The Anglican Church of Canada’s debates about homosexuality were thrown into a completely new context in June when the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the federal law limiting marriage to a male/female couple was discriminatory and unconstitutional. The court legalized marriage for homosexual couples immediately. Prime Minister Jean Chretien announced that the federal government not only would not appeal the decision, but would draft legislation that would legalize same-sex marriages nationwide, making Canada only the third country in the world to do so, along with Belgium and the Netherlands. The prime minister also said that churches would be exempt from the legislation and no clergy would be forced to perform weddings against their will. Religious groups expressed a wide variety of reaction.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote to Mr. Chretien, opposing a redefinition of marriage, saying it would "mean a devaluation of traditional marriage as the basis of the family and as an essential institution for the stability and equilibrium of society."
The United Church of Canada, in a statement, took the opposite view, saying that the Chretien government demonstrated "responsible leadership and courage." The statement added that expanding the definition of marriage "doesn’t denigrate or diminish the traditional institution of heterosexual marriage, but rather enhances it." In mid-August, the church’s national General Council overwhelmingly approved a motion calling on the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage in federal law.
The Anglican Church of Canada did not issue an official statement. "We are in the middle of a complex process," noted Canon Eric Beresford, consultant for ethics and inter-faith relations at the national church office in Toronto. "We are getting ready for General Synod (where the issue will be discussed.) The only body that could make a statement would be General Synod," he added.
He said church officials are conducting focus groups around the country on issues involving homosexuality in preparation for General Synod, the church’s triennial governing convention scheduled to be held in May 2004. The questions did not change after the Ontario ruling, he said. "We’re asking, ‘what is the appropriate pastoral response to gay and lesbian relationships? What is the way forward?’" he said.
Canon Beresford also said that the Anglican Church of Canada’s marriage canon, or church law, would need to be changed in order to allow a gay couple to be married in an Anglican church. Canon XXI, On Marriage in the Church, says, "the church affirms … the goodness of the union of man and woman in marriage, this being of God’s creation." He also noted that the Anglican church is "on record as supporting civil rights for gay and lesbian people."
In a survey of religious spokespersons, the National Post newspaper reported that Unitarians and Buddhists approve of same-sex marriage, as do some Reform Jewish rabbis. Presbyterians are officially against gay marriage, but are wrestling with the question. Baptists, Muslims and Hindus disapprove.
After the Ontario court decision, the British Columbia Court of Appeal in July also legalized same-sex marriage.