By Cole Hartin
Many of our common experiences have deep, symbolic qualities, even those that are not sacraments. Cooking and sharing a meal with dear friends represent something far more than a time of nourishment. It is a kind of mystery, a relationship gathered together in a moment. So too when one begins scarfing down a meal before others arrive. It says that the others aren’t important, aren’t worth waiting for. It’s a sign or a symbol of something much deeper.
So it is with the recent marriage between Bishop Kevin Robertson and his partner, Mohan Sharma, on December 28. Robertson proceeded with a union that many in the Anglican Communion cannot accept, and for which there are yet no canonical arrangements in the Anglican Church of Canada.
Robertson, area bishop for York-Scarborough in the Diocese of Toronto, and Sharma have been a couple since 2009, and had their relationship blessed in the Diocese of Toronto in 2016. The Rt. Rev. Susan Bell, Bishop of Niagara, celebrated the recent wedding in Toronto’s St. James Cathedral. Archbishop Colin Johnson and his successor, Bishop Andrew Asbil, attended.
What kind of symbol is this in a church that has not formally agreed to change its canons to include same-sex marriage? What kind of symbol is it to the wider Anglican Communion that is being torn apart by disagreements about Scripture and sexuality?
That several diocesan bishops in the Anglican Church of Canada have decided to celebrate same-sex marriages in their dioceses, regardless of how the national church votes on amending its marriage canon, has long been established. The logic for defying the national church is fuzzy, however.
Some bishops do not seem to care what the established canons say, since they deem these actions “necessary at this time in our history as a diocese and as a church.” Others have proceeded with an interim pastoral response as outlined in the Diocese of Toronto’s “Appendix 8: Bishops’ Pastoral Statement.” Finally, some have proceeded simply because the current canon that establishes the traditional view of marriage between a man and a woman “does not explicitly prohibit same-sex marriage.” This latter view was expressed by General Synod’s chancellor, David Jones, though there have been no formal attempts to engage with his opinion.
Save for a brief announcement on the Diocese of Toronto’s website, there was no publicity for the occasion of Bishop Robertson’s wedding. Since it was posted on December 28 it has only made online ripples with a handful of conservative bloggers and some congratulatory remarks from LGBT news sources.
The most noteworthy response comes from the Anglican Communion Alliance, a “theological and spiritual rallying point for historic Christian orthodoxy in the Anglican Church of Canada.” Its statement questions the intentions of bishops who ignored the three-year period between General Synods 2016 and 2019 as a time for study, listening, and discernment on same-sex marriage. It seems, the alliance suggests, that some bishops have no intention of listening, but have decided and modeled with their lives that the decision for same-sex marriage is settled.
From England, Andrew Goddard has offered insightful commentary on the influence that Bishop Robertson’s wedding may have on the Anglican Communion, especially with Lambeth 2020 in view. Setting aside the pre-emptive and unilateral decision of some dioceses in the Anglican Church of Canada to authorize same-sex marriages, and the arguments from Scripture, tradition, and catholicity that they have flatly ignored — Bishop Robertson’s wedding is something quite new.
Though Archbishop Colin Johnson of the Diocese of Toronto issued guidelines for the interim pastoral response of same-sex marriage, these are irrelevant to Bishop Robertson’s wedding. The guidelines state that Johnson has allowed a
small number of priests, licensed to the cure of souls in a community, to preside in their parish at the marriage of a same-sex couple in certain limited circumstances. Both priest and congregation must concur that this ministry will be offered.
In the case of Bishop Robertson and Sharma, however, the pastoral and parochial nature of the guidelines do not apply. Rather, Archbishop Johnson allowed another diocesan bishop who is not licensed to the cure of souls in Toronto to preside at the wedding ceremony. This is a novel development with no canonical precedent. It also further distances the Anglican Church of Canada from its historical (and standing) teaching on marriage, as well as from the majority of the Anglican Communion.
It’s possible that Archbishop Johnson has simply accepted the following logic: because the current marriage canon does not explicitly forbid same-sex marriage, the church is free to carry on as it may. Besides opening a legal Pandora’s box (there are many things that our canons do not specifically forbid in their prescriptive language, because they tend to be read in context, in tradition, with Scripture, etc.), it seems disingenuous.
How could Archbishop Johnson and others that voted in favor of amending the current marriage canon, be so visibly disappointed when it appeared not to pass, if all along they didn’t see it to be a barrier to moving forward? Why does the voting matter at all? Furthermore, it raises questions about why there was a call for conversation, discernment, and listening in many dioceses if bishops intend to strongarm their dioceses into novel interpretations of church law.
If bishops really are the chief pastors of their dioceses, and have some kind of sacramental role in ordaining priests and deacons, guarding the faith, and leading in ministry, then their personal lives take on a more significant character. This is a point clear even in New Testament teaching about choosing bishops, presbyters, and deacons (e.g., 1 Tim. 3; Titus 1:5-9) and a longtime emphasis in the Anglican tradition, including the Ordinal. A gay parishioner who marries his partner in the church does not have the same kind of symbolic significance as does a bishop doing the same. Likewise, a parishioner who fatally strikes a pedestrian under the influence would not face the same ecclesiastical censures as would a bishop such as Heather Cook.
I am not saying same-sex marriage is akin to driving under the influence, but I am pointing out that when a bishop of the church does something it has a representative power, for good or ill. Think of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s fight against apartheid and the power of his witness, which is partly because of his episcopal authority.
Bishop Robertson’s decision to marry someone of the same sex means something more than an expression of love and fidelity. It sends a message to the whole church, claiming that bishops may act on their own accord, regardless of what Scripture or their episcopal colleagues teach.
The other bishops involved in Bishop Robertson’s wedding are conveying the message that the church is no longer in discernment about same-sex marriage. What they are conveying is that same-sex marriage is not only acceptable (despite what the church may decide) but the pastoral guidelines in which same-sex marriages are to be carried out are no longer necessary. These bishops are also conveying that if conservatives have a problem with same-sex marriage, now they also have a problem with the bishops, who made certain moral decisions in their lives as teachers of the church.
While Bishop Robertson’s wedding raises all kinds of further questions about the normative role of Scripture, the authority of bishops, the regulating capacity of the national church, and the integrity of the Anglican Communion (as Goddard has pointed out), it will only serve to deepen the pain and turmoil in the hearts of Anglicans trying to work for unity and mutual understanding.
Further, one wonders why Robertson’s wedding occurred when and how it did. Why at this point in discernment, when in only six months we will know with certainty the actions of General Synod 2019? Why not earlier, if Robertson and his partner already had their relationship blessed? And why only three days before the retirement of Archbishop Johnson? Why include Bishop Susan Bell, making this an inter-diocesan affair?
Bishops Robertson, Asbil, Bell, and Archbishop Colin Johnson have a responsibility to give a rationale for their decision to act without the counsel of their church. They have a responsibility to the people they have vowed to lead, and to their episcopal brothers and sisters whom they will likely see at Lambeth 2020.
The only attempt to engage these theological questions is the report This Holy Estate. It appears to grapple with important theological questions, but it does not. It has been roundly criticized not only for failing to offer convincing arguments for same-sex marriage, but for its inability even to grasp and articulate the traditionalist theology of marriage from which it is departing. See the series Evaluating This Holy Estate, to which I was a contributor, for some of these criticisms.