On the marriage canon

"It is critical to understand that the issue at hand for many Indigenous peoples is not whether the lifestyle of other people is unacceptable," Bishop Mark MacDonald writes. Photo: Wedding at Cana by Ross Dunn, Flickr.com/photos/RDB466/30538208220
Published June 17, 2019

When non-Indigenous people hear that there is a widespread ambivalence and reluctance among Indigenous Anglicans to change the marriage canon to allow same-sex marriage, they assume that this is a conservative remnant of the work of the missionaries. Non-Indigenous peoples often hold a hidden and unexamined assumption that Indigenous people are a primitive version of themselves, waiting to be updated. The reality of Indigenous peoples’ various views on these matters is more complex and, to me, more constructive.

It must be said that there is nowhere near a unanimous view on issues of marriage and gender among Indigenous peoples. What I hear and experience across the Land is two-fold: first, a desire to work these matters out among Indigenous peoples themselves—there is a deep dislike of the process by which this matter is being deliberated and an almost complete reluctance to enter into what appears to be a hostile discussion in which the Indigenous voice will not be heard—and, second, a vast majority of Indigenous peoples who are articulating what they believe to be an uniquely Indigenous view of marriage: something that is defined by the experience and views of their local community, but sharing in a broad Indigenous family resemblance. There is a commitment to approach these matters in an Indigenous way and with an Indigenous timing.

It is critical to understand that the issue at hand for many Indigenous peoples is not whether the lifestyle of other people is unacceptable. Going against the teaching of the missionaries, Indigenous communities have a tradition of accepting a diversity of expression in terms of gender and sexuality. Though not perfect, the Indigenous celebration of individuality is a long- and dearly-held aspect of Indigenous communities across the Land. It continues within the network of Indigenous Anglican ministries, as is generally found among Indigenous communities, especially where outside systems of judgement have not become powerful.

It is true, however, that most Indigenous communities have viewed marriage as a unique communal ceremony, designed and practiced to express a worldview where the difference between man and woman is an embodied portrayal of an essential aspect of how Creation works. In non-Indigenous culture, this aspect is no longer central to the celebration of marriage. Marriage is a ceremony focused on the well-being of the couple and, to a significant degree, no longer embodies a statement about a cultural or religious worldview. In contrast to these norms, Anglican Indigenous elders have seen in the Scriptures a strong statement of their view and are entirely reluctant to abandon the authority of the Scriptures or their traditional cultural practice.

As we face the prospect of a definitive up-or-down decision on the marriage canon, the Indigenous point of view would seem to be that action in such a forum is ill-advised. You would be hard-pressed to find many Indigenous voices willing to speak about the conflict. It is, however, something that is upon us, and the representative bodies of Indigenous peoples have promoted an amendment that provides special recognition of the differences of the Indigenous approach to marriage and their capacity and right to approach this in their own terms and time. It is hoped that this will receive understanding and support from the larger church.

This short piece, unavoidably constrained by this format, is not an attempt to manipulate an outcome, but to speak to the understanding and well-being of us all. We have some challenging decisions before us, and they should be met with faithfulness to God and to each other. It is hard to hear each other, these days, and particularly hard to hear across cultures.


  • Mark MacDonald

    Mark MacDonald was national Indigenous Anglican bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada from 2007 to 2019, and national Indigenous Anglican archbishop from 2019 to 2022.

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