By Dean Mercer
After the recent General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, which approved a first reading of a canon change regarding marriage, the straightforward solution for many is to leave. Some will, and it is understandable: Are there not two Anglican churches in Canada — the Anglican Church of Canada and the Anglican Network in Canada? While one is formally aligned with the Archbishop of Canterbury (in terms of historic structure) and is a member of the Anglican Communion, the other is informally aligned with Canterbury (in terms of doctrine) and formally and doctrinally aligned with the vast majority of ordinary Anglicans and the Anglican Communion’s provinces.
It may be easier to get Canterbury on the phone in the Anglican Church of Canada, but it is a much harder thing “to sing the Lord’s song” in this strange, new land.
So why do I remain? While on my worst days I can only see to the end of them (and on my good days I can see ahead about three months), for now, there are five reasons that hold me in place.
First, because the prophets stayed in corrupted Israel.
They were skinned alive, buried in the mud, tortured until dead. But they didn’t leave.
While the Lord promised his mercy to the faithful remnant, Israel never knew who that remnant would be. Neither do we. Only time will tell. In the patience of the Lord, the truth will be allowed to vindicate itself so that those who come to the truth — or reject it — will do so freely.
Conservatives believe that — in spite of the immense pressure of modern society, with its hyper-individualism, moral relativism, and limitless confidence in secular progress, and in spite of its overwhelming influence on the progressive wing of the Anglican Church of Canada — they are part of a prophetic movement declaring this development of doctrine to be based on false confidence, leading to an enslavement to the self. It is an attack on the doctrine of marriage, which is fundamental to the Christian faith and fundamental to the common good. Further, the dark side of this new, solitary ethical vision is on clear display with its cheapening of intimate relations, its real and self-imposed slavery and addictions, and its discarding of unwanted lives: over 60 million aborted in North America since abortion’s legalization in the early 1970s; and now with 90 percent of Canadians favoring access to euthanasia and 30 percent believing someone who has lost the will to live should be euthanized, according to a survey of the Angus Reid Institute.
To stay in the Anglican Church of Canada is an act of loyalty to a body to whom God has made promises he will not break. And as the national church distances itself still further from the centre of the Catholic faith of the Anglican Communion, some must bear witness to and represent that distance from within. It would be largely costless for national-church leaders to be sidelined in the communion, away from people they rarely see. It is another thing to be at painful odds with bishops, priests, and people who are dealt with regularly and directly.
Second, I will remain in order to oppose a new doctrine that has no chance of Communion-wide recognition.
For the progressive preachers, the new doctrine of marriage is settled teaching; they had only their own choirs to convince. It is settled nowhere else, and we have a moral obligation to oppose, reprove, and correct it, and to teach and bear witness to the received tradition of the Church.
Third, the Anglican Church of Canada is in free fall — which means nothing is certain.
This step toward a landmark doctrinal change is not the result of a groundswell of support. The ground swells nowhere in the Anglican Church of Canada. This change is the progressive party’s exploitation of decline, and the future consequences are anything but clear.
In the Diocese of Toronto, the largest and strongest of the Canadian dioceses, at the conclusion of its $50 million “Our Faith, Our Hope” campaign for mission and evangelism, it was publicly announced that within the next ten years, the number of parishes closing would be anywhere between 25 to 40 percent: 50 to 80 parishes. That’s the optimistic prediction. Based on giving and average attendance, that number could rise as high as 120, leaving only 80 parishes of the current 200.
While the overall decline is staggering, on the whole, conservative and evangelical parishes buck the trend: 6 of the 10 largest parishes in the diocese fall into this category. And yet the priest of the largest parish in Canada, and one of the few bright spots anywhere, is unelectable as a delegate to General Synod. When the Archbishop of Toronto returns home to explain General Synod to the diocesan counsel, nary a dissenting voice will be present because, by exclusion and marginalisation, only a few conservative members can participate.
What’s happened in the Diocese of Toronto has happened nationally. A “Who’s Who” of conservative bishops, clergy, and lay delegates once played a large role in the national debate, and left the Anglican Church of Canada for the Anglican Network in Canada in 2007. Many of those who remain refused to participate in the latest round of debates, in part because its centerpiece, ‘This Holy Estate,’ was constructed by a Primate’s Commission without a single conservative member. Had these parties been present and participating, there would be no argument today about “hanging chads.”
This recent development in doctrine will not rally the church and reverse the decline. Progressives hoped for cheers in the papers. They received yawns, observers bemused that progressives had finally caught up with Canadian society, noting that their real challenge is a swamp of apathy toward them among fellow progressives.
As one colleague put it, this victory involved picking low-hanging fruit. What change of character or conduct does the new doctrine call forth? How bold or inspiring is it to give the nod to prevailing social attitudes and conduct?
This new doctrine will, however, embitter the church, and continue to divide it at the profoundest level. But it will not reverse the decline. And given the seriousness of the decline, nothing is certain right now. Anything could happen in the church. Anything is still possible among conservative and evangelical parishes, bucking the trend.
Fourth, we now have the opportunity of a subcultural community.
