Church grapples with pain after marriage canon vote—with new developments possible

Lyds Keesmaat-Walsh (centre), delegate from the diocese of Toronto, weeps alongside Bishop Riscylla Shaw (left) in the immediate aftermath of a July 12 vote on a motion to amend the Anglican Church of Canada’s marriage canon. The motion, which would have allowed for same-sex marriage in the church, failed to pass by a few percentage points in the Order of Bishops. Photo: Milos Tosic
Published July 15, 2019


“Our children are crying.”

That was how Primate Fred Hiltz—paraphrasing the observation of delegate Michael Chartrand—described the pain in the room following the failure of the 42nd General Synod to pass a resolution amending the marriage canon, which would have allowed for the solemnization of same-sex marriage.

“Those words are going to haunt the Anglican Church for a long time,” says Sydney Brouillard-Coyle, a youth delegate from the diocese of Huron who identifies as gender non-conforming, queer and asexual. Though members of General Synod had long been preparing for upheaval after the vote on July 12 no matter the outcome, when the results finally came, the anguish it caused for LGBTQ Anglican youth almost defies description.

Waiting for the vote results to come in, Lyds Keesmaat-Walsh—a member of the Church of the Redeemer in Toronto who identifies as non-binary, agender and transmasculine, queer in their sexuality—and who, like Brouillard-Coyle, prefers they/them pronouns—was “overcome with fear like I have never known before, and I’ve gone through multiple coming-outs.”

When the results appeared, and it became clear that the resolution had failed to secure the required two-thirds majority in the Order of Bishops, Keesmaat-Walsh, 20, felt a grief that they had only experienced once before, when a close friend was killed in a shooting.

“The sound that came out of my mouth was not a sound I knew I could make,” they say. “And I collapsed. I completely collapsed into Bishop Andrew [Asbil]’s chest. I’m very grateful he was there.”

As the tears flowed, seeing a delegate nearby that they believed had not voted in favour of the motion proved too much to bear. “I looked across the table … and I knew I could not stay in this room any longer. And I got up and I fled.”

The pain felt by queer youth delegates may have been particularly intense, but it was not unique. Across General Synod, pain and grief were the overwhelming emotions that followed the vote, both among those who voted for the resolution and those who voted against it.

Even as the church struggled with the aftermath of the vote, new developments suggested that the matter is far from over. Almost immediately after the vote, delegates came up to the microphone to ask what their options were for reconsidering a decision at General Synod. LGBTQ youth delegates led a protest at the next day’s worship service before the election of a new primate. And many voices indicate they will continue their struggle for the Anglican Church of Canada to recognize same-sex marriage.

Queer youth take action

In the immediate aftermath of the vote results being announced, young LGBTQ Anglicans were overcome by intense sadness and despair. Yet out of necessity, they forced themselves to turn to an even more pressing concern: ensuring the safety of their fellow queer youth.

“I could hear the screams and the wails from other people as the news started to sink in,” recalls Brouillard-Coyle, 19.

“When I saw one of the other youth delegates run towards the door, that’s when I just knew the severity of the situation,” they add. “And that’s when I started running.”

Outside the Grand Ballroom, a group of youth delegates were on the floor sobbing. In the chaotic conditions at that time, Keesmaat-Walsh variously comforted fellow delegates, responded to text messages on their phone from concerned friends and family—and frantically tried to find youth delegates who were less secure in their sexuality or had recently come out, but were nowhere to be found.

Concern for the youths’ safety was very real. Speaking at the microphone before results were announced, Keesmaat-Walsh told synod members about the suicidal thoughts and self-harm urges they had struggled with after General Synod 2016, when due to a voting error, it appeared as though the first reading of the marriage canon resolution had failed.

To their immense relief, their fellow youths were alive and well. But the feeling left its mark. “That level of fear is something I never want to feel again,” Keesmaat-Walsh says.

At this juncture, feelings of anger predominated. Some queer youth proposed staging a walkout, so General Synod “could see who they were driving away from the church.” Yet the mood soon turned into a resolve to stay.

“A couple of youth brought up that no, this is our home, and they can’t drive us away, and we’re not going anywhere,” says Brouillard-Coyle.

