Conflicting interpretations of the ramifications of General Synod’s recent decisions around same-sex blessings have led the bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada to consult with their chancellors (legal advisers).
Among the questions that have arisen: What does the approved motion stating that “the blessing of same-sex unions is not in conflict with the doctrine of the Anglican Church of Canada” mean? Can clergy and dioceses now conduct same-sex blessings? Some bishops have issued pastoral letters asking clergy not to conduct same-sex blessings – can priests be disciplined if they ignore this directive?
To date, at least seven of the church’s 30 diocesan bishops have issued pastoral letters stating that General Synod decided that same-sex blessings are still not permitted. Thirteen have not yet issued pastoral letters; the rest offered reflections or reiterated the pastoral response issued by the house of bishops in April. (The response stated in part that civilly-married lesbian or gay couples may, with the bishop’s permission, celebrate a eucharist that includes intercessory prayers, but not an exchange of vows and a nuptial blessing.)
Ronald Stevenson, General Synod chancellor, declined to comment on the questions.
Rev. Alan Perry, an expert on canon law from the diocese of Montreal, said the motion that blessings are not in conflict with the church’s core doctrine is a “declarative” but not an “enabling” motion, which would contain some mechanism or permission to act in a certain way.
He also believes that the defeat of the motion affirming the authority of dioceses to offer blessings has been misinterpreted. “It says General Synod ‘affirms’ that dioceses have the authority to authorize blessing of same-sex unions,” said Mr. Perry. People are reading the motion “as though it said that General Synod ‘grants’ authority to the dioceses.”
General Synod, he observed, has not stated who, if anyone, has the authority to authorize the blessing of same-sex unions.
Mr. Perry said that some would argue that the church’s Declaration of Principles grants General Synod exclusive jurisdiction over doctrine. “What it does not say,” he said, “is that the General Synod has exclusive control over any and all actions having to do with doctrine.”
James Cowan, bishop of British Columbia, offered a contrary view in a pastoral letter. “There are those who argue that because General Synod did not pass a motion claiming its authority on the matter, it may be left to a local church (diocese, parish, or parish priest) to make decisions about moving forward with same-sex union blessings. I am not of that opinion, nor will I authorize such action or concur with it,” he wrote. General Synod has not abrogated its right to make decisions around same-sex blessings, said Bishop Cowan, citing the passage of various resolutions dealing with sexuality, including the study on the possible revision of the marriage canon (law) to allow priests to marry all legally qualified persons.
In a comment for the Globe and Mail, Canon Eric Beresford, president of the Atlantic School of Theology, wrote that by declaring the blessing of same-sex unions is not contrary to the church’s core doctrine, “General Synod has, at the very least, undermined the grounds for discipline against any diocese, bishop or priest who performs such blessings.”
Mr. Beresford said while priests are bound by oaths of obedience in “all things lawful and honest,” the question is “whether or not it is lawful to require obedience from a priest on something the General Synod of the church has declared to be ‘matter indifferent,'” or, those matters that are “not essential to Anglican identity.”
Mr. Perry said that while heresy charges against a priest for blessing a same-sex union would likely fail, there would be other grounds for discipline. Clergy swear an oath, “not to conduct public worship except using the Book of Common Prayer or a liturgy which has been approved by lawful authority, which means the bishop for all practical purposes,” he said. Since clergy swear an oath to obey their bishops, disregarding a bishop’s directive not to bless same-sex unions “would be a matter of canonical disobedience, and the priest would be subject to the discipline canon,” he said.
Mr. Perry said there is nothing in the church’s canons or constitution that prevents a diocese from going forward with same-sex blessings now that General Synod has said it is not against core doctrine. “The mechanism for the diocese as a whole to make such a decision would be a synod motion requesting the bishops to authorize such a liturgy,” he said. If a bishop decides to authorize such a liturgy, “then the deed is done,” he said.