Joy, sadness over proposed marriage canon change

General Synod members line up on July 6 to speak to the resolution proposing a change to the church's marriage canon, to allow the marriage of same-sex couples. Photo: Art Babych
General Synod members line up on July 6 to speak to the resolution proposing a change to the church's marriage canon, to allow the marriage of same-sex couples. Photo: Art Babych
Published July 8, 2013

For some Canadian Anglicans, General Synod’s decision on July 6 to bring to its next meeting in 2016 a resolution changing the church’s law to allow same-sex marriage will bring new life; but others argue it will only serve to precipitate its decline.

Bishops, clergy and laity have expressed wide-ranging emotions about a resolution that will ask members-at the triennial meeting of the church’s governing body-to change Canon 21 on marriage, to allow the marriage of same-sex couples.

The Anglican Journal interviewed an equal number of representatives from each order and from opposite sides of the divide to gauge opinions about the controversial resolution.

“I feel that this is going to cause a lot of divide in our church that we have worked very hard to heal,” said Falen MacNaulty, a lay member from the diocese of Fredericton. “I kind of thought we had put this behind us a little bit and were moving forward…I feel that this may have set us backwards slightly.”

Dean Peter Elliott, a clergy delegate from the diocese of New Westminster, said he was personally “very happy to see this small step, an important step being taken.” Elliott acknowledged that the resolution could reopen wounds over the issue of same-sex blessings that have daunted the church in the last decade. But, “it is also continuing in the healing process for some of the wounds that have been there for a long time,” said Elliott. “Nobody has the monopoly on pain. Gay and lesbian people in the life of the church have for some decades been second-class citizens…I think it is a word of healing for those of us who are gay.” He added that the resolution only serves to open the church, noting that his congregation-Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver-includes “numerous married couples of the same-gender and that’s been a wonderful part of our church.”

Diocese of Yukon Bishop Larry Robertson said he was “disappointed” on a number of counts. “I’ve been told by at least one primate and many bishops that we’re not discussing marriage, so we have done no real research on it,” he said. “It’s a complete leap. From my first meeting of the House of Bishops in 1999, I was told same-sex blessings is not marriage-it’s a pastoral thing, and marriage is a doctrinal thing…I feel that for the last 20 years, we’ve been talking about the wrong issue.”

Canon Gene Packwood, a clergy delegate from the diocese of Calgary, said same-sex marriage “was the intent all along. I think folks who are in favour of this were using same-sex blessings to try in the interim to gain ground. I’m not accusing them of being devious, but that was what the strategy was.”

Bishop Sue Moxley, diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, expressed support for the motion. “There’s an interesting dynamic: that people can get their head around blessing a couple but not get their head around marriage,” she said. “For me, that doesn’t make sense because for me a blessing is what a wedding in a church is about.”

Asked where she stands on the matter, she said, “I’ve been happily heterosexual all my life and my marriage is a huge contribution to the understanding of grace. So for me, marriage is one of the ways God’s grace is made known in the world. Whether that’s two people of the same-sex or people of two different sexes, I don’t personally think that matters. I think the point is: is God’s grace being made known in this relationship?”

Moxley disagreed that the resolution was like reopening old wounds. “I think people can have a respectful debate and can listen to each other, and say I agree or disagree, and here is why and I love you, anyway,” she said. “I don’t think that it necessarily has to open wounds. I think it goes some way to probably clearing the air to say, ‘Is the marriage of these two people a sacrament?’ ”

Packwood also expressed concern that changing the marriage canon to allow the marriage of same-gender couples in church would only hasten the decline in membership and revenues of the church. “I come from Alberta, and when the ELCIC [Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada] made a decision just for the same-sex blessings, 35 congregations left in Alberta alone and their budget declined by 25 per cent.”

MacNaulty echoed Packwood’s view, saying, “It’s a very big leap to from blessing a union between two people to marrying them in the church. It’s a large leap, terminology wise and theologically wise.”

Elliott described the move as “part of the evolution of the institution of marriage.” He said that the church’s discussions about blessing “committed same-sex relationships and celebrating them in the midst of the Christian community began before same-sex was legal in Canada.” With the legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada, a reality since 2005, “the Anglican Church of Canada has to figure out what its relationship is to that.”

