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By Sue Careless

The Anglican Church of Canada is wrestling with whether to change its church laws to include same-sex marriage. The 234 delegates of General Synod will vote Monday afternoon after months of growing tension.

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General Synod meets through July 12 in Richmond Hill, Ontario, just north of Toronto.

“I am well aware that the issue at this Synod is the proposed amendment to the marriage canon,” said the Most Rev. Fred Hiltz, Archbishop of Canada, adding that it has caused considerable angst.

General Synod passed a resolution in 2013 requiring the Council of General Synod (CoGS) to prepare a motion for adding same-sex marriage to the church’s canon.

The blessing of same-sex couples has occurred incrementally in several dioceses since 2002, although General Synod has not authorized those blessings. Today, 11 of 30 dioceses, plus the Parishes of the Central Interior and the Anglican Military Ordinariate, permit blessings of same-sex civil unions.

Although same-sex marriage has been legal in Canada since 2005, no Anglican jurisdiction has approved rites.

In August 2015, the three Indigenous Canadian bishops — the Rt. Rev. Adam Halkett, the Rt. Rev. Mark MacDonald, and the Rt. Rev. Lydia Mamakwa — wrote a public letter [PDF] to the Commission on the Marriage Canon, which CoGS authorized to write the proposed canonical revision. The three bishops expressed their communities’ traditions of “acceptance of homosexual members,” but said they “see little evidence that these practices were thought to be similar to marriage.”

The bishops also suggested that many Indigenous Anglicans believe they could live with a disagreement with the larger church on this issue as long as their communities “have the acknowledged and welcome freedom to act on their own.”

Theologically Desirable?

Members of the Commission on the Marriage Canon addressed General Synod July 8.

Because General Synod 2004 had already affirmed the “sanctity of adult, committed, same-sex relationships,” commission member Canon Paul Jennings said, “we did not see it as our job to reopen the debate as to whether homosexuality is fundamentally sinful or whatever — that is no longer the teaching of our church. I realize that for some of you this might seem unsatisfactory, but it was not the question before us.”

Stephen Martin explained the commission’s rationale, which centered on a theology of marriage as a covenant, a form of discipleship, and sacramental. The purposes of marriage, he said, are companionship, procreation, and sexuality. The commission concluded that all three purposes could be met in same-sex marriage, if Synod defined procreation as including adoption.

“To say such a change in the marriage canon would be theologically possible is not to say it would be theologically desirable,” he said.

The commission’s report, This Holy Estate,’ presented three models for incorporating covenanted, same-sex relationships. The commission endorsed “differentiated marriage” for same-sex couples that would include a special liturgy, rather than an “undifferentiated” form of the marriage rite for everyone.

Mix and Mingle

General Synod delegates seated at about 30 mixed tables discussed three questions: What is your overall impression of the report? What does marriage mean to you? Has your understanding of marriage changed in your lifetime?

Delegates were asked to observe eight norms as they proceeded with their discussions, including granting the sincerity of each other’s beliefs; assuming all had a reverence for Scripture; recognizing that people of diverse sexual orientation could be present; valuing inclusion; aiming for increased mutual understanding; avoiding abusive language; and asking no questions that they were not prepared to answer.

For two hours on Saturday morning, larger mixed “neighborhood groups” of 25 people discussed the same questions, plus a new one: “Does the proposed conscience clause create sufficient space for you?” Monday morning’s session will follow the same two-hour neighborhood format.

Until 2013, delegates at General Synods sat at tables by diocese. The mixed table grouping means strangers representing different ethnicities, geography, and languages are thrown together. English is not the first language for many indigenous delegates. Some wondered whether more cohesive diocesan groups with established friendships would promote more open discussion.

While there was plenty of time allotted for table discussion of the canon change, at no time could a delegate approach the microphone and address the full plenary on the topic. A facilitator would later summarize the neighborhood discussions.

The Rev. Karen Egan, who helped write the questions, said they were intended to “minimize pain and distrust between delegates who have differing opinions on the issue.”

“Understandings are very subject to change, but what is to be understood, be it marriage, baptism, faith, or death, would not thereby also be subject to change,” wrote Roseanne Kydd, chairwoman of the Anglican Communion Alliance, in a paper analyzing the discussion questions. “An underlying fallacy is at work if to say ‘My understanding of marriage has changed in my lifetime’ were to lead to ‘Marriage also should change in my lifetime.’”

Such a momentous decision, Kydd wrote, needs to address “Scripture, Reason, and Tradition, with appeals to studies about marriage, statistics, and experience where relevant. Perhaps one’s greatest fear is that Scripture not be accorded its proper place as the Church’s ultimate authority.” She said that dwelling on personal inclinations left little room for discussions of moral truth.

The four questions also did not address how the larger Anglican Communion, as well as other Canadian churches and ecumenical partners, might be affected by a change to the marriage canon.

More Votes Required 

When they cast their votes, delegates will gather by diocese. The motion requires a two-thirds majority in all three houses (bishops, clergy, and laity) at two subsequent meetings of General Synod. Thus, even if a resolution passes this summer, the earliest it could be ratified would be 2019.

In a statement issued in February, the House of Bishops said a motion for same-sex marriage would not likely secure the required two-thirds majority among bishops. They suggested that CoGS might consider non-legislative options to complement the proposed resolution.

“We have grappled with this issue for three meetings of the House, and we feel a responsibility to convey our inability to come to a common mind in discerning what the Spirit is saying to the Church,” they wrote.

The approval of bishops is essential for any change in doctrine in churches of the Anglican Communion.

Whether the resolution passes or fails, there is a strong possibility that same-sex marriage could occur incrementally as a local option without the formal approval of General Synod, just as the blessing of civil unions has occurred for the last 14 years.

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