This week I will be traveling to Richmond Hill near Toronto to participate in the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada as a delegate of the Diocese of Ottawa. This gathering to be held on July 7 to 12 is the national meeting of our church which takes place every three years. Our General Synod discusses and makes decisions on a wide range of matters affecting the faith, life and worship of the church. As but one important example, in recent General Synods and again this year we will be considering and making decisions concerning the relationship of the Anglican Church of Canada with its indigenous members and indigenous communities across Canada.
But this year, the matter that is of great importance and has attracted the most attention is the resolution to change the Marriage Canon of the Anglican Church of Canada (Canon 21) to permit same-sex marriage. At General Synod in 2013, a motion was passed that obliged the Council of General Synod ("Synod between Synods") to bring forward a motion for consideration at General Synod 2016 to provide for same-sex marriage in the same way that opposite-sex couples are married within our church. The Commission on the Marriage Canon was created following General Synod 2013 to consult and to prepare the groundwork for General Synod in 2016. Its report is entitled “This Holy Estate” and I commend it to you.
At present in our Diocese of Ottawa (and in many dioceses across Canada) we bless same-sex marriages in our churches, but do not provide for same-sex marriage. It’s time for this to change. It’s time for LGBTQ people to be fully welcome, to participate fully in the life and leadership of the church and to have full and equal access to its sacraments, liturgies and pastoral offices, including marriage.
The current challenge faced by advocates for changing the marriage canon to permit same-sex marriage is that according to the polity of our church, changes to canons require a two-third majority vote in each of the order of bishops, clergy and laity at two consecutive General Synods. Even with the required votes, the earliest that the marriage canon can be changed would be following the approval of the second reading of the motion at General Synod 2019.
A further challenge was posed by the statement released on Feb 29 2016 by the House of Bishops. In their statement, the Bishops acknowledged that based on their conversations, the motion to change the marriage canon at General Synod was not likely to pass in the Order of Bishops by the required 2/3 majority. In my view, the Bishops are to be commended for issuing this statement, not only in the interests of openness and transparency, but also because their statement of four months ago kick-started many conversations and communications which needed to take place.
Our Bishop John Chapman responded immediately to the House of Bishops’ statement, indicating that he was “mortified” by the House of Bishops apparent inability to support same gendered marriage, extending his deep apology to all those, especially in the LGBTQ community, who are feeling discouraged and hurt by the House of Bishops statement, vowing to continue to advocate for a revised marriage canon that would allow for same gendered marriage and suggesting that the Diocese of Ottawa would continue down the path of hospitality and inclusion. His statement read, in part,
“You can well imagine that I was one of those present [in the House of Bishops] who was "mortified". One judges the fullness of a decision, activity or sacrament in the name of Jesus by its fruit. If a same gendered marriage is rooted in self-giving love; if this marriage is an exclusive loving commitment one to the other in good times and bad until death; if this marriage is joining of families together as one, and if this same gendered marriage is embraced as a sacred covenant between two individuals and God; then it is a holy marriage before God. Needless to say, this is not shared by two-thirds of the House of Bishops. Yet, my assumption is that a very significant majority of people in the Diocese of Ottawa would affirm same gendered holy marriage solemnized through the liturgies of our Church.”
Where do we stand now, on the eve of General Synod? My expectation is that the change to the marriage canon to allow same-sex marriage will be supported by a strong majority overall, and by the required 2/3 majorities in both the order of clergy and laity. How the vote will go in the House of Bishops is difficult to predict. My read is that a majority of Bishops support the motion, but whether that will translate into the required 2/3 majority is unsure. All of us who are delegates to General Synod, whether lay, clergy or bishops, are committed to go to synod in a spirit of openness, engaging in prayer and worship, in study and in listening so that we can best discern the movement of God’s Spirit in our midst and go where the Spirit is leading us. I would ask that you also pray for General Synod, for all the delegates including me, and for all who will be affected by the outcome of General Synod. Your prayers matter, especially at this time. I also welcome your thoughts and comments as they will help shape my own reflections. I commend to you the work of #EquallyAnglican, and the pictures and videos they offer of the reality of LGBTQ folk in our midst in the Anglican Church of Canada.
If the resolution passes with the required two-thirds majority in each order, it will then go to General Synod in 2019 for second reading, which allows for three years of conversation and consideration during the intervening years.
If the motion to change the marriage canon receives a strong majority, but fails to pass because it lacks a 2/3 majority in the order of bishops, the way forward is less clear, but a number of other options are possible and my expectation is that change will still take place. I know that some of you were dismayed by the House of Bishops' statement in February, and will be even more dismayed if the motion does not pass at General Synod. But this would not prevent change from taking place. In the event of a failed vote, that change might be less orderly, even messy. But it’s time.
One of the things that has come to light over the last few months is that many, including canon lawyers, are of the opinion that the marriage canon in its present form does not prohibit same sex marriage. To quote the marriage canon,
“This union is established by God’s grace when two duly qualified persons enter into a covenant of marriage in which they declare their intention of fulfilling its purposes and exchange vows to be faithful to one another until they are separated by death.”
Further, there is a will, I would call it a movement of the Spirit, urging us to move forward with same-sex marriage. In response to the House of Bishops' February statement, our Council of General of Synod responded in March by writing that if General Synod discerns that a legislative approach is not the most helpful, “we faithfully hope that through dialogue at General Synod an alternate way will emerge. We recommend the greatest pastoral response possible, allowing same-sex couples to be fully included in the life of our church with full and equal access to its liturgies and pastoral offices.” Bishop John of this Diocese has advocated that we continue down this path. And most recently, in response to the mass shooting in Orlando, the Most Rev. Fred Hiltz, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada issued a call to prayer and a call to boldness:
“This call to prayer is rooted in our baptismal vow to "respect the dignity of every human being". This call is grounded in public statements of our Church condemning the homophobia that drives such violence as we have seen in Orlando. It summons us to reach out to LGBTQ+ people and communities in our midst, and for a time to weep together and then, in a manner like never before, to work together for the protection and honouring of the dignity, equality, rights, and freedom for all.
Let us be gentle and then let us be bold. Nothing less will do if we are to bear a faithful witness to the Gospel of Christ.”
All of this, and much more, indicates to me that even if legislative change does not happen at General Synod, our church will move forward with same-sex marriage at the diocesan and perhaps even the provincial level. Whatever the outcome, there will be disagreements and hurt. We will need to respect, care for and listen to those with whom we disagree, and work to heal those who are hurting. We will walk together, we will continue to talk and listen, we will make space for and indeed welcome those who are different from us and those with whom we disagree. Christ has given us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5.18) – we will be faithful to that calling.
I will share more of my thoughts with you later this week. In the meantime, please hold General Synod and its delegates in your prayers.