In 2013, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada passed Resolution C003, which directed the Council of General Synod to draft a motion “to change Canon XXI on marriage to allow the marriage of same-sex couples in the same way as opposite-sex couples.”
This motion had to include “supporting documentation” that demonstrated, among other things, “broad consultation” on the issue. It also had to provide “a biblical and theological rationale for this change in teaching on the nature of Christian marriage,” while showing that such a change would not “contravene” the church’s Solemn Declaration of 1893.
In response to the General Synod’s motion, the Council resolved to establish a “Commission on the Marriage Canon of the Anglican Church of Canada,” with members appointed by the Primate and Officers of General Synod. This commission presented its findings to the Council on September 22, 2015, in ‘This Holy Estate’ (henceforth, THE). The report was released to the public in October 2015.
Some advocates of canon change have claimed that the Holy Spirit has directed them to support same-sex marriage, but the report does not generally take this approach. It is not hard to see why. From the Montanists to Joachim of Fiore to Benny Hinn, Christians have appealed to the Spirit to justify any number of peculiar or divisive theological positions. But the claim that the Holy Spirit has spoken does not stand on its own. If we all enter the discussion with competing claims, asserting that the Spirit has spoken to us, we must find some way to navigate our disagreements. Thus, if I say that the Holy Spirit has spoken to me, you are right to ask me to justify my claim.
From a Christian standpoint, such justification must come from Scripture and tradition, and the commission rightly saw that it must offer just such a rationale. The report endeavors to demonstrate how “such a change in the church’s traditional teaching on Christian marriage could be understood to be scripturally and theologically coherent” (THE 1).
We must understand how important this objective is. Its successful accomplishment would be more than a laudable intellectual exercise. A clear statement demonstrating that canon change is scripturally and theologically coherent would offer Canadian Anglicans of all stripes what they have been longing for: something that could draw them together on an issue about which there is no consensus (as THE 3.3 acknowledges).
We might ask: What would a coherent scriptural framework look like?
The report claims that such a framework would not be a matter of cherry-picking favorite proof texts (THE 5.1.1), a point that is surely true. However, in its actual engagement with Scripture, the report falls back into this precise approach. It proceeds by looking at a handful of individual texts before offering a rationale for why they do not justify a traditional understanding of marriage. Even if it is successful in its treatment of Scripture, therefore, the most it can have accomplished is to demonstrate why a few texts do not definitely “prove” that traditional understandings of marriage are normative. But it falls short of positively showing how all of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, could be drawn together to offer a theologically coherent understanding of same-sex marriage.
This week on Covenant our Canadian scholars (and our editor) will be testing the specific scriptural claims of ‘This Holy Esate’.
On June 6, Dane Neufeld will investigate the report’s claim that it offers a quintessentially Anglican, “middle of the road” approach to reading Scripture.
On June 7, Catherine Sider-Hamilton will reflect on whether it successfully manages to interpret Scripture in a way that invites Christians to locate themselves within the biblical narrative.
On June 8, David Ney will test the assertions that the report makes with respect to the Old Testament.
On June 9, Cole Hartin will discuss its treatment of gospel texts.
On June 10, Murray Henderson will look at its misuse of Richard Hays’s interpretation of Romans 1.
On June 11 and 12, Jeff Boldt and Christopher Seitz offer reflections upon the scriptural argument that, on the one hand, same-sex marriage is a unique reflection of the Christ-Church mystery in Ephesians 5, and, on the other hand, that it has precedent in the early Church’s inclusion of Gentiles.
On June 13, Joey Royal will reflect on the report’s selective listening to Indigenous voices in the Anglican Church of Canada.
And, on June 14, Zachary Guiliano will offer a concluding note on the series and on potential ecumenical and inter-Anglican consequences for the Anglican Church of Canada.
As the Anglican primates stated at their last meeting, canon change is doctrinal change. And, as doctrinal change, it requires a coherent scriptural narrative to undergird it. The failure of the report to offer such a narrative persists despite its allusion to Gentile inclusion. In the absence of a scriptural mandate justifying canon change, its proponents are left with little more than their own convictions that they have, in fact, gained unique access to the leading of the Spirit. They have fallen into the trap they sought to avoid.
In such a state of affairs, rhetoric invariably gives way to party politics. The Anglican Church of Canada thus finds itself in a truly troubling situation. It has been pushed to change the definition of marriage by those who know full well that such a change has been condemned by the Anglican Instruments of Communion and that it would severely strain interracial relations and ecumenical partnerships.
What is more, because the church is being asked to do so without a persuasive scriptural framework, it turns out that canon change is a far larger issue than some would suppose. Canadian Anglicans are not being asked about their opinions about marriage. They are being asked whether they will choose to depart from their traditional scriptural moorings and venture out alone, as their own guides, into the vast unknown.
Authors of “Evaluating ‘This Holy Estate’”
Dr. Zachary Guiliano is an associate editor of The Living Church, and the editor of Covenant. His posts are here.
Cole Hartin is a doctoral student at Wycliffe College, Toronto, and a postulant in the Diocese of Toronto.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Murray Henderson is incumbent of Christ Church St. James, Etobicoke, Diocese of Toronto.
The Rev. Dr. David Ney serves as priest at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Calgary, Alberta, and a contributor to Covenant.
The Rev. Joey Royal is a priest of Métis descent ministering among the Inuit in the Diocese of the Arctic. He is the director of the Arthur Turner Training School, set to reopen at St. Jude’s Cathedral, in Iqaluit, Nunavut.
The Rev. Dr. Christopher Seitz is senior research professor at Wycliffe College, Toronto.
The Rev. Dr. Catherine Sider-Hamilton is priest-in-charge at St. Matthew’s Riverdale, Toronto, and assistant professor of New Testament and Greek at Wycliffe College.