Bishops shift focus from same-sex marriage to mission

The Rev. Vincent Solomon, urban Indigenous ministry developer for the diocese of Rupert's Land, gives members of the House of Bishops and their spouses a tour of the Oodena Celebration Circle at the Forks, in Winnipeg. Photo: Bishop Mary Irwin-Gibson
The Rev. Vincent Solomon, urban Indigenous ministry developer for the diocese of Rupert's Land, gives members of the House of Bishops and their spouses a tour of the Oodena Celebration Circle at the Forks, in Winnipeg. Photo: Bishop Mary Irwin-Gibson
Published September 30, 2016

After three years spent in intense debate over a resolution to allow the marriage of same-sex couples, the House of Bishops intends to shift its focus to “evangelism and discipleship and mission” in the next triennium, says Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, following the house’s September 22-27 meeting in Winnipeg.

“In the last number of years…the vast majority of our time in meetings was consumed by conversations about same-sex marriage,” said Hiltz in an interview. “And the bishops are saying, ‘We’ve just got to have a more balanced agenda.’ ”

Bishop Mary Irwin-Gibson, of the diocese of Montreal, agreed, saying in an interview that the same-sex marriage debate has taken up “way too much airtime” in recent years. She said she hopes the house can “get on with the mission of the church” by making it “more vital and adept” at creating disciples.

It was a point Archbishop John Privett, metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of British Columbia and the Yukon, also agreed with.

“There are huge questions about how we continue to grow disciples in these times and reflect more deeply on the mission of our church,” he noted. “I am hoping that in the next three years we will have some energy and focus and time for that.”

However, since it was the first meeting of bishops following July’s General Synod, Hiltz said they spent the bulk of their time debriefing synod and the fallout resulting from the provisional approval of the motion allowing same-sex marriage.

When the motion was originally declared to have been defeated, several bishops had announced they would go ahead with same-sex marriage. When the vote was reversed the next day following discovery of an error, these bishops said they would stand by their decision.

Days later, seven bishops signed a statement publicly dissenting from General Synod’s same-sex marriage vote. The church’s three Indigenous bishops also released a separate statement criticizing the vote.

For these reasons, many of the bishops admitted to being unsure as to how their meeting would turn out.

“I expected that there would be some real tensions in the house,” said Privett. “But my experience was that the conversation was respectful and…it was a very healthy engagement.”

While each bishop was given the opportunity to speak their mind, Hiltz said there was a general consensus that the matter now rests with the individual dioceses and provinces to continue the discussion in advance of 2019, when the motion will be sent for second and final consideration.

“There is nothing more that the bishops need or necessarily ought to be saying [about same-sex marriage] at this point, not as a house,” he explained. “In fact…I just don’t know that it would be helpful.”

Hiltz said no attempt was made to place a moratorium on same-sex marriages until after the second vote in 2019. What he heard from some bishops who announced their intention to allow same-sex marriages in their dioceses was that such marriages could happen, but as an “interim pastoral provision” that would require “the bishop’s knowledge and permission.” The bishop would also have to authorize a rite to be used to solemnize the union since the current liturgies, in the Book of Common Prayer and the Book of Alternative Services, cannot be used until the marriage canon is formally amended.

When asked how this arrangement was received by the house, Hiltz said, “I didn’t see any major reaction. No blow-up, no pushback.” He said that the bishops understood this as a pastoral provision.

“The majority of the bishops are indicating and quite prepared to live within the timelines of the process of General Synod,” he said. Bishops also stressed that they would be “very committed to upholding the conscience clause,” which means that no one will be compelled to marry anybody, he added.

When asked how she would treat the issue in her diocese, Irwin-Gibson said that if the need arose, she would consider allowing same-sex marriages to take place before 2019, but only in specific circumstances.

While she is willing to consider authorizing a service for “active members of a congregation who want to be married in a church,” she is not interested in marrying couples who simply want the aesthetic of a church marriage.

“I’m interested in marriage as a Christian avenue of discipleship,” she explained.

Bishop Larry Robertson, of the diocese of Yukon, on the other hand, said he can discern little will among his people for continued discussion of same-sex marriage. He noted that his diocese has studied the issue on two different occasions, and it has only caused division in his parishes.

For this reason, Robertson said he will put a moratorium on discussions of same-sex marriage during Sunday morning services, and request that his clergy include him in any discussions about same-sex marriage that occur in their parishes.

Meanwhile, Hiltz said he has sent a letter to the bishops who dissented from General Synod’s action and has expressed his willingness to meet with them. “They are, I think, hoping to have some time to think about they might respond to my letter…We’ve agreed that when they’ve had that time, and have made a more formal response to me, that we will meet.”

Another theme of the meeting, according to a number of bishops contacted by the Anglican Journal, was the desire to create a more functional house over the next triennium.

All the bishops noted that there are deep disagreements between members of the house across a range of theological and social issues, but many also held out hope that these disagreements could be managed better.

“How do we live with difference?” was a question raised by many bishops, said National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald.

Archbishop Greg Kerr-Wilson, metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Rupert’s Land, said he heard a number of his peers express frustration with voting as a way of arriving at a decision.

“I think there is certainly a will not to get into those kind of up-down, yes-no votes,” he said, while acknowledging that he doesn’t know what an alternate system might look like or even if it is possible.

Robertson-who has been a vocal critic of the legislative system as a way of making decisions about same-sex marriage-echoed these concerns, but cautioned that because the legislative process has begun, it must be carried through to its completion.

Hiltz explained that from his perspective, one of the problems with the House of Bishops’ process in the past has been that while bishops are good at listening to each other, engaging each other is a different matter.

“You can be so intent on a commitment to listen that you actually then don’t have time for that next step, which is response, engagement, conversation, discerning together,” he said, holding up the Indaba process that has been used to discuss divisive issues in the past as a good model.

As is the custom of the house, the September meeting, being the first of a new triennium, included a parallel meeting of the bishops’ spouses. It also included a number of activities that allowed the bishops and their partners to learn about their host city of Winnipeg, such as a tour of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and the National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

Hiltz acknowledged that the presence of the bishops’ spouses and the venue (the meeting was held in a hotel instead of a retreat centre) offered more “opportunities for conversations,” which helped the meeting. “We did not leave that meeting of the House of Bishops in disarray at all, from my point of view. And I think a number of bishops would agree with that.”

Kerr-Wilson said the presence of spouses helped set the tone of the bishops’ conversations, which he described as being “very honest and frank, and also very respectful.”

MacDonald added, “We’re all committed to working with one another, and I think that’s positive.”

Hiltz said there was also “a very good spirit” at the closing Eucharist, which, in contrast to the one at General Synod boycotted by some bishops, was attended by everyone who was present. (Some bishops had left early due to other obligations).


? With additional reporting by Tali Folkins



  • André Forget

    André Forget was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2014 to 2017.

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