By Paul (H. Matthew Lee)
The previous General Synod of 2016 left my faith in the Church of Canada, and Anglicanism in general, profoundly shaken. Now, on its own, sharing such a statement on Covenant or in The Living Church, would be uninteresting. Given how these publications have been bastions for conservative North American loyalists, we have already seen articles about such struggles.
But I am set apart from most of the contributors here by the fact that I was and continue to be supportive of queer sexualities and have never tried to hide this fact. I want to explain here why I was so troubled by the General Synod of 2016 and its aftermath when I was supportive of same-sex marriage, and why it troubled me to the point that I seriously considered leaving the Anglican Church entirely. All of these problems have, most regrettably, only gotten worse, and I write this letter in deep ambivalence, pain, and desperation.
Initially, I was perturbed at the general lack of theological and doctrinal seriousness throughout the proceedings, especially on the day devoted to the marriage canon. Our bishops and delegates were ostensibly there to debate a monumental doctrinal interpretation. This would have far ranging implications not only for marriage in the Church of Canada but the entire breadth of Christian thought and practice regarding human sexuality and erotic love. The necessity for clear, ongoing, and systematic theological arguments and counterarguments was clear, given the highly controversial and contentious nature of the debates, and especially the intra-Communion tensions evident with the ACNA/ANiC schisms and GAFCON’s censures of the American and Canadian churches.
At that time, as in the present moment, the task for us who support same-sex marriage is to convince the Church that same-sex marriage coheres and remains consonant with the distinctive Christian understanding of love, sex, and marriage as it has been passed down through the tradition. This is no simple task, as we must demonstrate this continuity despite the undeniable novelty of the very idea of same-sex marriage in Christian doctrine and practice. Any argument that fails to do this would be inadequate, by the measure of Church dogmatics and Christian self-understanding.
This Holy Estate (THE) was intended as a platform for arguments affirming the theological coherence and legitimacy of same-sex marriage. At the time, I thought THE raised some interesting avenues of argument. I was more sympathetic to some of its arguments than the Covenant writers who contributed to the series of short rebukes to the report leading up to the General Synod of 2016. But, regardless of my sympathies, it was clear that THE was a preliminary exploration and could only be regarded as such. It was a report that pointed towards some interesting ideas which required serious scrutiny to filter out erroneous ideas and foster the development of fruitful ones. While I was a little disappointed in what I thought was an excessively uncharitable tone in the Covenant series, there were serious critiques of THE, both on Covenant and elsewhere, that required careful consideration. I was, for some time, excited to see how the debates might continue in the ensuing years.
Despite the monumental theological significance of the question of same-sex marriage, most of the comments made both within and outside General Synod were sentimental appeals that simply presumed that the truth of their positions was self-evident. Indeed, the question of truth was, in the ultimate analysis, pretty much absent. When we look at some of the comments made around General Synod, we can see that various people thought that THE made final and conclusive arguments. This was, for example, the position of the previous bishop of my diocese, Michael Bird of Niagara, who in his statement on July 11, 2016 claimed that: “The Report of the Commission on the marriage canon, ‘This Holy Estate’, provides a sound and compelling mandate to move forward with an understanding of the sacrament of marriage that is inclusive for all people, regardless of sexual orientation.”
Now, a lack of doctrinal clarity and robust, disciplined theological inquiry is something that plagues contemporary Western Christianity, and the Church of Canada is not unique in this regard. So, on its own, the rather dismal state of theological discourse displayed would have failed to shake my faith in the Church of Canada. It was regrettable, but, frankly, par for the course given the pathetic decadence of Western Christianity today. No, what truly disturbed me was what followed when, due to a miscount, it briefly appeared that the vote to change the marriage canon had failed. There is much that can be said, but I will limit my attention to what was most intimately relevant to me—the statement of Bishop Bird on July 11, 2016.