Joining hands, the youth recalled a round that they had learned to sing during their orientation at General Synod: “Love, love, love, love / People we are made for love / Love your neighbour, love yourself, and love your God.” Other delegates began singing along, taking photos or videos, or hugging the youth. That positive reaction, Brouillard-Coyle says, instilled a determination to continue their dissent “until this is resolved.”

The next morning, the youth planned a spur-of-the-moment protest at the worship service in Christ Church Cathedral before the primatial election.

Keesmaat-Walsh wore a T-shirt with the logo for Equally Anglican, an LGBTQ group within the church, and a transgender pride flag as a cape. Brouillard-Coyle sported dyed hair evoking the rainbow pride flag. Another youth delegate joined them wearing a bisexual pride flag as a cape. All three joined hands outside the cathedral and began singing their “Love” round as synod members filed in for worship.

Some members joined them in song, while others simply watched. Because some delegates had been inside before the protest and had not heard the song, the trio resolved to enter the cathedral holding hands and singing so all could hear them. Unbeknownst to them, they say, Hiltz was in the middle of speaking when they came in.

“I’ve heard people speculating that the primate put us up to this,” Keesmaat-Walsh says. “He had no idea we were doing this. I want to make that very clear. This was us.”

After singing a few lines, the youth stopped. One member in the pews, they recall, told them to listen to their primate. Using vocal projection techniques they had learned as a “theatre kid”, Keesmaat-Walsh declared loudly, “‘I’ve never been more heartbroken.” Then they sat in the pews.

During the service, they left the cathedral to check on the safety of a fellow youth they had not heard from since midnight. Returning from the hotel and wondering if they had missed the Eucharist, they decided not to receive the sacrament as a protest.

As synod members filed forward during the Eucharist, Keesmaat-Walsh and Brouillard-Coyle joined the line where Hiltz was offering the bread. Upon standing in front of the primate, they each kept their hands by their sides, took deep breaths and said, “In a church where I am not worthy of one sacrament, I am not worthy of any of them.”

In that moment, Keesmaat-Walsh says, “I saw the primate’s heart break.”

“We saw the pain on his face,” Brouillard-Coyle adds. “Even afterwards, when he was clearing the table…. He does his best to hide it, but I could see it in his eyes.”

Immediately after the service, the pair approached Hiltz to make clear that none of their interruptions were meant to be disrespectful to him. They thanked him for his allyship, expressed their gratitude for the heartbreak they saw in his eyes, and for standing with them in the best way he could. In their recollection, the primate’s main concern was for the youth.

“We both have great respect for Fred Hiltz…. He came back [and] he went straight to us, which I am very grateful for,” Keesmaat-Walsh says.

“He’s a very good man…. We told him about why we had had to leave the service earlier, for parts, and he was very concerned…. His primary concern was that we were all safe, which when I spoke to him last night after the vote was also his primary concern…[for] us and our safety.”

The pair were heartened that the two final candidates for the new primate, Bishop Linda Nicholls and Bishop Jane Alexander, are individuals they consider allies. Nicholls, now primate-elect, quickly messaged Keesmaat-Walsh following the announcement of the marriage canon vote results.

“She messaged me last night [after the vote] right away. I am very grateful that Linda Nicholls is our new primate.”

Grief on all sides

Grief and shock poured across the floor of General Synod immediately after the vote. Photo: Milos Tosic

The day after the marriage canon vote saw the whole of General Synod reckoning with the grief and pain in its wake.

A sense of sadness was felt among delegates who had spoken against the resolution to amend the marriage canon and voted against it. Even while maintaining the conviction that they had been correct to do so, the hurt that pervaded General Synod after the vote also affected them.

“I’m deeply grieved by the pain and the division that this entire process has caused,” says Bishop Joey Royal, a vocal opponent of amending the marriage canon. “But not passing this marriage canon change was the right decision. And saying that does not invalidate my love for LGBTQ people.”

Royal acknowledges that many LGBTQ people disagree. “Of course, and they’re free to disagree,” he says. “But I’m giving my perspective on that.”

In a sign of remorse over tensions that had found expression on the floor of General Synod on the night of the marriage canon vote, Bishop David Parsons went before synod members on July 13 and apologized for his reactions the previous evening.

Speaking to the Journal afterward, Parsons said he, too, felt sorrow at the pain that followed the marriage canon vote.

