Empty tables and chairs as some General Synod members choose not to participate at the closing worship of General Synod following the provisional approval of the same-sex marriage motion. Photo: Art Babych
Canadian Anglican bishops have begun to respond to General Synod’s provisional vote on same-sex marriage in starkly different ways: a number have called for prayers, some announced they will now allow religious weddings for same-sex couples and others have expressed anxiety about unity in the church.
On July 12, General Synod reversed its original decision rejecting the motion to change the marriage canon to allow for same-sex marriage after the discovery of a miscounted vote in the Order of Clergy.
Bishop Melissa Skelton, of the diocese of New Westminster, said she was “relieved” by the vote, which she said gay and lesbian people would see as an affirmative step. However, she added in an interview, “In my province, and among my friends in the House of Bishops, I’m very concerned for those who feel that they’re not ready for that. How do we continue to make room for their point of view in a sensitive and caring way?”
The impact of the vote was undeniable. Some bishops and members of their dioceses were noticeably absent at the meeting’s closing worship July 12, including those who had walked out after it was announced that the same-sex marriage motion had passed.
In an interview, Bishop William Anderson, of the diocese of Caledonia, took issue with bishops who announced they would go ahead with same-sex marriages shortly after it was announced July 11 that the vote had been narrowly defeated and then again, when the outcome was reversed.
“It further exacerbates the contempt for our synodical process. I think we’re in for a period of chaos,” he said in an interview. “I think this process has been immensely destructive of the unity of our church.”
On the evening of Monday, July 11, after the resolution appeared to have been voted down, at least two dioceses—Niagara and Ottawa released statements that they intended to proceed with same-sex marriages anyway. The diocese of Toronto announced that it would consider taking this step.
In a statement dated July 11 but released the morning of July 12, before the results of Monday’s vote were overturned, the diocese of Huron also said it intended to authorize same-sex marriage liturgies “once guidelines are in place.”
Most of these dioceses cited General Synod chancellor, Canon (lay) David Jones, who announced in synod Monday, July 11, that the marriage canon in its present form “does not contain either a definition of marriage or a specific prohibition against solemnizing same-sex marriage.” A diocesan bishop is also allowed to authorize liturgies “to respond to pastoral needs within their dioceses, in the absence of any actions by the General Synod,” said diocese of Huron bishops Bob Bennett and Linda Nicholls.
After Tuesday’s dramatic reversal, the bishops of Ottawa, Niagara and Huron announced their earlier decisions to allow same-sex marriages would stand unchanged; their dioceses would not wait for the resolution’s required second reading in 2019.
“Notwithstanding the reversal of the resolution’s outcome, I am committed to my promise to our diocese and local LGBTQ2 community to continue to walk along the path of full inclusion and to immediately proceed with equal marriage,” said Niagara Bishop Michael Bird.
“Now we proceed, comfortable in knowing that the national church is behind us as we continue to deliberate these next three years anticipating the second and final vote in 2019,” said Ottawa Bishop John Chapman.
Archbishop of Toronto Colin Johnson likewise announced “We can now begin to discuss how this will be implemented in the diocese of Toronto in a similar way to what I spoke about in my earlier statement.”
However, some bishops said they would need to consult with members of their dioceses before taking any action.
Bishop Michael Oulton, of the diocese of Ontario, said in a statement that he would consult with diocesan leaders and also hold a “diocesan day” for Anglicans in the diocese to “share their hopes and suggestions on how we move forward as a diocese in response to the changes.”
Bishop Ron Cutler, of the diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, said in a pastoral statement that he was “not willing to give a similar permission” as the bishops planning to immediately allow same-sex marriages. He, too, however, announced plans to consult with diocesan leaders, and added that the matter would need to be discussed at the diocese’s synod, the next meeting of which is slated for May 2017.
Bishop Jane Alexander, of the diocese of Edmonton, said she was “in favour of being able to offer all of the sacraments of the church to all God’s children,” but asked the Anglicans of her diocese to be “patient with me as I work out our next steps in the Diocese of Edmonton.”
Bishops—both for and against same-sex marriage—also urged their faithful to pray for the church.
“May God send his healing Spirit upon all who are hurting, or confused and give us all the peace of Christ,” said Alexander in a message posted on her diocese's Facebook page.
Alexander suggested the emotional roller-coaster ride of General Synod 2016 might actually bear a valuable lesson for the church.
“On Monday the church tipped in one direction; there was pain and hurt and tears and we all needed one another to hold us up,” she wrote. “On Tuesday the church tipped in the opposite direction and there was pain and hurt and tears and we all needed one another to hold us up.
“I think that it is more than probable that God is telling us that we need one another and for a while we have all got to stand in the place of the one that we might consider to be the ‘other.’ ”
Diocese of Athabasca BishopFraser Lawton, in a pastoral statement to his diocese released Tuesday, said “what is clear is that the church has great need to better live out Christian community and to welcome and care for those who are hurting and feel rejected and unloved.” Lawton called for prayers “for the church, for discernment and wisdom for the diocese, and for God’s grace.”
Lawton, like other bishops, also decried the very process by which the church had chosen to deal with the issue, saying it created unnecessary pain and division.
“For many of us, the process leading up to the synod and the way the decision unfolded was difficult and very troubling,” he said. “The experience of discussing, debating and voting on the resolution was a difficult experience for all involved. Many were deeply hurt when it seemed to have been defeated. Others were deeply injured and grieved when it was overturned the next day…Sadly, many relationships, including between dioceses and various church bodies, have been seriously damaged.”
Chapman, who voted in favour of the motion, also shared his dislike for the process.
“I wish that the matter was presented to synod as a pastoral matter from the very beginning and not as a canonical issue,” said in an interview with the Anglican Journal.
Skelton said the bishops had spent a considerable amount of time talking amongst themselves about the idea that a “legislative” approach—an actual vote on the canon—might not be the best way of dealing with same-sex marriage. However, she said, there may not be a real alternative to voting on such matters, painful and divisive though it is.
“I myself don’t know what to do when we have an important issue that needs to be voted on,” she said. “It’s imperfect...I wish we didn’t live in a world where decisions cut both ways, but I frankly don’t know of any other way at this time.”
Twenty-six bishops, or 68.4%, voted in favour of the motion and 12 voted against, a fact that surprised many. In February, the House of Bishops had issued a statement saying the motion was “not likely” to pass with the required two-thirds majority in the Order of Bishops.
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.
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