Editors’ note: As we wrote two days ago, we were horrified to learn of the mass shooting in Florida. Our prayers go out for the American people, the city of Orlando, the repose of the dead, and the comfort of the dying. We condemn homophobic violence in the strongest possible terms, affirming the dignity of every person. As our primates have said, “God’s love for every human being is the same, regardless of their sexuality, and … the church should never by its actions give any other impression.”
This series on ‘This Holy Estate’ concludes here. The discussion in the Anglican Church of Canada goes on, and it did not seem appropriate to push aside its deliberations, even as we work and pray for an adequate response to gun control, terrorism, and homophobia in the United States and the world.
Most of the essays in this series have addressed the role of Scripture in ‘This Holy Estate’, while Joey Royal’s piece addressed the report’s selective attention to the concerns of indigenous members of the Anglican Church of Canada.
I will address two further issues: what important ecumenical consequences will follow, should the church change its canon to approve same-sex marriage? And how will it affect the church’s place within the Anglican Communion, and its relation to the church’s “Solemn Declaration”?
Consultation with ecumenical partners, and consequences
More than any other recent report on same-sex marriage in the Anglican Communion, ‘This Holy Estate’ engaged in fairly broad consultation before its authors began writing, with responses from “dioceses, theological colleges and seminaries, specialized experts, and full communion and ecumenical partners” (THE 1). These responses were posted on a dedicated website, for the sake of transparency.
With regard to ecumenical and inter-Anglican affairs, the report is honest: canon change would “impair our ecclesial relationships” (THE 3.4).
Moves towards same-sex marriage have already damaged the Anglican Church of Canada’s relationship with Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church. The official Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue affirmed its commitment to future meetings, but added that
any divergence on the doctrine of Christian marriage, which our dialogue has until now presented as a matter of fundamental convergence, would weaken the very basis of our existing communion, and weaken the foundations upon which we have sought to build towards fuller ecclesial communion. (THE 2.2, emphasis added).
Other responses indicate that a revised canon would not damage relationships with two local Protestant churches: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, with which the Anglican Church of Canada is already in full communion, and the United Church of Canada. Both of these ecclesial bodies already permit same-sex marriage (THE 2.2, 3.4).
In other words, as in other provinces, a move to enshrine same-sex marriage in the church’s canons will in no way hinder unity or dialogue with some local Protestant churches, while movements towards same-sex marriage have damaged and would continue to damage relationships with Roman Catholics and the Orthodox.
But what about Anglicans?
The members of IASCUFO, while representing a variety of contexts and positions on the issue, cautioned that such a change by one member church “would cause great distress for the Communion as a whole, and for its ecumenical relationships. Members of the Commission are unanimous in urging you not to move beyond your present policy of ‘local option.’” (THE 2.3)
This, at least, was the state of play back in September-October 2015, when the report was made public.
The Primates’ Meeting last January has since made things clearer. It responded to similar changes in the Episcopal Church, asking that it not represent the Communion on official commissions or dialogues, nor take part in internal Communion governance. This past week, various reports have suggested the Archbishop of Canterbury affirmed that the Scottish Episcopal Church would face similar consequences, should its canon change pass a second reading in 2017. There is no reason to think the Canadians would escape a similar fate.
But might the consequences go further? I think they would, unraveling the church’s very identity.
The Solemn Declaration of 1893 and “dissonance”
Like many other provinces of the Anglican Communion, the Anglican Church of Canada began its life as a colonial and missionary outpost of the Church of England. At the time of its first General Synod, it adopted a statement that reaffirmed its coherence and conformity to the Church of England’s doctrine, much as the Episcopal Church had at its first General Convention in 1789. This statement remains at the beginning of the church’s constitution and canons.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.
We, the Bishops, together with the Delegates from the Clergy and Laity of the Church of England in the Dominion of Canada, now assembled in the first General Synod, hereby make the following Solemn Declaration:
We declare this Church to be, and desire that it shall continue, in full communion with the Church of England throughout the world, as an integral portion of the one Body of Christ composed of Churches which, united under the One Divine Head and in the fellowship of the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, hold the one Faith revealed in Holy Writ, and defined in the Creeds as maintained by the undivided primitive Church in the undisputed Ecumenical Councils; receive the same Canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as containing all things necessary to salvation; teach the same Word of God; partake of the same Divinely ordained Sacraments, through the ministry of the same Apostolic Orders, and worship one God and Father through the same Lord Jesus Christ by the same Holy and Divine Spirit Who is given to them that believe to guide them into all truth.
And we are determined by the help of God to hold and maintain the Doctrine, Sacraments and Discipline of Christ as the Lord hath commanded in His Holy Word, and as the Church of England hath received and set forth the same in “The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church, according to the Use of the Church of England; together with the Psalter or Psalms of David pointed as they are to be sung or said in churches; and the Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining, and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests and Deacons;” and in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion; and to transmit the same unimpaired to our posterity. (emphasis added)
The commission that produced ‘This Holy Estate’ was asked to determine whether a change to the church’s marriage canon would “contravene” this Solemn Declaration. I think an unbiased reader would conclude that such a change would indeed do so.
It contradicts the Book of Common Prayer, and other essays in this series have argued that it contradicts Scripture. It contradicts the united witness to marriage of the Catholic tradition down the ages.