Before the ink from the miscount could even dry, Bishop Bird issued a statement that he, along with a number of other bishops, were going to unilaterally authorize same-sex marriage regardless of the fact that the General Synod had voted against the measure. This extraordinary step was justified in his letter with the argument that “it is clear that our Anglican conventions permit a diocesan bishop to exercise episcopal authority by authorizing liturgies to respond to pastoral needs within their dioceses, in the absence of any actions by this General Synod to address these realities,” and so it is his intention to “immediately exercise this authority to respond to the sacramental needs of the LGBTQ2 community in the Diocese of Niagara.” The speed of the response made it clear that it had been largely prepared in advance to be used if the vote did not go the way Bishop Bird desired. There is much about this letter that I found deeply troubling.
The letter opened with the assertion that “The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada has narrowly voted against a change in the marriage canon that would have enshrined equal marriage within our national canons.” However, this potentially misrepresented the situation. Even if the vote succeeded (as, indeed, we soon learned it had, once the miscount was corrected), this result would not have amended the marriage canon. Canonical amendment would have required the motion to pass again in the second reading at the next General Synod. An affirmative vote would have simply been a measure to hold the topic open for further discussion. Despite this, Bishop Bird did not simply express his displeasure at the negative outcome but announced his intention to unilaterally authorize same-sex marriage liturgies for use in our diocese.
By doing this we can see that either Bishop Bird misunderstood the canonical procedures of General Synod or intentionally chose to circumvent the proper canonical order. It is difficult for me to believe that Bishop Bird and the accompanying bishops were somehow ignorant about the basic procedural order. One can only conclude that they were not only openly disregarding the result of the General Synod but consciously acting in a way that would circumvent proper canonical order even if the result of the vote was affirmative. The fact that we soon learned that the vote was miscounted, causing the result to flip, did not change the fact that Bishop Bird pre-emptively planned on wildly violating the Church Canons in the name of “inclusive witness”.
Most disturbing for me, however, was how Bishop Bird’s interpretation of episcopal authority implicitly asserted the power to declare doctrinal truth unilaterally. Now, both leading up to our recent General Synod of 2019 and in its immediate aftermath, we have been hearing this popular idea that our current marriage canon “does not contain either a definition of marriage or a specific prohibition against solemnizing same-sex marriage,” as David Jones, the Chancellor of General Synod in 2016, asserted. Latching onto this claim, we have heard a great deal of talk recently about how (since this argument is also somehow conclusive and final) same-sex marriage is already to be considered as “not uncanonical” and therefore technically permissible even if it is not expressly defined and enshrined in the marriage canon.
It appears that the first public utilization of this line of argument is found in Bishop Bird’s letter, and he uses it to suggest that his authorization of same-sex marriage rites in our diocese would not be a contradiction of the marriage canon as such. This can only be considered valid if we as the Church of Canada genuinely wish to operate by opportunistic legalisms. How exactly are we to square such an argument with the fact that our attempts to theologically legitimize same-sex marriage and queer sexualities depend upon contextual and textured interpretation of the scriptural text? For this argument to work at all we would have to believe that the meaning of the marriage canon is in complete abstraction from the liturgies and doctrines of the Church of Canada and the Anglican Communion as a whole.
This argument also requires us all to somehow believe in a strange narrative according to which the years of divisive debate that have ripped through the Church of Canada and the Anglican Communion have been technically unnecessary, leading us to wonder why we were even debating and voting on this question at General Synod at all. This entire line of argument is blatant special pleading, and the methodological dissonance it causes for us who wish to argue for same-sex marriage is so extreme that it must be considered entirely inadmissible. It is a catastrophically self-defeating argument, and the positions of Bishop Bird and others that depend on it must also be considered erroneous.
Bishop Bird probably sincerely believed that David Jones’s interpretation was valid, and it might not have been his intention to articulate a doctrine of episcopal authority to declare doctrinal truths unilaterally. But by wilfully choosing to act in contradiction to the result of the General Synod, intentionally circumventing and compromising canonical procedure and order, and arbitrarily authorizing novel liturgies that presume doctrines that were recognized neither in law nor unanimous theological understanding, Bishop Bird created a precedent for construing episcopal prerogative as the sovereignty to decide not only on questions of ecclesiastical practice but also dogma, a precedent for interpreting the authority of the episcopal office as not beholden to the common faith articulated by the General Synod and the College of Bishops. The implications that follow are harrowing.
