By Mark Michael
A coalition of conservative Canadian Anglicans have issued a statement praising the Anglican Church of Canada’s recent narrow decision to retain its traditional definition of marriage, while pointedly criticizing an opinion by the church’s chancellor that is being used to permit “local option” for same-sex marriage. The Communion Partners and the Anglican Communion Alliance, who jointly led the effort to defeat the proposed amendments to Canon XXI at last week’s triennial General Synod meeting, issued The Vancouver Statement on social media July 25. The document acknowledges that the same-sex marriage decision has been “deeply painful” to many within the church. It also expresses a commitment to remain within the Anglican Church of Canada “with the greatest possible degree of communion with those with whom we disagree.”
Anglican Communion Alliance director Sharon Dewey Hetke said the statement aims to “acknowledge the reality in which we live, a fractured church, [and] that we believe that in the end God will unite His Church. We also hope the statement conveys a sense of humility – our theological position is not about looking down on others, but on recognizing that we are all in need of grace and forgiveness. Any position we take must be rooted in this Gospel understanding.”
The intention to express a “sense of humility” underlies the statement’s open expression of concern for those who were troubled by the decision. “This painful process of discernment has challenged us to consider how we have treated those who have felt rejection or experienced cruelty on the basis of sexual orientation. We want … to say again that we are all loved by God and that all baptized, believing and faithful persons are full members of the Body of Christ. We recommit ourselves to ministering pastorally and sensitively to all, and extending hospitality to all, irrespective of orientation.”
Both the Communion Partners and the Anglican Communion Alliance are relatively new to Canadian Anglicanism. The statement is their first common project. The Communion Partners was first organized in 2008, as a group of bishops from domestic dioceses of the Episcopal Church who committed to remaining within the Episcopal Church while abiding by the Windsor Report’s prohibitions on same-sex blessings and on violations of diocesan boundaries.
In 2018, the Communion Partners merged with a similarly committed group of Canadians who termed themselves the Gracious Restraint Bishops. They were also joined then by several Episcopal bishops who serve in Latin America. There are nine member bishops in the Anglican Church of Canada: Stephen Andrews (Wycliffe College), David Edwards (Fredericton), Adam Halkett (Missinippi), Michael Hawkins (Saskatchewan), Fraser Lawton (Athabasca), Darren McCartney (suffragan in the Arctic), David Parsons (Arctic), Larry Robertson (Yukon), and Joey Royal (suffragan in the Arctic)
The Anglican Communion Alliance describes itself as “a grassroots organization,” with a vision “to be a theological and spiritual rallying point for historic Christian orthodoxy in the Anglican Church of Canada.” It was formed in 2010 from members of the Anglican Essentials Federation who were committed to remaining within the Anglican Church of Canada. According to Hetke, the group has a mailing list of about 600 clerical and lay members, with six local chapters in diverse regions of Canada.
The statement directly challenges the foundational assumption of those who supported the canonical change. “Neither bishops nor synods have the authority to overrule what God has said to us about marriage through the Scriptures and through our tradition.”
They also contest the judgment of Chancellor David Jones that the Anglican Church of Canada’s existing marriage canon “does not contain either a definition of ‘marriage,’ or a specific prohibition against solemnizing same-sex marriages.” “We continue to dissent from the Chancellor’s opinion that what is not expressly prohibited in the Canon is then permissible,” the Vancouver Statement says. “We believe this argument from silence sets a very dangerous precedent for how our Church will engage in future discernment on questions of doctrine.”
The chancellor’s memorandum, originally published in 2016, has been used to justify the wide permission given for same sex-marriages by diocesan bishops, including the new primate of the church, Archbishop Linda Nicholls. The memorandum was directly challenged by Ajit John, a Canadian priest and canon lawyer, in an essay on Covenant just before General Synod.
Hetke noted that General Synod adopted Resolution A101-R1, which included a recognition from the earlier document “A Word to the Church” that a diversity of opinion exists within the Anglican Church of Canada about the meaning of the marriage canon and about the chancellor’s interpretation of it. In the light of this acknowledgment, she said, “I think it’s very important that the Vancouver Statement restates that ACA and the CP bishops continue to dissent from this Memo and its ‘argument from silence.’”
While recognizing that the recent vote tallies show that their position is a distinct minority within the Anglican Church of Canada, the Communion Partners and the Anglican Communion Alliance affirmed their continuing desire to remain active and engaged in the church’s life, praying that, over time, the church’s mind will change. “Our differences and conflicts over sexuality threaten to bring further division and fragmentation. But we continue to believe that the Church will be led to a greater consensus by the Holy Spirit. In this time of waiting and striving for a common mind on Christian marriage, we commit to remaining in the Anglican Church of Canada with the greatest possible degree of communion with those with whom we disagree.”
With an eye toward frictions already developing around next summer’s Lambeth Conference, the statement noted, “preserving the Marriage Canon will also keep us at the table with the rest of the worldwide Anglican Communion in a way that would not have been possible had the Canon been changed.”
To the surprise of some, shortly after the Synod concluded, the Diocese of the Arctic, one of whose bishops is a member of Communion Partners, declared themselves to be “in impaired communion” with “those who violate the Marriage Canon.” The Arctic letter was particularly aimed at several dioceses whose bishops announced permission to continue with same-sex marriages even as the marriage canon amendment failed.
Hetke said the Vancouver Statement’s commitment to remaining within the Anglican Church of Canada includes a significant qualification that leaves room for local discernment. “The Statement is worded in a such a way as to recognize there may be variance in how bishops discern the way forward for their local contexts. We say, ‘we commit to remaining in the Anglican Church of Canada with the greatest possible degree of communion with those with whom we disagree.’ I think this leaves room for variation. And in declaring some level of “impaired communion,” I believe the Arctic bishops are simply stating the reality in which they find themselves, since others seem to be choosing to walk away from the doctrine of the ACoC.”
Despite being significantly outnumbered by progressives within the Anglican Church of Canada, Hetke says she also sees signs of hope in the present moment. “Our sense of ours being very much a minority position, is drawing people across the country closer together as they seek fellowship and encouragement. And in the end, the hope comes from the fact that we are called to faithfulness not to winning political battles … I think sometimes theological conservatives are seen as embattled, and maybe beaten down and many feel that way. Worse, some from outside may view us as compromisers. So if you are going to stay in this Church, it’s important to find a way to stand in the strength of conviction, through the power of the Holy Spirit and in fellowship with others.”