Commission to consult on same-sex marriage

Council of General Synod members share how the proposedchange to the marriage canon has been received in their dioceses andwhat message they want to give to the new commission that will conductconsultations across the church. Photo: Marites N. Sison
Council of General Synod members share how the proposedchange to the marriage canon has been received in their dioceses andwhat message they want to give to the new commission that will conductconsultations across the church. Photo: Marites N. Sison
Published November 18, 2013

Mississauga, Ont.Before the end of 2013, the primate of the Anglican Church of Canada and officers of General Synod will appoint members of a commission to carry out a broad consultation about changing the marriage canon (church law) to allow same-sex marriage.

During its meeting here Nov. 14 to 17, the Council of General Synod (CoGS) approved a motion to establish such a commission, as directed by the 2013 General Synod.

Last July, General Synod —the church’s governing body—approved a resolution (C003) that will bring a motion concerning same-sex marriage to its next meeting in 2016.

The resolution asked CoGS to prepare and present a motion to change the church’s Canon 21 on marriage “to allow the marriage of same-sex couples in the same way as opposite-sex couples.” It also asked that this motion include “a conscience clause so that no member of the clergy, bishop, congregation or diocese should be constrained to participate in or authorize such marriages against the dictates of their conscience.”

Membership of the commission will reflect a “diversity of theological perspective” and its consultations will involve Anglicans in Canada and the worldwide Anglican Communion, Archbishop Fred Hiltz told CoGS members.

Before CoGS acted on the motion to create such a commission, Hiltz offered some reflections about how the matter was addressed at the House of Bishops, which met Oct. 24 to 29. He also invited CoGS members to have conversations in their table groups around two questions: What are you hearing with respect to this matter on the ground in your context? Assuming that such a commission was established, what messages would you want to give that commission at the very outset of its work?

Some bishops have lingering concerns about the process with which Resolution C003 was handled at General Synod, Hiltz told CoGS.

“While they recognized that we can’t turn back the clock, some of them are still upset,” said Hiltz. “A number wanted to speak but didn’t have an opportunity to and they wondered what the outcome would have been had there been more time for a longer floor debate.” While the resolution is difficult for some to consider, the fact that it called for a conscience clause was well received, he added.

His own view, said Hiltz, was that notwithstanding the outcome of the vote at General Synod in which all orders of laity, clergy and bishops approved Resolution C003 by a two-thirds majority, “the amber light seems to be flashing; I hear the house sounding a note of caution at how quickly we go down this road and perhaps we should be considering whether we do at all.”

He added: “One of the bishops made the point that, in history, councils of the church can and do err.”

Some bishops expressed feelings of “having been manipulated by the process,” said Hiltz. “A number of members within the house expressed concern that something happened at General Synod and the ground shifted.”

For years, they said, bishops had been talking about same-sex blessings, not marriage. “Many of the bishops see the blessing of same-sex unions as a pastoral response and even those who would not be generally comfortable with the blessing of same-sex unions can view those blessings as a pastoral response,” said Hiltz.

Some bishops who responded to calls from their synods to authorize rites for same-sex blessings said that when they had done so, they had been able “with integrity, [to] say that we’re not talking about same-sex marriage,” said Hiltz. They had also made assurances that the church’s teachings on marriage as enshrined in Canon 21 and in the authorized liturgical text of the church—the Book of Common Prayer and the Book of Alternative Services—remain unchanged.

These bishops told the house that they now find themselves facing ” some significantly challenging conversations” with some clergy and parishes in their dioceses, said Hiltz.

“Across the house and its diverse theological perspective on this matter, there was a concern about this shift as they described it,” he added. A few bishops said that at General Synod 2010, they and other members of the church had felt that the church had arrived at a “truce,” and for others, it had arrived at “a place of peace.”

When Resolution C003 passed, “the truce was broken and once again we find ourselves in the midst of chaos,” Hiltz quoted these bishops as having said.

Hiltz said that, in his own reading of the conversations that took place among bishops, “there was a very broad consensus with respect to this concern and how the church handles it” and what role they would play in it.

Hiltz said he reminded the house that any changes to canons dealing with the church’s doctrine, worship and discipline require the approval by a two-thirds majority of the orders of laity, clergy and bishops in two successive sessions of General Synod. Any changes are also referred for consideration to diocesan and provincial synods following first approval. This means that if an amendment to the marriage canon were approved, it would not take effect until 2019.

There was “overall support” from bishops for a commission, but some expressed concern that there would be insufficient time for the commission to conclude its work and that those “fundamentally opposed” to same-sex marriage would not participate in it, said Hiltz. There was a call for the church to consult internationally before taking any action, he added. Others stressed that the commission should be a council commission, not a primatial commission.

CoGS members offered mixed reactions to the questions posed by the primate. In group reports, some said that they were hearing excitement about the possibility of same-sex marriage in the church. Others said their parishes “don’t care anymore” and others questioned whether it would mean an end to their relationship with the church.

Others expressed fears that it would break the church, while others said the resolution “didn’t go far enough.” Some wondered why there was fuss about the matter when “people don’t get married in church now, anyway.” Others want to abolish the whole canon on marriage.

Archdeacon Sidney Black, co-chair of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP) and a member of CoGS, said conversations about same-sex marriage are “non-existent” in native parishes. “Our priorities are housing, unemployment and suicide. These are the crises we deal with,” he said. He observed, however, that same-sex relationships seem to be tolerated in native communities, and said that the younger demographic who are more attuned with the secular world might be in favour of it.

On the question of what advice they would give to the commission, CoGS members also had mixed messages: abolish marriage and the whole marriage canon; “make haste slowly”; “listen to the church, not society”; ask Anglicans if they want same-sex blessings or same-sex marriage; “be fearless and get it done”; and use existing reports from the Primate’s Theological Commission as part of the conversation. Some wondered whether there was a way to “come up with a neutral recommendation” at General Synod.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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