A church commission’s report providing the biblical and theological argument for the adoption of same-sex marriage does little to bridge the ideological gap between conservatives and liberals in the Anglican Church of Canada, according to theologians interviewed by the Anglican Journal.
In September, the church’s Commission on the Marriage Canon released its final report, after carrying out a broad consultation about changing the marriage canon (church law) to allow the marriage of same-sex couples.
“It was not a theological report. It was a report that used some theology, but for a non-theological purpose,” says the Rev. Ephraim Radner, a professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College in the diocese of Toronto who has frequently spoken out in opposition to same-sex marriage.
For Radner, the report was compromised from the very beginning due to its starting assumption that committed, adult same-sex relationships are acceptable expressions of human sexuality.
But Radner’s frustration also stems from the fact that the commission’s mandate was not to look into the theological possibility of same-sex marriage, but to provide an argument for why Canon XXI, which governs marriage, could be changed to include same-sex couples.
“I don’t think it was set up in order to be methodologically sound with respect to the issue at hand,” he says. “It wasn’t actually asked to think through an issue in some kind of steady state, even-handed, neutral manner in the Christian tradition.”
Archdeacon Alan T. Perry of the diocese of Edmonton disagrees. While quick to acknowledge that the report was responding to a very specific mandate, he does not believe this undermines its integrity.
“I think that methodologically it is sound, and I think they have worked very hard to give a balanced and clear response to the question that was put before them,” he says, adding that it will be up to the 2016 General Synod to judge whether or not it finds the report convincing.
Michelle Rebidoux, a professor at Queen’s College in the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, rejects the notion that because the report was building on previous theological work done by General Synod, it was necessarily compromised.
“They may start from precedents, but they base it on really good theology,” she says.
“[The report] approaches scripture as a middle path-not viewing Scripture as set in stone, but at the same time not looking at Scripture as a heritage document that can just be seen as being something of the past.”
This attempt to navigate between so-called “literalist” and “liberal” hermeneutic approaches was a conscious effort on the part of the commission; several pages of the report are given over to a discussion of Scripture, in which the commission argues for a reading of the Bible grounded in engagement with reason and the Christian tradition.
Radner questions the very categories, however, suggesting that they are anachronistic relics of a late-19th and early-20th century conversation about the Bible that most scholars have moved past.
But he saves his most trenchant criticisms not for the report itself, but for the effect introducing same-sex marriage will have on the life of the church.
“What’s missing is concern about the survival of Anglicanism in Canada,” he says, citing dwindling attendance and sales of property. “I think moving ahead on this very controversial issue is just hammering another nail into the coffin.”
Perry, for his part, believes it still has value for those opposed to changing the marriage canon. “I think for those who are disinclined to agree with the proposed change…they’ll at least have a rationale set out before them that would give them something to argue against.”
Bishop Linda Nicholls, a member of the commission, says she understands why theologians like Radner find the report frustrating. Some on the commission also felt providing a rationale was “difficult to do,” she says. However, she says, the report was born of a perceived need to clarify the biblical and theological reasons for why some Anglicans might support a change to the marriage canon.
“There certainly, for a long time, has been a cry that there had been no biblical or theological rationale given for making this change,” she says. “So one of the things that came out of that amendment to the motion that started this all was that there needed to be a biblical and theological rationale provided…we were responding directly to the terms of reference given to us by the Council of General Synod.”