A little-known group with an unwieldy name – the Primate’s Theological Commission – has begun work on a question put to it by General Synod last year: is the blessing of same-sex relationships a matter of doctrine, that is, something essential to the Christian faith as expressed by the Anglican church, or not?
This question emerged as a central part of the debate last June as delegates to General Synod, the triennial governing convention, struggled to decide whether to allow dioceses to offer blessing ceremonies to gay couples, thereby liberalizing church attitudes toward homosexuals.
Several delegates and table groups argued that if same-sex blessings are a matter of doctrine, then the nationally-representative General Synod should decide the matter, not individual dioceses. However, they said, if it is simply a matter of practice, or “pastoral care,” then it can be left to local jurisdictions, like dioceses.
This hottest of hot potatoes thus was passed to the commission’s 14 members, including the primate, Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, with a request that a report be completed by spring 2006. Synod also requested that the issue be considered at the next meeting of General Synod in 2007.
Rev. Mark McDermott, of Grace Church, Milton, Ont., said the question is of central importance. “Our worship arises out of what we believe. The essentials of the faith are not academic stuff, not irrelevant,” he said in an interview. Mr. McDermott raised the question of whether same-sex blessings are a matter of doctrine during a debate at the diocese of Niagara’s synod last November.
In 2002, the diocese of New Westminster voted to permit same-sex blessings. Niagara also approved such action at its synod last November, but Bishop Ralph Spence withheld his consent. Later that month, the diocese of Toronto deferred a vote on the blessings issue until the commission releases its findings on the matter of doctrine in 2006.
The commission held one meeting in June, after synod, and is scheduled to meet again in January, 2005, said the chair, Bishop Victoria Matthews of Edmonton. Interviewed at the national house of bishops’ meeting in early November, Bishop Matthews said she could not attend the June meeting as she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. However, she expected to chair the January meeting.
She cautioned that Anglicans should be clear on the nature of the commission’s task – that it will not be ruling on whether homosexuality or same-sex blessings are right or wrong.
“We are not deciding pro or con on same-sex blessings. We are determining whether the blessing of gay couples – committed, long-term relationships – is a doctrinal matter. We are asking at what level of importance is this to us as a church,” said Bishop Matthews.
“In a pastoral relationship, say, visiting a family after a death, are we touching on doctrine? Perhaps yes, of Christ’s resurrection, but it is just a pastoral matter. What is the difference, for instance, between a service of thanksgiving for the birth of a baby and baptism? When we bless a house we are not making a statement about the house,” she commented.
The group will use a variety of materials in its deliberations, she said – the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, the recently-released Windsor Report on the nature of relationships between churches in the Anglican Communion; it will also consider Anglican traditions.
The commission will not hold public sessions, she said, and its deliberations are not structured to receive position papers or submissions. “We’ve been asked to give an opinion, not to make a decision,” Bishop Matthews said.
The Primate’s Theological Commission was established at the request of the General Synod of 1995. A committee that had been formed to evaluate the then-new prayer book, the Book of Alternative Services, and the national doctrine and worship committee (forerunner to the faith, worship and ministry committee) felt much of their time was spent on developing liturgy and little on doctrine.
Bishop Matthews, writing in the Toronto diocesan newspaper in 1996, said the kinds of questions to be considered by the commission include: “Where do we stand on the question of feminine images and language for the Godhead? How do we name the holy and undivided Trinity? What constitutes indigenous theology and inculturation and how would we know when we have gone too far?”
In the decade since, the commission has produced three books that collect Anglican interpretations of the Christian faith.
Members of the commission are appointed by the primate, who considers candidates nominated by the house of bishops, the national church’s faith, worship and ministry committee and the Council of General Synod, which governs the church between General Synods.
In addition to Bishop Matthews and Archbishop Hutchison, members are: Rev. Stephen Andrews, Bishop Benjamin Arreak, Walter Deller, Rev. Wendy Fletcher-Marsh, Rev. Jamie Howison, Rev. Paul Jennings, Rev. Joanne Mercer, Robert Moore, Canon Gary Thorne, Madeleine Urion, Rev. Lisa Wang and Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan (director of faith, worship and ministry at the national church office, who provides staff support).