It was out of consideration for the rest of the church and not an attempt to influence or pre-empt the process at General Synod that the House of Bishops made public the unlikelihood of their order getting enough votes to allow same-sex marriage at General Synod this summer, say some bishops.
“The House of Bishops could have remained silent on the state of its deliberations,” said Bishop Ronald Cutler, in a pastoral letter sent to members of the diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. “However, it seemed for the sake of transparency, that we needed to communicate to the church and especially to [CoGS] about the current state of our discussion on this issue.”
The bishops’ statement was “not an attempt to thwart due process, but an attempt to be forthright and honest,” said Bishop John Chapman, in a pastoral letter sent to members of the diocese of Ottawa. It would have been “disrespectful to keep this knowledge hidden,” he added. Chapman said notwithstanding the bishops’ position, the motion proposing changes to the marriage canon to allow same-sex marriages will be placed before General Synod.
“We were feeling that it’s not fair to not tell CoGS what our discussions were,” Bishop Jane Alexander, of the diocese of Edmonton, told the Anglican Journal in an interview.
On Monday, February 29, the House of Bishops published a statement sent to CoGS—the church’s governing body between General Synods—summarizing the results of a special closed-door meeting the bishops had held to discuss proposed changes to the marriage canon to allow same-sex marriages. The statement said that the bishops realized during their meeting February 23-26 that the draft resolution would not likely get the two-thirds majority from them that it needs in order to be passed. (A change in the the marriage canon is a matter of doctrine that requires the approval by a two-thirds majority of each order —laity, clergy and bishops—at two consecutive General Synods.)
The bishops decided, Alexander said, that they should communicate their own dividedness on the issue in advance of the next meeting of CoGS, scheduled March 10-13, because “in many ways the House of Bishops is a microcosm of the church, so it’s not just us who were feeling ripped in a whole lot of different directions about it, but it’s going to be the same for everyone who comes to General Synod.”
Sharing their own struggles “might be helpful as they [CoGS members] were thinking about process,” she said.
“This is a vital bit of information that they will need to have in order to figure out how to deal with the resolution,” said Bishop Stephen Andrews, of the diocese of Algoma. “One of my fears [would be] that people could [think] that the bishops knew all along that this wasn’t going to go through, and things might have been different if people had known that.”
The statement was definitely not intended to torpedo the process, Alexander said.
“It may be interpreted as, ‘All the bishops are trying to block it,’ but it couldn’t be further from the truth…It’s ‘This is where we’re at, guys, and we’re struggling,’ ” Alexander said.
The bishops, she said, also didn’t want to seem to be “blindsiding” anyone at General Synod this July who might have assumed the bishops felt differently about the issue.
Bishop Michael Bird, of the diocese of Niagara, said that while he was among those who were “mortified and devastated” by the realization that the bishops would not vote in favour of allowing same-sex marriage, he remains hopeful. “I take heart in the commitment by the House of Bishops ‘to explore other options for honouring and fully embracing covenanted, faithful same-sex relationships.'” In a pastoral statement to his diocese, Bird said that he intends to “prayerfully explore what that might mean for all of us in Niagara.”
A number of bishops suggested they found the February meeting very difficult. Alexander said the bishops’ dividedness on same-sex marriage was “heartbreaking” to see, especially given the traditional role of bishops as symbols of the church’s unity. According to Cutler, although the talks were marked by an attitude of charity, they were nevertheless “intense and passionate.”
One complaint that came up a lot at the House of Bishops meeting, Alexander said, was that putting the issue of same-sex marriage to General Synod in the form of a yes-or-no vote on changing the marriage canon doesn’t allow room for a more open-ended discussion—”a way of saying, ‘OK, here is the canon on marriage; now the state also allows the civil marriage of people of the same gender, so what’s the church’s response to that? Is there a need for another canon on that, or…a subsection, or whatever?’ ”
Among the bishops, Alexander said, there is a “great fear” that people might see homophobia in their reluctance to endorse a change to the marriage canon—which, she said, is not the case.
“For many of the bishops in the house, it was not so simple as ‘Should we change the marriage canon?’ because for many people it was ‘Here’s my theology of marriage, and here’s why I think this is different, and…can I see that there is a blessing in same-gendered covenanted civilly married people? Absolutely yes, but it’s a different blessing from that seen in a traditional male-female marriage.’ ”
Bishops whose dioceses allow the blessing of same-sex unions apologized for the bishops’ statement. “I want to extend my deep apology to all those who are feeling discouraged, angry, betrayed and hurt. I especially want to apologize to the LGBTQ community,” said Chapman. “Many of us did our very best to ensure that your voice was heard, understood, respected, and honoured…We were unsuccessful, and for that I am so sorry!”
Bird said, “my heart aches for all those who continue to be wounded by the words and actions of our church.”
The bishops’ statement has generated strong feelings and fierce debate on social media and the Journal website’s comments section.
Commenting on Facebook, Bill Pearson called the statement “a completely unnecessary and overly manipulative statement from the bishops, given that this issue is coming to [General] Synod for a vote,” a point supported by Geoff McLarney, who said it was “completely inappropriate for one order of [General Synod] to pre-empt its processes.”
Keith Denman disagreed, suggesting that “it was good of [the House of Bishops] to give a heads up to the people planning the upcoming Synod so they can figure out how to work the issue without people being shredded in the process.”
Many of the commenters, however, simply sought to express their sorrow or approval of the decision.
Muriel Hornby declared it “disappointing,” Jeffrey Steward O’Hare said it was “horribly out of touch” and Elly Gordon called it “spineless and sad,” while Kevin James Tucker said he was “overjoyed” about it.
“In the Bible it says marriage is covenant between man and woman,” he argued, an opinion shared by Alain Ino Etoile Ikouba, who said, “Marriage was meant to be between a man and a woman. Let it be upheld in line with the gospel.”
Allan Pearson, commenting on the Anglican Journal website, was hopeful that the decision signalled a change of direction in the church.
“Perhaps there is some hope still remaining that the Anglican Church of Canada will stop its progression down this road of sin and death and get back to being a Christian Church,” he said.
Other commenters saw it primarily as being an issue of discrimination.
“Difficult to accept a message cloaked in pious references to the prayer life of the bishops but short on expressions of compassion to those who continue to suffer discrimination the church,” Mary Louise Meadow wrote on the Anglican Journal website.
Several of the Facebook commenters who were against changes to the marriage canon quoted scriptural texts, such as 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Ephesians 5:31, to support their positions; this in turn ignited debates about the original meaning and context of these passages, leading in one case to a discussion of the correct translation of the Greek words “malakoi” and “arsenokoitai” used by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Corinthians.