By The Rev. Canon Eric Beresford
Ethics and Interfaith Relations Consultant
The church is looking at the question of the blessing of same sex unions. It is not considering same sex marriage despite confusion created by changes that are happening at the same time in the civil realm.
A same sex blessing would be a pastoral act that would publicly recognize a same sex couple and bless God for all the ways in which the life of the couple reflects love and faithfulness, companionship, care and concern in good times and in bad. This is consistent with the statement of the bishops in 1997 that said, "We recognize that relationships of mutual support, help and comfort between homosexual persons exist and are to be preferred to relationships that are anonymous and transient."
For many Anglicans marriage also has a sacramental quality that goes beyond this, it teaches us something about the relationship of Christ and the Church. Some Anglicans who support "blessing" would be uncomfortable talking about same sex marriage.
The motion that will be discussed at General Synod is a procedural motion. It does not resolve all the issues. It leaves decisions on whether or not to proceed at this time with dioceses. It calls for more study and dialogue for unity in the midst of our differences and for pastoral care for all Anglicans.
The church has been discussing this matter for almost 30 years at various levels and in a variety of ways. The synod of the diocese of New Westminster (the governing body of the diocese) passed a motion in 1998 asking the bishop to allow parishes that wished to bless same sex unions to do so subject to whatever conditions the bishop deemed appropriate. Although a majority of members of the synod approved of the motion the bishop declined to consent and so the motion failed. The synod considered motions on this subject again in 2001 and 2002 each time voting in favour of the motion by increased majorities. In 2002 the bishop gave his consent to a compromise motion that included a conscience cause to protect the rights of those who dissented. Although some opposed to the blessing of same sex unions saw this clause as inadequate, the diocese proceeded with the preparation of a liturgy, which was published and used in October 2002.
The bishops then decided that it was time for the matter to come to the General Synod (the governing body for the Anglican Church of Canada) for discussion, and if possible, some sort of decision. A motion was sent to Council of General Synod, which is the executive committee of the church between General Synods.
The Council asked the Faith Worship and Ministry Committee (A standing committee of the General Synod that deals with matters of doctrine, worship and ethics) to prepare for discussion of this issue at General Synod in 2004.
As the committee thought about this they realized that motions could come to the General Synod from a number of sources. They believed that it was important that any resolution that reached the floor of synod, whether or not it is passed, allow the synod to address the issues that need to be discussed at this time. In order to assess what approach might be most helpful they contracted the services of an independent consulting firm. They used focus groups based around regional meetings across the Anglican Church of Canada.
We learned that there was a great deal of anxiety around the church. However, when we asked what this anxiety was about it was less about the blessing of same sex unions and more about the effect that this issue is having, or might have, on the life of the Church. In particular there is a great deal of anxiety about the possibility that people will leave the church. However, in all of the interviews undertaken, only one respondent said that they personally would leave the Anglican Church of Canada.
While the consultants acknowledged that they had little experience of working with church based groups, they made recommendations based on their experience with other non-profit groups.
The motion being sent to General Synod does not address the substantive issues around the blessing of same sex unions. Nor does it attempt to come to some final statement of the church’s view about the blessing of same sex unions. Indeed, it frankly acknowledges disagreement in the life of the church, yet commits us to strive for the greatest possible degree of unity. This is the starting point for what is essentially a procedural motion which sets forward ways of living with disagreement and calls for further study.
In order to formulate the first draft of this motion, the report and recommendations were discussed for 28 hours in the Faith Worship and Ministry committee. The committee is an extremely diverse body with membership drawn from across Canada. One member came from one of the parishes that have withheld funding from the diocese of New Westminster because of that diocese’s action ( St. John’s Shaughnessy). Other members were clearly in favour of some change in the church’s pastoral discipline. There were also two indigenous members and one ecumenical partner.
The committee developed a motion that they sent to the Council of General Synod with the request that the council put the motion before General Synod. The council is also a diverse body. It spent a considerable period of time on the issue before deciding to send a slightly different motion to General Synod. This motion has a similar effect to the motion drafted by Faith Worship and Ministry Committee, but is rather differently worded.
