(This story first appeared in the June 2016 issue of the Anglican Journal.)
What is an aspiring minister to do when the authority of the church calls her to go against the dictates of her conscience?
It was this tension that drove Michelle Bull to stand up at General Synod 2013 and bring Resolution C003, asking the Anglican Church of Canada to allow same-gendered marriages. She knew it would be polarizing-but as someone taking the first steps on the path toward ordination, she felt she had no choice.
“If I’m ordained, I have to promise to follow the doctrine and discipline of the Anglican Church of Canada, and that’s going to be a pretty major conflict for me,” Bull said in an interview. “If I’m ordained and someone asks me to marry them and they’re gay, and the Anglican church says that I can’t, that’s going to rip me to pieces-because I would take that vow seriously, but I also would feel that it was the wrong thing to be doing.” [Editor’s note: In a subsequent Letter to the Editor Bull clarified that although she would be “in the invidious position of having to choose between my conscience and my ordination vows if this change does not happen, that was never my motivation. It was never actually about me.“]
Bull, now a candidate for ordination and the wife of a priest in the diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, has long been convinced that homosexuality is a “natural, normal part of God’s creation,” and has been advocating for the church’s acceptance of gay Christians for almost 30 years now. But it was at the General Synod held in her hometown of Halifax, N.S., in 2010 when she started seriously thinking about how she could bring about a change in the way the Canadian Anglican church treats its gay members.
While watching a performance of a play put on during the synod called Roots Among the Rocks, which features a story about a young woman coming out as a lesbian in the context of the Anglican church, she was moved to tears by the exclusion and estrangement some young gay Anglicans feel growing up in the church.
“My daughter, at that point, was in a lesbian relationship…and she was engaged,” Bull explained. “My husband wasn’t going to be able to marry her, and that grieved me. It grieved me that she had left the church.”
Although her daughter ended up getting married by a United Church minister, Bull said she felt she had to take a more active role in changing the church’s treatment of same-sex couples. “We have a polity that allows laity to take part in the decisions,” she noted. “In our church, the laity have voice…so you can do something about this.”
Bull proceeded to secure a place as delegate to the Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island diocesan synod in 2011, when the diocese voted to allow same-sex blessings, and then to General Synod in 2013.
When the convening circular (which contains the resolutions and reports going to synod) came out, she worried that she had missed her chance-until she received a response to a query she had made about the process for bringing motions to synod, which outlined some of the options still open to her.
With help from members of her diocesan delegation, Bull crafted a motion that reflected the changes she wanted to see, and then set out to find a seconder, eventually approaching Jennifer Warren, another member of the delegation.
Warren did not have a personal connection to the issue, but she had experience working in youth ministry, and was convinced she needed to take a stand in support of same-sex marriage.
Warren recalled being at an earlier diocesan synod where a delegate questioned same-sex blessings by stressing the importance of reading the Bible literally, citing Old Testament texts that seem to condemn homosexuality. A youth delegate stood up and said that by the same logic, she should be stoned to death for not being a virgin.
“I thought, ‘Wow-this is a young person who is really drawing our attention to things that people just might not think of: the consequences of literal interpretation, and the consequences of convenient literal interpretation of the Bible,’ ” she said. “When [Bull] approached me with this resolution, I saw [seconding] that as an extension of my ministry on behalf of the youth in our diocese.”
This left only the most frightening part of the process: bringing the motion forward. “I was shaking in my boots,” said Bull. “We were both really scared, actually, and even though it felt like the right thing, I knew that there would be people who [would hate] my guts after that.”
In the brief amount of time she was given to present her motion, Bull opted against venturing into the weeds of biblical and theological argument-instead, she advocated for change as a matter of freedom of conscience.
Presenting the motion was just the beginning, though. Bull’s and Warren’s original motion had asked that CoGS bring a motion to General Synod 2016 to amend the marriage canon to make it available for all legally married people-which, in Canada, includes gay couples. But amendments were suggested by Bishop Stephen Andrews of the diocese of Algoma, requiring CoGS to also consider the Solemn Declaration and to undertake consultations within the Canadian Anglican church and the wider Anglican Communion.
Dean Peter Elliot of the diocese of New Westminster seconded the amendments, which, he said, seemed to be “quite reasonable requests for the council to consider, and for members of General Synod to have before them as they contemplated making a decision.”
Bull and Warren were at first unsure about what was being recommended, and Warren made a motion to amend the amendments, feeling the issue of homosexuality in the church had been discussed sufficiently. But this motion was defeated, and eventually Bull and Warren opted to accept the amendments. Following some procedural hiccups, the amendment passed.
“I was overjoyed,” Bull recalled. “There was this dogpile of people from my delegation hugging me, starting with my bishops. Everybody was really happy, our group was really happy-others, not so much.”
Bull said she knows that accepting same-sex marriage in Canada will cause “international problems” with the worldwide Anglican Communion, but this has not shaken her resolve.
“I would rather be booted out with the people who are being booted out than be on the side with the people doing the booting,” she said. “When it comes down to it, that’s where I think Jesus would be.”
Bull will not be at General Synod 2016, but she says, “I really feel like I played the part I was called to play, and it’s not in my hands anymore. If it passes before I make my ordination vows [this summer], it’s going to make it easy; if it doesn’t pass, it’s going to make it really, really difficult.”