Should clergy stop performing marriage ceremonies?

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Many Canadian bishops, who met this spring, spoke of marriage discussions as solid opportunities for evangelism and pastoral care.

A small group of bishops will lay the groundwork for a discussion of marriage within the life of the church at the November House of Bishops meeting in Niagara Falls.

The impetus for this discussion is a General Synod request to the faith, worship and ministry committee to consider the implications of having Anglican clergy cease to solemnize marriages. The committee asked the House of Bishops to comment. “There is no assumption,” said Primate Fred Hiltz in an interview, “that there will be a resolution one way or the other.”

Driving the request is the reality that far fewer marriages today are performed in church buildings, even when a member of clergy officiates. Futhermore, in a country where same-sex marriage is legal, “the church has a concern whether it is blessing unions or marriages,” said Archbishop Hiltz.

At the April House of Bishops meeting in Niagara Falls, “There was not much appetite for the discontinuation of the solemnization of marriage. Bishop after bishop spoke of marriage discussions as solid opportunities for evangelism and pastoral care and opportunities that led to the growing of the parish family,” Archbishop Hiltz said. Recalling their experiences as priests, the bishops noted that first visits by couples who want to be married and then take marriage preparation turn into pastoral relationships that grow parish membership.

“A small group will do some more work on this and we’ll have an extended discussion on the place of marriage in the church at our next meeting,” said Archbishop Hiltz. “But if we move in the direction of no longer performing marriages, what does this say about our marriage rites and Canon XXI?”

The bishops expressed a desire to have healthy open conversation about marriage with a focus not on canonical questions but on pastoral opportunities in solid marriage preparation. Archbishop Hiltz added that, while Anglican clergy are trained to offer counselling for marriages in trouble, they are also trained to know when to refer couples to professional marriage counsellors. “Most priests will still maintain a non-interfering pastoral relationship of some kind with the couple sent for further counselling,” he said.

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Diana Swift
Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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