Elliott said it was inevitable that the church “will find a way to solemnize marriage between people of the same gender.” He mentioned the remarriage of divorced persons, noting that it wasn’t until 1968 that the church allowed them to receive the sacrament in church. “It took a long time. It was controversial at that time. Now it’s part of our life and it has brought many people into the life of the church.”

He added that marriage customs have changed throughout history. “Marriage predates Judaism and Christianity. Christians, Jews and Muslims didn’t invent marriage,” he said. “But Christians have a way to bless and solemnize marriages between Christians-and in many cases, in this postmodern world-between Christians and people of other living faiths.”

Antoinette Lynch-Joseph, youth member from the diocese of Montreal, shared Elliott’s view that the resolution can only be good for the church and make it more relevant to society. “I think it’s a great thing because there are a lot of people who have different preferences to what sexuality they are. They haven’t actually chosen that; they were born that way,” she said. “It would be hard for them to accept who they are and accept the fact that they can’t be what they want to be,” unless things change. “We have been traditional for so long,” she added.

Packwood, who believes that same-sex marriage is “manifestly contrary to the teaching of scripture and the liturgy of the church,” also expressed concern about the resolution’s effect on the Anglican Church of Canada’s standing in the Anglican Communion worldwide. “We’re not in communion with the majority of Anglicans…because they think we’ve gone so far and that’s even without making a decision,” he said. “If we go and change the marriage canon, then that’s really going to draw the line and that won’t be helpful to our spiritual health or our finances.”

Robertson added that he was bothered by the fact that while there was discussion on the amendment to the resolution but not on the motion itself. “For such an important doctrine, we rushed it off and brushed it off.”

MacNaulty echoed that view, saying, “It was a blindside for people…You could feel the tension on the floor from day one towards this.” She said that while the resolution was included online, “it was not on the initial package that was sent to us.”

Bishop Robertson also took issue with the wording of the resolution. “I was disappointed that they asked [the Council of General Synod, the church’s governing body between General Synods] to put forward a positive outcome,” he said. “They’re telling CoGS what to do instead of saying, ‘Let’s do the investigation, let’s do the talk and then bring something that’s appropriate…’ It is biased from the beginning.”

Moxley said, however, that the resolution-which was put forward by two lay members of her diocese as a kind of “private member’s bill”-was submitted before the deadline and members were aware of it. “It’s been there on the list since it was sent. People came to speak to it.”

Robertson said it remains to be seen what his diocese would do in the event the resolution passes in 2016 and thereafter, in 2019, as it would require two readings and a two-thirds majority in two succeeding General Synods. “We’re six years away from anything becoming official…I know that I’m going to go back to my diocese and we are going to continue to serve God and be open to all and minister to all as we have always been,” he said. “When things look like it’s going forward, then dioceses will have to make their own decisions, and each of us as individuals will have to make our own decisions.”

Right now, he said, “I’m a member of this church and I have no intentions of ever leaving it. It’s my home and it’s my beloved church, too.”

Packwood said he was grateful for the amendment introduced by diocese of Algoma bishop Stephen Andrews and seconded by Elliott, “because at least we’re required to have a rigourous conversation.”

He said that a lot of the debate has been about “emotions and feelings…and while they’re valid, a decision of this magnitude in the church needs to be done rigourously, with real attention to the broad spectrum or broad representation across the church.”

Moved by the diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island members Michelle Bull and Jennifer Warren, the motion was approved by a two-thirds majority of the orders of bishop, clergy and laity. Using clickers-a handheld electronic device-25 bishops, 72 clergy and 101 laity voted in favour of the resolution; 11 bishops, 30 clergy and 27 laity were opposed.

The resolution asks 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.”

It also sets additional criteria contained in amendments introduced and approved. They include a proviso that the 2016 motion include supporting documentation that:

  • “demonstrates broad consultation in its preparation;
  • explains how this motion does not contravene the Solemn Declaration;
  • confirms immunity under civil law and the Human Rights Code for those bishops, dioceses and priests who refuse to participate in or authorize the marriage of same-sex couples on the basis of conscience; and
  • provides a biblical and theological rationale for this change in teaching on the nature of Christian marriage.”


  • 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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