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Testing the Spirits: Catholicity and the Marriage Amendment

Part of a series leading up to the Anglican Church of Canada’s 2019 General Synod. Previous installments can be found here and here.

By Dane Neufeld

The dispute over same-sex marriage is not merely a matter of inclusion and its proper bounds. At root is the nature of the Church’s catholicity and the character of God’s gracious gathering of humanity in Christ. As Henri de Lubac has written, “Humanity is one, organically one by its divine structure; it is the Church’s mission to reveal to men that pristine unity that they have lost, to restore and complete it … destruction of unity is a corruption of truth, and the poison of dissension is as baneful as that of false doctrine (Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, Ignatius Press, 53, 77).” Though we may find ourselves eager to move past debates on sexuality to our “real mission” as a Church, the current conflicts are hardly peripheral to our mission. The coherent, patient and gracious witness to God and his creation is at the heart of the Church’s mission.

This is why the question of same-sex marriage is not isolated, but instead impinges upon a whole host of interconnected theological and ecclesial realities. Theology, the reality of God, is one reality, and though we separate certain aspects from others in order to comprehend them, they contain a structural unity. Catholicity is a term that seeks to represent this living unity of all things in Christ. Of course, reality varies in time and place, but our fundamental beliefs as Christians should lead us to expect this unity as the world was created by one God, to whom all things will return.

At this summer’s General Synod, the Anglican Church of Canada will grapple with many weighty matters that seem almost providentially designed to perplex and diffuse our apprehension of Christ’s unity. I say providentially with some hesitation, though it is not clear how we will escape the coming puzzlement.

The vote on the marriage canon amendment is well known, but we will also be considering resolutions on indigenous self-determination and the stewardship of God’s creation. Though these resolutions will be approached separately because they each deserve their own consideration, they are all connected, though this connection can be difficult to grasp because of the various interests and theological entrenchments we bring to the table.

For example, the Council of General Synod commended a number of resolutions for consideration at General Synod. One calls us to acknowledge that unique witness of indigenous peoples to a life of harmony with the land. The resolution is motivated by a deep sense of catholicity, and it rightly acknowledges that indigenous people have a special and particular witness to that interdependence in the land they have inhabited for thousands of years.

We will also consider an amendment to the amendment of the marriage canon which essentially brackets indigenous understandings of marriage, and allows them to pursue their own methods of decision making. This aims to avoid further imposition of western understandings upon them, but its good intention creates a certain confusion. As Bishop Mark MacDonald has said: “The male and female that is spoken of in marriage is not just about a ceremony or a particular way of life. It’s a larger issue in terms of the community, and has to do with a worldview in which creation itself is viewed as male and female.”

One motion calls for us to pay special attention to the witness of indigenous peoples and their understanding of creation, while another motion wants us to bracket that understanding and keep it separate from our understanding of marriage. One might naively ask, are these things not all part of the same interconnected thing?

It is possible for traditionalists to regard this confusion as a by-product of progressive opportunism, but traditionalists too should be careful of holding similar positions. For example, how seriously have we listened to the environmental and land use concerns of Indigenous Anglicans in Canada? We all must beware of seizing upon politically expedient aspects of indigenous Christianity (I realize indigenous Anglicans are not unanimous if their views), while bracketing those areas less useful to our agendas.

Globally, progressives and traditionalists are equally divided on how to regard the wider church, and the claims it makes upon us. The 1998 Lambeth statement on marriage and the Windsor moratoria placed concrete limitations on our deliberations on marriage, in light of our global commitments to fellow Anglicans. Yet as a national Church we have bypassed those limitations, in part because we are ambivalent about how the Communion came into existence. Many are uncomfortable with the missionary history that led to the creation of the Communion’s churches.

The language of decolonization has become common parlance in Church, and is at times used to call into question evangelism itself. The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Volume 1, for example, founds the heart of the colonial spirit in the great commission (25). The report claims that even the best intentioned and most culturally sensitive missionaries were engaged in a program of “social disruption (33).”

While most Anglicans would be more than willing to admit that our mission history was, to varying degrees, problematic, the razor of decolonization can cut even deeper toward the core of Christian teaching, to the very notion of catholicity itself. As a Church, the enormous implications of our colonial history are inescapable and of our own making. But I wonder if we have fully grasped how theologically disorienting our current moment has become. Is the theological conservatism of African Anglicans, for example, a broken mirror to our tortured past, or a witness and memory of something  we have lost? This question is related in every way to the challenges and questions that linger over General Synod: What are traditionalists trying to preserve and what are progressives trying to move beyond? This question is entirely unsettled in our midst, and if we stave off division around same-sex marriage, there will still be a relentless procession of issues that threaten us with the same stakes.

One does not need to be a prophet to see it coming. Secularism or pluralism, or whatever we call the moral and ideological force that is now running our society, is powerful and its rationale is difficult to resist. It is an overwhelming and yet shadowy power that has handed our societies both blessing and curses. It has assumed a god-like status and we are no longer sure of its extent, where it begins or where it ends. There is no high ground untouched by its influence. Whatever improvements it has brought us, whatever wrongs it has sought to correct, it is beyond dispute that it has also divided and diminished the body of Christ. Such a power is not to be taken lightly.

As a traditionalist I do not claim exemption from the confusion and upheaval of our age. But it seems to me that we are losing our grasp of something deeply important. The name of God is slipping into a collection of totalizing moral ideas. Our alienation from Anglicans around the world threatens to plunge us deeper into isolation and fragmentation. The Scriptures, at times, have been made relative to ill-defined and even hostile forms of thought.

It is this, perhaps, that some progressives do not understand. This summer, many traditionalists may vote in favor of the amendment to the amendment, but still vote against the original amendment to change the marriage canon. This may well be viewed by some as uncompromising, even cruel. But we are bound by the larger catholic vision of the Christian faith, one that tries to articulate the unity of  God, the One who judges, has mercy upon, and gathers the nations of the earth. In fragmented times we may not understand the whole picture, but the pieces should fit together in a way that at least portends a greater harmony within Scripture, between Christians throughtout the world, past and present. If that seems like a tall task, at the very least it means we should be careful.

In this context, progressives appeal to the widening, catholic, work of the Spirit in Acts 11 (with traditionalists cast as a less obedient Peter) and Acts 15. As we consider whether this might be the case, we should attend to whether we discern the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our midst regarding this matter. Do we see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, or suspicion, indifference or hostility, lost affection, hardened hearts, and closed minds? This is a question for traditionalists, progressives and all Anglicans invested in this conflict.

The marriage canon amendment may pass or fail, I do not know, but we must be cautious in drawing conclusions about whether the outcome is the widening work of the Holy Spirit or something else. Unless the bond of love is strengthened within us as a national Church, including the land in which we dwell and its indigenous peoples, and within the global Communion, there are reasons to doubt it. But nothing is impossible with God, and my deepest hope for this summer is not for the mere triumph of my views, but for the renewal of our life in Christ. If we gather together in a spirit of humility and repentance before God, if we acknowledge our blindness and ignorance, though we disagree, we just might see the Spirit moving among us.

The Rev. Dr. Dane Neufeld is the rector of All Saints Fort McMurray at the end of a highway in Northern Alberta.






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