Furthermore, canon change clearly contradicts the doctrine of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, which have been stated clearly on this matter in recent times. The document of the English House of Bishops, Issues in Human Sexuality, rules out same-sex marriage, and the C of E has gone on record on this matter again and again, even in secular courts, which have recognized its stance as being clearly articulated. (I mention the courts since they are the sort of authority invoked in THE.)
Finally, Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference defined this issue clearly in the context of global Anglicanism. Regardless of protests to the contrary, it has remained the touchstone for Anglican conversations and rulings since that time.
In other words, canon change would not simply damage ecumenical and inter-Anglican relationships. It would undermine the foundations and primary relationships that make the church the Anglican Church of Canada: namely, its relationship to Scripture, to the “Discipline of Christ,” and to the liturgical and doctrinal inheritance of Anglicanism and the broader Christian tradition, as well as its unity with the Church of England and with the Anglican Communion, as an “integral portion” of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
The report attempts to avoid this issue in two ways: (1) by relegating the meaning and intent of the Solemn Declaration to a past era, making General Synod the only interpreter of the declaration, and (2) by stating that canon change may be “dissonant” with the declaration, but perhaps still harmonious, in a different sense.
First, the “historical” and “supreme authority” approach reflects the influence of Alan Perry, and his solicited response to the commission’s work, founded on the interpretation of secular judges as they have struggled to respond to legal disputes around church property and other matters in Canada. Inasmuch as this reasoning reflects a legal interpretation that has gained credence in litigation, one may grant its efficacy, but not its truth. The interpretation and settlement of this matter cannot rely on courts that have no competence to make doctrinal decisions, nor can we set aside broader canonical contexts, nor larger theological concerns.
The Rt. Rev. Stephen Andrews, while Bishop of Algoma, noted that Perry’s characterization was too simplistic. The Solemn Declaration stands at the front of the church’s Constitution and Canons and provides the context and basis for the rest of its discipline as an organized body. The General Synod may not interpret the Solemn Declaration however it wills. Rather, the Declaration defines the very arena within which the Synod works; it constitutes the church’s identity as an Anglican and aspiring Catholic body, making it subject to Scripture, tradition, and broader patterns of discipline.
Second, the idea that the church’s General Synod may make a ruling fundamentally at odds with its identity — and yet remain “harmonious” with it — is intriguing, though it leaves unstated a number of fundamental assumptions. As I noted two weeks ago, ‘This Holy Estate’ grounds such an idea in a vague evocation of music theory: dissonant doctrine as “harmonic progression.” Yet the report’s proposals of dissonance as progress cannot easily be linked to the way chord progression or harmonic development appears in most tonal music. Only occasionally does dissonance persist in a song, often to elicit a mood of lasting despair or madness, or to “describe” extreme violence. Otherwise, tension passes away in resolution.
If we were to follow the metaphor through, as the report suggests, there might be a few different possibilities. First, Canadian dissonance will disappear, either through some greater resolution or progression (i.e., the whole Communion or global Church shifting in its direction) or by the Anglican Church of Canada departing from its dissonant position. To me, one of these suggestions seems like the report’s most likely meaning, and would reflect the way most musical styles deal with dissonance. I cannot say that either development seems likely anytime soon.
Then again, the report may be evoking something entirely different, and has simply mixed up its musical terms. By harmonious dissonance, maybe it really refers to complex harmonic structures that are found most often in music developed in or since the 20th century, such as jazz. In this case, they are saying that Canadian departures from tradition serve some greater whole, one part in a larger orchestra or big band. Canada may contravene the Solemn Declaration at will, adding light and color to our mutual music.
The metaphor might work if we were all on board. It presupposes a fundamental commitment to communion, to playing the same piece, in which Canadians (and others) play the seventh of the chord, so to speak.
If the past 13 years of discord have taught us anything, though, it’s that this sort of agreement does not exist. Rather, the Anglican Communion in its “Symphony of Instruments” is trying to perform something rich and deeply euphonious, obviously beautiful to the ear, like Vaughan Williams’s “A Lark Ascending” or Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” And its musical quality is intriguing to other ensembles; yes, it has some issues, it’s still building up its chops, working out some intonation problems, strengthening the quality of its song. But the music is happening, and has a quality that others dig.
Yet individual players in the sections of the Anglican company have now decided, mid-performance, that they want to play something new, maybe something a little more “dissonant” or indeterminate (John Cage, anyone?). They don’t even have all the members of their sections on their side, but they’d like to change the direction of the whole group.
Any musician could tell you what happens when a band member or section goes rogue, soloing a little too long, or proposing music no one else wants (or is able) to play: coherence is broken, trust is lost, harmony fades.
I am not making light of our common agony over these issues by playing out this metaphor. But I am trying to illustrate the fundamental differences that are at stake, which cannot be ameliorated by citing “harmonic progression.” Anglicans have to decide whether we will walk together, and be realistic about what it will take to do so. I worry that ‘This Holy Estate’ brushes aside such serious ecumenical and inter-Anglican concerns, out of a desire to explore the possibilities of a parochial “dissonance,” rather than a Catholic harmony.
The introduction and links to other essays in Evaluating ‘This Holy Estate’ may be found here.
The featured image comes via Flickr user Cathy. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
 E.g. Justice Kelleher in the British Columbia Supreme Court in Bentley v. Anglican Synod of New Westminster, cited in THE 3.5.