It is important to note that the motion does not address the blessing of same sex unions as such. It certainly does not offer a final ruling on the many issues around the blessing of same sex unions. The motion is in five parts. Part 1 admits that we are not of one mind with regard to the blessing of same sex unions and places this reality in the context of our the baptism we all share. It suggests that the most important thing is the relationship we have with each other because of our common baptism. Part 3 calls for further study. Part 4 recognizes that any such study will have to be sensitive to the diverse cultural realities in the Anglican Church of Canada, especially for indigenous peoples, and part 5 states the church’s intention to provide adequate pastoral care for all Anglicans regardless of their perspective on the issues surrounding the blessing of same sex unions. This pastoral care includes the question of how parishes will relate to bishops, the question of "Episcopal oversight". The motion does not define how bishops will provide this pastoral care. The house of bishops, have had a task force working on this issue, and they will provide a framework for dealing with this matter.
The most controversial and misunderstood part of this motion is clause 2. For many, both in the Anglican Church of Canada, and outside this will look like a simple endorsement of local option. This is because most people assume that General Synod is simply the top synod with authority over the other regional and diocesan synods. Most of the 38 self-governing churches that make up the Anglican Communion work with the principle of "due subordination of synods". They are organized hierarchically with General Synods having the most authority and diocesan synods the least. By contrast, our system is, in fact, confederal. There is a division of authority with local synods having authority over some matters and the General Synod having authority over others. However, on many matters it is not clear where authority to make a particular decision lies. The opinion of the task force on jurisdiction that reported to the last General Synod is significant here. I will quote from two sections.
When the provinces of Canada and Rupert’s Land, with the dioceses of British Columbia, Caledonia and New Westminster, came together in the 1890s to form the General Synod, the gathering defined the responsibilities and duties that were within the jurisdictions of the General and Provincial Synods leaving all undefined responsibilities and duties to the jurisdiction of the dioceses.
The confederal nature of our church means that undesignated powers rest with the dioceses and/or diocesan bishops. This seems to suggest that when it is unclear at what level a matter should be decided, the power to decide it should rest at the diocesan level unless the ‘mind of the church’ deems it to belong at another level. In short, when jurisdiction in a contentious matter is not specified, it will be decided at the highest level that has the will to decide it.
In light of this it seems most helpful to see resolve 2 as a recognition that jurisdiction in this matter currently resides with the dioceses. If passed this resolve would reflect a decision not to seek to remove jurisdiction in this matter from the dioceses.
It is important to remember the context of our situation in Canada. Changes in public attitudes with regard to gay and lesbian people and now changes in civil law have convinced some in the Anglican Church of Canada that provision has to be made to offer pastoral support to gay and lesbian couples in the life of the church. Others do not agree. There seems to be little evidence that agreement in this area is imminent. If we cannot resolve our differences around the church’s pastoral relationship to gay and lesbian people the question becomes, can we live with disagreements about appropriate pastoral practice, and if so, how will we do that?
Some have commented on the lack of clarity in the motion. In particular there is concern that the "blessing of same sex unions" is not adequately defined. Again, the point here is not lack of definition, but the existence of disagreement. We don’t agree on these issues and the motion therefore reflects the view that where, "it is unclear at what level a matter should be decided, the power to decide it should rest at the diocesan level…" Quite simply, the motion does not address the substantive issues of what constitutes a same sex union. The substantive issues would need to be addressed by dioceses as they discuss whether or not they wish to proceed in this matter. What is clear is that the motion calls for further study and conversation and in the meantime leaves the matter with dioceses.
For dioceses t act in this way is not novel. The first officially licensed liturgy for the blessing of same sex unions was licensed by the Bishop of Rochester (NY) in 1973. Prior to its national meeting last year, at least six dioceses in the Episcopal Church USA, had similarly licensed liturgies. To act in this way is transparent. We know that same sex unions have been, and are being blessed in areas where they are not officially allowed both in Canada and in other provinces of the Anglican Communion. A 2002 survey by the Daily Telegraph had no difficulty in finding clergy in the Church of England willing to bless same sex unions and found two bishops who were publicly supportive of such blessings. A spokesman for the Church of England, while stressing that there was no "official approval" commented that there was always a need to provide pastoral care for people within congregations, including homosexuals."
If this motion passes GS would not be the first province to endorse the blessing of same sex unions. As I have said several times, the motion does not do that. It does recognize that jurisdiction is currently being exercised at the diocesan level and it leaves it there. This is not dissimilar to the decision of ECUSA to recognize "that local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions."