Council of General Synod (CoGS) unanimously agreed March 12 to send to the upcoming General Synod a draft resolution prepared by the Commission on the Marriage Canon changing the Anglican Church of Canada’s law to pave the way for same-sex marriage.
At the same time, however, CoGS said that while it is legally obliged by General Synod 2013’s Resolution C003 to send the same-sex marriage motion to General Synod 2016, it has also considered “the possibility of other options.”
In a message to the church, CoGS said, “The General Synod may discern a legislative option is not the most helpful, and if so, we faithfully hope that through dialogue at General Synod an alternate way will emerge.”
CoGS did not indicate what these “other options” might be, but the message was clearly a response to an earlier statement it received from the House of Bishops that a vote to allow same-sex marriage was “not likely to pass in the Order of Bishops.” In their statement to CoGS, the bishops had also questioned whether “a legislative procedure is the most helpful way” of dealing with the issue of gay marriage.
In a written response to the House of Bishops, CoGS asked “for some concrete examples of other options” to a legislative process.
CoGS was notably more forthright when it asked the bishops what they meant when they stated that they were committed to “achieving the greatest pastoral generosity possible” toward LGBTQ. “If a local option is the way forward, will the House be prepared to live with and honour the choices of individual dioceses?” CoGS asked.
The message from CoGS also asked bishops to provide concrete examples of what they meant about being committed to “explore other options for honouring and fully embracing committed, faithful same-sex relationships.”
The statements to the church and to the House of Bishops emerged after almost two days of mostly closed-door discussions among Council members.
In its statement to the church, CoGS also said, “We recommend the greatest pastoral response possible, allowing same-sex couples to be fully included in the life of our church with full and equal access to its liturgies and pastoral offices.”
The wording of this last sentence was cause for much debate on the floor of the Council when it was presented to members for approval. The original draft had read, “We must permit the greatest pastoral response possible, allowing same-sex couples to be fully included in the life of our church with full and equal access to its liturgies and pastoral offices,” and some CoGS members felt this came too close to telling General Synod how it should vote.
“When we do this, when we say, ‘You have full access to the liturgies and pastoral care,’ we’re saying, ‘Go ahead and marry,’ ” said Bishop Larry Robertson, of the diocese of the Yukon, expressing an opinion also stated by Archdeacon Terry Leer, of the diocese of Athabasca. “I cannot and will not accept that.”
While the change in wording allowed the statement to receive the approval of the Council, in an interview after the session, Leer and Robertson both said they were still not entirely satisfied with how the sentence read.
“I disagree with that sentence…because it actually tells General Synod how to vote,” Leer said. “It still, to me, is too directive-it’s like saying to General Synod, ‘We really want you to vote this particular way.’ ”
However, both acknowledged that this wording reflected the will of the majority of the Council.
While CoGS made all of its decisions on both statements and the resolution using a consensus model that allows members to express their degree of support for a motion through a show of fingers (five indicating complete approval and zero indicating a need to discuss the matter further), two of its members-Bishop Lydia Mamakwa of the Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh and Bishop Adam Halkett of Missinnippi, diocese of Saskatchewan-abstained.
Mamakwa and Halkett said they felt any participation in a vote about same-sex marriage would violate the trust of their communities, which they say are strongly opposed to any changes to the marriage canon.
“I’m really struggling with this. Not personally, but, what I’ve heard the elders say to me all along since I became bishop…they didn’t even want me to be part of the discussions when we talk about same-sex issues-that is how strong their desire is to uphold the traditional meaning of marriage,” Mamakwa said. “I feel that if I vote in any way, I will have betrayed them.”
While abstention is usually not an option when CoGS or General Synod vote on an issue, exceptions can be made if a two-thirds majority of members allow them. The Council was unanimous in letting Mamakwa and Halkett abstain from any votes or calls for consensus during discussions of the marriage canon.
When asked about his views on the statement as a member of both the House of Bishops and CoGS, Robertson said he felt the Council was right in asking the House to provide more specific examples.
“We [bishops] have to put our money where our mouth is, and if this is what we’re saying, what are we going to do about it? That’s the role of the bishop: we are the keeper of the faith, we are the chief shepherds, and we have to lead.”
He noted that he has heard of a few ideas about how a third way might be found, but said he would be unable to say more until the next meeting of the House in April.
Bishop John Chapman of the diocese of Ottawa agreed.
“I thought it was a responsible response-the House of Bishops…has suggested that maybe the legislative option is maybe not the right way to go, so CoGS was saying, ‘We agree with that, so what’s your best suggestion?’ I think it is not inappropriate to send it back to House of Bishops.”
Following the decision, CoGS members who agreed to be interviewed were generally positive about how the Council dealt with its response to the bishops’ statement and with preparations for dealing with the same-sex marriage issue at General Synod, scheduled to meet July 7-12.
“It was very honest and sensitive,” said Jennifer Warren of the ecclesiastical province of Canada, who had seconded Resolution C003 when it came before General Synod in 2013. “The true test of listening is if someone else feels heard…I feel like there was a real commitment to people with views on polar opposite ends of the spectrum to ensure that we were all feeling heard.”
Despite his reservations about CoGS’ statement, Leer also said he felt it had on the whole been a good experience.
“I feel very positively about this session,” he said. “The discussion was helpful, the passions were clear, the Council appeared, for the most part, to be willing to hear those of us who had difficulties.”
Chapman said he felt the challenge CoGS faced was in taking a leadership position for the Anglican church.
“This is a body that is the leadership arm of the church in a very significant way,” he said. “We would have been irresponsible not to extend our best work to them, from our experience, and I think we did that…now it is up to General Synod to receive our counsel and advice.”
Many delegates noted that the decision to hold three of the sessions discussing the marriage canon in camera-that is, privately-had helped facilitate this process.
Cynthia Haines-Turner, deputy prolocutor of General Synod, said while in camera sessions are “not easy” due to the suspicion they can ignite, she felt it to be helpful in this case.
“They’re not my favourite thing to do,” she said, “however…there were a lot of people who felt like-not that they might have anything to say that they wouldn’t want published, but I think they wanted other people to feel…I think it was care for other people.”
It was an opinion echoed by Noel Platte, a youth delegate from the ecclesiastical province of Ontario. “I think it was helpful in allowing folks to speak their mind, in allowing folks who would possibly have been self-conscious about speaking their minds for a variety of very valid reasons…it was a valuable decision.”
In its message to the church, CoGS also expressed the hope that, regardless of the outcome on the issue, unity in the church will prevail. “In the midst of our diversity of opinion and perspectives, the Council of General Synod has been a witness to the wider church that, no matter what the outcome, we are united in Christ.” It noted that the church has also dealt with “contentious issues” in the past, including the remarriage of divorced persons and the ordination of women. “Agreement is not the source of our unity; our unity lies in the faithfulness of Christ.”
CoGS’ statement to the bishops thanked the House for its “integrity in communicating to the Council” the reality of where its current thinking on the same-sex marriage issue stands.
The resolution on same-sex marriage that will be presented to General Synod 2016 declares that “Canon XXI (On Marriage in the Church) applies to all persons who are duly qualified by civil law to enter into marriage,” and provides conscience clauses to ensure that dioceses, bishops and congregations will not be forced to perform same-sex marriages.
Since a change to the marriage canon is considered a matter of doctrine, in order to pass it requires the approval of at least two-thirds in each of the three orders -laity, clergy and bishops-at two consecutive General Synods. The first such vote is slated for this July.