken off relationships, and made enemies one of another. We are, to use Thomas Merton’s words, “a body of broken bones.”
Walking together in disagreement is often painful, especially in the immediate aftermath of an argument. But, as Integrity and Fidelity found, staying together ultimately fosters understanding, respect, and friendship. Anglicans have, to some extent, already learned this lesson—at least in part—during disagreements over substantial liturgical change and in the matter of the ordination of women.
It is a risky path to take, but it is also a slow, ongoing path of discernment. Christopher Pramuk offered, “…[T]he enemy of authentic religion is the lie that there are ‘no new gifts to be given,’ no new pages in the life-story of God and humankind” (The Artist Alive: Explorations in Music, Art, and Theology, Winona, Anselm Press, 2019: p.282).
It is, then, to my mind, a risk worth taking.
See the Anglican Churcn and Same-Sex Marriage, Fifty Years after Stonewall, and Sexuality and Gender sections in our Archives.
Paul Pynkoski is a retired civil servant, the facilitator for literature and film discussions at the Anglican Church of the Redeemer’s drop-in program in Toronto, and a founding member of Voices for Peace, an annual ecumenical conference on peacemaking. He has written for Orthodoxy in Dialogue, The Anglican, and The Merton Seasonal.