CoGS debriefs same-sex marriage vote

The Rev. Gillian Hoyer, the Rev. Clara Plamondon and the Rev. David Burrows discuss CoGS’ role in carrying forward the discussion on same-sex marriage. Photo: André Forget
The Rev. Gillian Hoyer, the Rev. Clara Plamondon and the Rev. David Burrows discuss CoGS’ role in carrying forward the discussion on same-sex marriage. Photo: André Forget
Published November 18, 2016

Mississauga, Ont.
Despite hopes expressed by some members that Council of General Synod (CoGS) would be able to shift its focus away from same-sex marriage during the next triennium, this did not happen just yet.

The council spent much of the second day of its fall meeting brainstorming how it can ensure that productive discussions of the motion to amend the marriage canon will happen on the provincial and diocesan levels over the next three years.

The motion passed its first reading at the July meeting of General Synod, but because same-sex marriage is a matter of doctrine, it requires a two-thirds majority vote at two consecutive General Synods. In preparation for the next General Synod in 2019, dioceses and ecclesiastical provinces have been asked to continue to study the motion before the second and final vote. CoGS has been mandated to support this work.

As several members noted over the course of the day, it might not be a straightforward task.

The church remains deeply divided on the issue. There are those who believe same-sex marriage has been put off far too long already, those who insist that homosexuality is a serious sin and those who believe some accommodation for gay and lesbian Anglicans is necessary, but aren’t yet ready for marriage.

Some CoGS members, among them the Rev. Lynne McNaughton, of the ecclesiastical province of British Columbia and Yukon, said their dioceses have already held meetings to discuss the next three years. Others, like John Rye of the ecclesiastical province of Rupert’s Land, compared debates over same-sex marriage to the film Groundhog Day, in which the protagonist relives the same day over and over again.

The Rev. Vincent Solomon, of the ecclesiastical province of Rupert’s Land, said people need to learn how to listen to each other if healthy discussions are to be had-a point that the Rev. David Burrows, a CoGS member from the ecclesiastical province of Canada, agreed with.

Burrows suggested the problem is not that people are not communicating, but that exchanges on the issue of same-sex marriage take the form of statements. Rather than contribute to understanding, Burrows said, these often exacerbate divisions.

“The whole intent of the communication is around building up the body of Christ, rather than making increased statements around building up a particular point of view,” he said.

Burrows said that dioceses could write “epistles” to each other as a way of sharing their perspectives in a less confrontational way.

While several members spoke up in support of a similarly “epistolary” approach, Katie Puxley, from the ecclesiastical province of Canada, pointed out that this assumes uniformity of opinion within dioceses.

“Part of the issue that comes with having a diocesan response is the idea that there is one response per diocese,” she said. “The challenge is to try and engage the whole church, even when there are different views within a specific diocese.”

Another common refrain was that the Marriage Canon Commission’s report, This Holy Estate-a 65-page theological document written in English-is hard for some Anglicans to digest. Suggestions were made that it be adapted into a video or series of videos, and that these could be translated or subtitled into some Indigenous languages.

Cynthia Haines-Turner, General Synod proloctuor, said CoGS members could serve as the link between the national church and their ecclesiastical provinces and dioceses, acting as ambassadors to their local context.

But she said that however CoGS decides to communicate with the ecclesiastical provinces, it will need to do so in 2017, as the provinces will start holding their pre-2019 synods in 2018.

The most significant concern that came out of General Synod in relation to the same-sex marriage motion, however, had little to do with the motion per se, but arose from frustrations caused by the meeting’s parliamentary legislative process.

Following the same-sex marriage vote, General Synod organizers had set aside time for members to debrief the decision and talk about how the church should respond to the decision, pastorally, prophetically and structurally. Notes were taken at that time with the understanding they would be sent on to CoGS for consideration.

Though the vote, originally announced as having failed due to a counting error, was overturned following the debrief, Haines-Turner said that most of the comments synod members made were useful regardless of what the outcome of the actual vote was.

The notes-made available to CoGS members for consideration-spoke of a need for healing and a desire for an explanation of how more technical elements of the motion, such as the conscience clause, will work; the vast majority of comments dealt with members’ frustrations with church structure and the legislative process.

Some felt that the legislative process sets up winners and losers. Others noted a disconnect between the more open-ended neighbourhood discussion groups, which were largely a positive experience, and the for/against nature of the debate on the floor of synod.

There were also calls to end voting by houses (votes on doctrine must receive more than two-thirds support among bishops, clergy and laity to pass), and questions about the possibility of avoiding a legislative process altogether.

Members were given a chance to read and discuss the notes before offering suggestions as to what CoGs can do to address the concerns raised.

“Something this body can do is initiate a really fundamental conversation around how our church makes decisions,” said Bishop Bruce Myers, of the diocese of Quebec. “Are there things we can learn from Indigenous communities within our own church about how we make decisions?”

Myers said that while changing the church’s procedure laws might be “very onerous,” General Synod had clearly expressed a desire to consider other options.

Randall Fairey, a lay member from the ecclesiastical province of British Columbia and Yukon, said that while no changes to legislative process would be possible before General Synod 2022 (amendments to canons governing procedure, like doctrine, require acceptance from two consecutive meetings of General Synod), the current session of CoGS could bring a suggested change in legislative process to synod in 2019.

“This CoGS can start the ball rolling toward saying we don’t like the legislative process, we can start a different way of doing business,” he said.

However, Canon (lay) David Jones, the national church’s chancellor, said it is unlikely the church will be able to do away with a legislative process entirely.

“At the end of the day, if we are going to amend a canon, we have to have a legislative process,” he said. Because the church has entered into a legislative process to amend the canon on marriage, it must see that process through to the end, he added.

Jones said, however, that not all doctrine is codified in the canons of the church. He noted, for example, that there are no canons governing baptism, despite baptism being a core doctrine.

Haines-Turner, on the other hand, said the council should be wary of ascribing too much weight to the supposed problems with legislative process, given that the conflict in legislative process exists because of real differences in the church.

“If we hadn’t had that legislative process-if the conversation had been a conversation-would it have been any less painful? I’m really not sure it would have been,” she said.

Editor’s note: A correction has been made to the photo caption to reflect the title for the Rev. Gillian Hoyer.


  • André Forget

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

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