“We make decisions at General Synod,” he said. “We have difference of opinion, but we’re allowed to talk. And there needs to be time to be able to talk…. I’m deeply hurt by the hurt it seems I’ve caused. That words ‘seems’ seems as if I’m playing it down. I’m not…. There’s no rejoicing in my heart whatsoever.”

As he had previously, in putting forward his views on the marriage canon amendment, Parsons reiterated his adherence to the Bible.

“Scripture prevents me from doing what I want to do,” Parsons said. “What I would like to do is allow same-sex marriage. I hope you take me in context with this…. Scripture prevents me from operating on my own will. I have no authority to go against the Scripture, and if I don’t have Scripture, I have no authority to go on.”

He added, “I stand under the authority of Jesus, who’s called me, that he’s the one and only saviour—and he gives me no permission to condemn anybody. He gives me no permission to not allow anybody to count. Jesus says to every one of us, ‘You count.’ And that’s always been my message…. I always care for people. I always love people, and I don’t hate anybody. But scripture condemns me for many of my thoughts and practices. And so for the last 40 years, I’ve been in the process of transformation, of the renewing of my mind.”

The role of the bishops

In her sermon at Christ Church Cathedral the morning after the marriage canon vote, Bishop Lynne McNaughton described the day’s reading from Ezekiel 34 as “an indictment of shepherds who don’t care for their sheep.” Jesus, she said, views himself as the “good shepherd who came to bind up the broken-hearted, seek the lost, rescue the scattered and the outcast. The good shepherd calls us each by name…. The namer whispers to the broken-hearted, ‘You are precious, honoured and loved.’”

“How do we hear this?” she asked. “How do we hear this as we get up after an agonizing night at General Synod when we move from the high of yesterday morning moving to the Indigenous self-determination, through the afternoon of making affirmations of how we can live well in our diversity, to the excruciating pain of last night’s close vote?”

McNaughton moved onto the subject of bishops, a relevant topic for many upset about the vote results. While the Order of Laity and Order of Clergy both saw the required two-thirds majority in favour of the marriage canon amendment, the Order of Bishops did not meet that threshold.

“Church leaders have taken on the pastoral metaphor from scripture that pastors and bishops are shepherds…. There’s a danger when human beings take on this metaphor and forget that Jesus is the good shepherd,” McNaughton said.

As this article was being written, the House of Bishops had met together at General Synod and were reportedly preparing a joint statement on the marriage canon vote.

Indigenous perspectives

National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop Mark MacDonald. Photo: Milos Tosic

The pain after the marriage canon vote made July 12 an emotional roller coaster for General Synod—marking a significant comedown after widespread elation felt that morning as members voted almost unanimously for the establishment of a self-determining Indigenous church as part of the Anglican Church of Canada.

The trajectory of the day was no different for Indigenous delegates, who shared in the grief felt by the rest of General Synod when they met together as an Indigenous caucus.

“Despite the joy of the morning, the mood was very sad, because people were moved by the pain that they saw in the whole room,” National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop Mark MacDonald says. “Indigenous people were very, very concerned, particularly about the pain of the young people.”

Indigenous delegates voted both for and against the marriage canon resolution. But even among those who had voted against, MacDonald says, “There was no celebration of victory, there was no sense of ‘Isn’t this great?’. There wasn’t even much of a memory of what had happened before, despite how important and monumental that was. People were overcome by the emotional pain that they saw in the people, and that really was one of the dominant moods.”

However, with emotions running high in the day after the vote, an uglier undercurrent began to develop.

“We have heard from certain people quite negative, at times hostile reactions to Indigenous people in the Anglican Church of Canada because of the way that they voted,” MacDonald says.

“There’s an assumption there that all Indigenous bishops, for instance, voted against the marriage canon change. That’s not true at all.

“We are concerned about the implications of that kind of scapegoating, and we’re trying to deal with it as gently and serenely as possible.”

Both MacDonald and reconciliation animator Melanie Delva view the results of the marriage canon vote as a reconciliation issue.

MacDonald says that the aftermath of the vote reveals an undertow of “racial opinions and ideas,” colonial assumptions, and scapegoating that are hindrances to reconciliation, with people making “misjudgement and mischaracterizations of Indigenous people as a whole” and suggesting that “self-determination is great, as long as you do what we tell you to do.”