In The Fractured Republic (Perseus, 2016), Yuval Levin sketches two routes forward for those who hold to the traditional views on marriage. One is flight to the ghetto. The second is the formation of subcultural communities. While the former imagines a future that is largely defensive and besieged, the latter is convinced positively of two things.
First, it is too early to throw in the towel because the cracks in the institutional foundations continue to grow, not least in the loss of human and financial resources. This past week alone, Episcopal Divinity School began the process of shutting its doors. And if it is right to complain that the progressive wing of the church simply aped the society on this one, the raison d’être of that wing shrinks further in a society already indifferent to it.
Second, the margins of the church provide a unique and vital place of witness to our distant brethren and in society.
In Canadian society, a widespread opinion is that opposition to the new ethic is based on hatred and blind irrationality. But having been “outed” and marginalized in the church, too, an opportunity exists for the doctrine of marriage to be weighed fairly and on its own merits. Why, given enormous pressure — both inside and outside the church — would anyone continue to uphold the church’s tradition on marriage and the single life?
Well, for starters, because the new doctrine one more attempt at creating a new creature who is already getting a bit tiresome: That new creature is not the homosexual, but the radically autonomous individual, given authority over life and death. This hyper-individualism contradicts our very nature as social creatures. Unsurprisingly, ours is a nation of deep longing and loneliness.
By contrast, the Christian tradition says we are creatures meant for harmony with God and each other. Our life is a gift from the Creator, and our destiny is not in fighting the great boundaries — life and death, male and female — but rather living freely within them, with a true and reliable taste of life eternal on offer.
Marriage — the lifelong union of man and woman for the begetting of children — is not accidental, but rather a great purpose toward which our nature leads, and an even greater sign of the love of God, uniting the sexes, sharing in creation, and serving as a sign of God’s unconditional love.
There is no hatred. Now, the only way to enter into traditional marriage is to enter into a church on the margins. That entrance is voluntary. Members there will be the first to warn you about the cost of doing so.
And there is no irrationality, though the inquirer will be free to judge and encouraged to do so. The traditional teaching of the Church rises from a consistent, public, and, in many parts, universal teaching, with claims reaching back to creation itself. The biblical principles are sound and tested, in contrast to progressive principles that are contradictory and whimsical.
If incredulous Canadians are willing to weigh marriage on its own merits, they will be asked also to weigh the merits of modern Canadian society.
Is it true that the sexual revolution, now completely dominant, has made us more fulfilled and united?
Is it true that by rejecting the boundaries and purposes of male and female we become stronger, better, and more generous?
Is it true that maturity and selflessness come naturally and easily, or does it take something as tough and uncompromising as marriage to see life through another and different set of eyes — the eyes of our sexual opposite — something as fierce as the love of fathers and mothers for their children, to learn how “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13)?
Is it true that the sacrifices and self-control of the single person who “honors the marriage bed” (Heb. 13:4) are lifeless and self-destructive? That the sexualization of virtually every aspect of our life, from the earliest age, has made us happier? Or has a great confusion taken over the proper and universal desire for friendship, and the limits and purpose of sexual desire that, by its nature, must be bounded and protected? The sexualization of every aspect of life, from carburetors to soft drinks, unfairly destroyed our innocence and hardened our spirits.
Is it true that authority over life and death, epitomized in contraception and recreational sex, and the legal license for euthanasia and abortion, has led to greater mutual respect and dignity? Has life not, instead, become cheaper and more easily discarded? If we are no longer expected to defend to the end even our own lives, how can we be trusted by our neighbours to defend theirs?
Make no mistake. The tradition on marriage and the single life is heroic. It assumes self-control and self-sacrifice within and without: within marriage through lifelong fidelity; outside of marriage through restraint and the honoring of intimacy’s boundaries within the nuptial union. But the social aims of the tradition are worth it. The practices of faithfulness and self-control will accompany a person fruitfully throughout life. The return on its investment in simple friendship. and the responsibilities of traditional marriage are incalculable. Its opportunity is open to all. This trampling of human boundaries in modern Canadian society has not been a costless exercise, and its benefits are not universal. It has been a notably expensive experiment, especially suited for the wealthy, strong, and attractive, and notably cruel for women, children, and the poor.
Fifth, tired, discouraged and embattled as they may be, I like the company I keep on the margins of the church in Canada and among the overwhelming majority of Anglicans in the Anglican Communion.
I like their courage, their dignity, their grace in a hard time. In Canada, I don’t mind being outed and sent to the margins. I live happily among these brave friends. In the Communion abroad, they are this generation’s Anglican heroes. In the Canadian church, the action is on the margin.
And I like those I oppose. One other longstanding sentiment at work in the church, and one not to be taken lightly or for granted, is a church, in a country, that instinctively resists harsh answers or driving its opponents from its ranks. Its tolerance is thin, but its generosity runs deep. What the Anglican Church of Canada must remember is that for every great yes in life, there is an equally determined no.
This is why I remain.
The Rev. Dr. Dean Mercer is incumbent of the Anglican Church of St. Paul, L’Amoreaux, an instructor in liturgy at Wycliffe College, Toronto, and a member of the Canadian chapter of the Anglican Communion Institute.