On the marriage canon


Brenda Still

"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

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.

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Mark MacDonald

Mark MacDonald

Archbishop Mark MacDonald is national Indigenous archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada.

11 Responses

  1. In fact, in some areas of Mexico, particularly in my soon to be episcopal jurisdiction (the Anglican Diocese of the Southeast) many indigenous peoples consider a gift from God to parents to have a gay son. This upon the assumption that a gay son will stay and look after them in their old age.

    Rev. Julio C. Martin +

  2. Since the Canon will _allow_ but not _mandate_ same-sex marriage, why would first-nations’ delegates vote against the change if it won’t impact them? How does their traditional (pre-Christian) understanding of marriage have any bearing on what the Anglican Church of Canada should allow or not vis-a-vis marriage?

  3. Interesting read; I have to say in my understanding of Nisga’a culture, we had 3 unique societies under 1 nation. Firstly, the masculine society, this was comprised of men who did all the hunting, fishing, cutting down of trees, building of long houses, the creation of masks and rattles etc. then we had the feminine society, a group comprised of women who preserved the hunt, the fish, made clothing, weaved cedar baskets, kept the long house clean, caring of children.. and then we had those who identified themselves as people with 2 spirits, people who could see into both worlds. we didn’t shun them, we knew they had special powers, and so they were treated with a lot of respect. However; they were not permitted to marry one another. This is why we don’t have a marriage feast for same-sex couples. Those who possessed two spirits, were treated as though they were shaman’s; their love could heal sickness.

  4. I appreciate Bishop MacDonald having the courage to publicly say that a key element in indigenous understanding of Christian marriage, is the duality of the sexes, that a male and a female come together in a life long project.
    I am a 70 year old, retired Anglican priest. I am disgusted with how the Council of General Synod have handled this issue over the last 20 years. There is so much politics going on. By politics, I mean “identity politics”. I first heard that phrase back around 2002, on CBC radio. A Harvard professor was giving a talk about “the Rights Revolution”. Michael Ignatief told us, this new way of thinking, that minority groups have “rights”, these groups want to be respected for having a different, distinct identity, yet also use the concept of “rights” to be considered equal with other citizens. So, “Rights” thinking has entered the Anglican Church. now, in 2015, there was a 60 page report. It was called the Report of the Commission on the Marriage Canon. It was a rushed document with sloppy thinking. The Report fails to describe or understand the theological issues, or the philosophic concepts being used in the present controversy. In particular, the Report fails to define clearly what a sacrament is. So, are sacraments Rights? Is using Rights language a good way to understand a Christian sacrament? It is these issues our leaders and thinkers need to sort out. I argue, then, that secular political concepts have entered the high councils of the Church, and are causing confusion. Is Baptism a right? If this is so, is there any faith required, when such a person seeks Baptism? I suggest, that activist liberal Anglicans do not have an honest theology of the Church, what a Christian Church is in these modern times. Let me finish with a quote from a Lutheran pastor, written in 1937 in pre-war Germany: “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.” D. Bonhoeffer, the Cost of Discipleship.

  5. But what does God (through his Word) say about the practice of homosexuality? Look at Leviticus 18:22 or Romans 1: 26,27 and also 1 Corinthians 6: 9,10,11. And then look at what we as fellow Christians should do as told in Galatians 6: 1,2. Include ALL sinners in our daily lives and bear each others burdens of sin!.

  6. In a church that considers rubrics to have nearly the authority of scripture, I hesitate to wax profoundly about what scripture says or doesn’t say about the marriage canon. I think we could well clean our own house of questionable traditions; indigenous people are examining their traditions in a way that can only benefit the rest of the church if it will but listen.

  7. Should we not be looking/listening very very carefully to what “God through His Word” says concerning same-sex marriages and the practice of homosexuality? And then include ALL sinners in our daily lives and help bear each others sins? In so doing we will fulfill the law of Christ; love one another as He loves us.

  8. It appears to me Scripture has no meaning. We can twist to whatever suits our fancy. If the definition of marriage is for the procreation of children between a man and a wife, i.e. a male and a female, how then can a same sex marriage produce the same results? I have no objection if same sex couples want to co-habitat, but lets say what it is, a union. Certainly children can be brought into the union by other methods and no doubt loved. But what is next? Will salvation be at a price rather than faith? Was the first miracle of Jesus, turning the water into wine, between whom? I think if we keep watering down the tenets of our faith we will become a ship of fools!

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