Delva says that “the results of the vote on the marriage canon is a ‘reconciliation issue’ in the same way that all decisions the church makes are ‘reconciliation issues.’”

Self-determination, she says, “means that for some, abstention is the right choice. For some, a no vote is the right choice. For some, a yes vote is the right choice. Self-determination does not mean Indigenous peoples do not participate in the life and processes of the wider church. It means that as per [the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples], they do so within the context of free, prior and informed consent.

“In the wake of this [vote], much more education will be necessary in order for us to walk humbly together in what has the potential to be an amazing incarnation of Jesus’ power to heal and restore.”

Views from the military ordinariate

Among lay delegates at General Synod, one of the more unique perspectives on the marriage canon vote comes from PO2 Bob Fearnley, a musician by trade currently posted at CFB Esquimalt with the Naden Band of the Royal Canadian Navy.

PO2 Bob Fearnley. Photo: Matt Gardner

A lay member of the Anglican Military Ordinariate, Fearnley feels a “deep sense of disappointment” at the results of the marriage canon vote. He draws a comparison to the apology by Hiltz at General Synod 2019 for spiritual harm inflicted on Indigenous peoples, saying, “I feel that we’d missed a great opportunity to make sure that we weren’t going to have to apologize again for something that we had done to the people who are in the midst of us.”

Fearnley’s military background also puts the marriage canon vote in the context of generations of Canadian soldiers.

“They died for freedoms that they never even could have imagined would be possible in this day and age…. I would never leave the church, because you can’t leave if things don’t go your way…. But it felt as if we had dishonoured the sacrifice of our glorious dead,” he says.

“What would I say, looking into the eyes of a gay [armed forces] member, who would die beside me for the exact same thing I would, and tell him that the institution that I’m a part of yet again had failed him?” Fearnley asks.

“It’s tough,” he adds. “But I have to make sure that I also remember…people who would have voted or who did vote against the marriage canon would also have died alongside me.”

Options for reconsideration

Following the vote on July 12, delegates went to the microphones and asked what options General Synod had for reconsidering a decision made.

Primate Fred Hiltz and officers of General Synod share a tense moment of silence before results are revealed. Photo: Matthew Townsend

There are two ways synod can do so, Chancellor David Jones explains to the Journal. In the first method, once the discussion of a matter has been concluded, members can ask for reconsideration, which would require a two-thirds majority of the house.

The second method is that members could bring forward a somewhat different motion, but dealing with the same general topic. Because General Synod has now passed the deadline for bringing a motion, rules would require a two-thirds majority of the house in order to commit a late motion.

Since same-sex marriage is a question of doctrine, an objection might be why the Anglican Church of Canada would not require two readings at successive General Synods to re-examine the matter. The answer is that the amending formula, as stated in the Declaration of Principles, only requires two readings at successive General Synods if the resolution is a matter of doctrine in a canon.

The process that led up to the July 12 vote started at the 2013 Joint Assembly with a resolution, C003, to amend the marriage canon so that it would apply equally to all, i.e. both heterosexual and same-sex couples.

“If it hadn’t said ‘amend the canon,’ if it simply said [to] bring a motion that a minister in the Anglican Church of Canada may solemnize a same-sex marriage, it wouldn’t have needed two readings and it wouldn’t have needed two-thirds,” Jones says.

As the chancellor points out in a 2016 memorandum, Canon XXI on marriage does not define marriage, nor does it explicitly prohibit same-sex marriage.

Conservative synod members have criticized this memorandum. Royal, for instance, says that “accepting the chancellor’s memo sets us on a dangerous path as a church, because what it does is it allows us to do things that are not explicitly prohibited in canons. It’s an argument from silence…. That’s a dangerous precedent to set, and I disagree with the chancellor’s memo very, very strongly.” Parsons told the chancellor directly in 2016 that it was “wrong for him to put out that memo.”

Jones, however, insists that such criticisms “are assuming that the canon prohibits [same-sex marriage]. The canon doesn’t. Show me where it does. It doesn’t. Read the canon.”

In light of the canon text, church rules and the fact that 76% of people in the room on July 12 voted in favour of the resolution, Jones draws the following conclusion about the marriage debate: “I don’t think it’s over at all.”