In the months following the General Synod of 2016 I read, in the October newsletters of the Diocese of Niagara, an article that openly attacked the credibility of the Nicene Creed. It repeated, almost verbatim, some of the silliest ideas from the “12 Theses” of our contemporary Anglican arch-heretic, Bishop John Shelby Spong. That such an article was published in the official journal of the Diocese of Niagara was stupefying, and the compounding effect it had upon my deep reservations about Bishop Bird’s June 11 letter led me to give serious consideration to seeking temporary refuge in different Christian bodies, or even to leaving the Anglican Church entirely.
But after months of agonizing, having returned to my old parish, I decided to stay. I still worship with my mentor, a spiritual father, who brought me back to the faith. The idea of no longer communing him — no longer kneeling before the same altar, eating and drinking from the same paten and chalice — was unimaginable, an unforgivable breach of our love for one another. In his infinite grace God granted me the great joy of meeting beautiful, faithful Anglicans who challenged and inspired me, convincing me that our Anglican house, as pathetic and decadent as it is today, is indeed a house of God into which I am to pour my life. When I was, belatedly, formally received into the Anglican Church and licensed a lay reader earlier this year, I vowed to be faithful and obedient, concretely, regardless of what might follow in the future.
In the three years following the 2016 General Synod, I have prayed that the arguments and measures deployed by Bishop Bird would not be followed in the future. I hoped that patient obedience would prevail in our General Synod of 2019, regardless of which way the vote fell. I was, perhaps, a little naïve in my hopes. The precedent that Bishop Bird and the bishops that acted in concert with him in 2016 has been seized by a number of bishops in the aftermath of our 2019 General Synod, and all pretense of canonical order appears to have been thrown into the air. We have seen clergy and laity indignantly declare that the bishops should not have such heavy weight on doctrinal questions, forgetting their ordination vows and/or the fundamentals of our Catholic ecclesiology, confusing the Church for a democracy and the quest for truth for majoritarian demagoguery. Now we have various bishops openly acting as if they are feudal lords of their local domains, not beholden to the law of the Church they serve. Somehow, even the rather blatant bishop stacking by the Diocese of the Arctic (which elected three suffragans just months before General Synod) is overshadowed entirely by the lawlessness that has been displayed in the aftermath of the marriage canon vote. Our Church of Canada has become a great squalor.
My honorable bishops, reverend clergy, and all my fellow Anglicans, this cannot be the way. By what moral right can any of us criticize the Diocese of the Arctic for declaring impaired communion when so many of us have decided to speak and act so arbitrarily and self-servingly? By what moral right can we possibly respond to accusations that we who are supportive of same-sex marriage are a willful and stubborn people? Are we not refusing to incline our ears and instead following the erroneous imaginations of our own hearts when we so blatantly disorder the Church so long as doing so appears advantageous to our agenda?
My honorable bishops, reverend clergy, and all my fellow Anglicans, whom do we serve? Can such blatant disregard for the order of the Body of Christ truly serve “justice”? Does it truly cohere with Christian morality to believe that two wrongs make a right? Is it truly consonant for our Christian theological epistemology to imply that we are somehow the unique possessors of a private revelation that justifies us in usurping the conventions and traditions of the Church? Are we truly so arrogant to assert that our opinion carries the self-evident weight of truth when there is no clear unanimous agreement? It seems to me that we are walking down a dangerous, precarious path—truly, the road to hell is paved in good intentions. Scripture teaches us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, that the knowledge of God is understanding. I see no wisdom here, nothing edifying. This cannot be the way.
Nevertheless, I have zeal for my Father’s house, and zeal for this house alone. And I have faith in it—for I trust that the Lord alone is truly sovereign. Judgment has befallen a disobedient Israel again and again, for there is no health in us. But the Lord is the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy. That alone do I trust, and so I have no desire but to be an obedient churchman.
Paul (H. Matthew Lee)
Lay Reader in the Diocese of Niagara,
Doctoral Candidate in Religious Studies at McMaster University