He suggests a number of possible scenarios going forward. Since many dioceses already solemnize same-sex marriages, other dioceses “that have held back…will go ahead” and bless same-sex marriages. A motion could come before the present General Synod while it is still in session, or the matter may come before the next General Synod.

“It may come in a very simple format,” Jones says. “It may simply be that this General Synod declares that a minister may solemnize the marriages of any two persons authorized to marry by civil law.”

Prayers for the church

With the wounds from the July 12 vote still fresh, synod members are turning to their faith in God for solace in trying times.

For Keesmaat-Walsh, prayer is difficult at the moment. They recall the words their father told them before they left for Vancouver to attend General Synod.

“I know that God loves me. And I know I belong in the kingdom of God…. The last thing my dad said to me before I left, when he dropped me off at the bus to go catch my flight, was: ‘Remember, the kingdom of God and the Anglican Church are not the same thing. When the church is at its best, you can get glimpses of the kingdom. But the Anglican Church of Canada is not the kingdom of God.’ And I’m trying to hold onto that knowing that in the kingdom, I belong.”

Holding on is not always easy—a harsh feeling to experience for a young person devoted to their church.

“I’m the church geek…. Before I had a cellphone, when in doubt, people would call the church if they couldn’t get a hold of me, because I was probably there,” Keesmaat-Walsh says. “That’s my life. The church is my whole world…. But I’m done. I am done with people who come up to you and say, ‘I am sorry for your pain,’ when they were part of the voting that gave me pain…. Right now, I’m too angry to pray, and I hate that. I want to be close to God right now.”

Brouillard-Coyle and Keesmaat-Walsh intend to continue their struggle for the recognition of same-sex marriages in the church. In protest, they will not receive the sacrament in any parish or diocese that does not solemnize same-sex marriage, and encourage others to do the same. They find inspiration in LGBTQ Anglicans before them and gratitude for their bishops who supported them after the vote result.

“People need to be praying for the queer Anglicans and queer Christians in their lives, because this will affect other denominations,” Keesmaat-Walsh says. “For all the queer Christians in their lives, they need to be reaching out to them, making sure that they are safe, making sure that if they need to be alone, that’s respected—but if there are dangers for them to be alone, they have somebody with them. People need to pray that we will know that we are beloved children of God and that we belong in this church. People need to pray that the hearts of the House of Bishops will be softened…. Pray for the children in queer families, who are seeing a church say that their parents’ love isn’t valid.”

“We’re never going to stop fighting…. We’re not backing down,” they add. “We are going to keep fighting until [same-sex marriage is recognized]. The only question is, how much pain and how many lives lost have to happen before we get there? It’s not a question of if the Anglican Church has marriage equality. It’s when, and how much do we have to go through first.”

For those who voted against the marriage canon resolution, the call to prayer also rings out. Expressing a desire for the church to move away from politics, Royal says that Anglicans should “talk about the gospel, talk about Jesus, talk about reconciliation with God and each other.”

For many Indigenous delegates, prayers for unity and reconciliation remain paramount in the wake of the marriage canon vote and the new reality of a self-determining Indigenous church.

“We want to find balance,” MacDonald says. “Indigenous people are not looking for some kind of veto over what happens here, and as is typical of Indigenous people, there is quite a bit of tolerance of the ambiguity that exists in the Anglican Church of Canada.

“We’re hoping that we can get back to focusing on some of the urgent issues of our day and age, and that we can find some common ground in reconciliation and in mission.”

For individuals, prayers for unity remain strong even among those who were dismayed by the result of the marriage canon vote. In his own case, Fearnley is praying that he can let go of the hurt and disappointment he feels and try to turn those emotions into something positive.

“At the same time that I’m disappointed that this vote went the way it did, it has only strengthened my resolve going forward to enact this change, which I believe should have been done now,” he says. “But if it can’t be done now, then it must be done in the future.”

He adds, “I’m praying for our unity, as all of us are, I’m sure, and that there is a way forward for us all to walk together, and to make sure that even though we have this disagreement, that we can still progress and grow together…. I’m just hoping that we can gain a perspective on this where we won’t have to argue about this anymore, and that we can serve everyone equally and faithfully.”


  • Matthew Puddister

    Matthew Puddister is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He also supports General Synod's corporate communications.

    [email protected]

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