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Members of the Anglican Church march at World Pride 2014 in Toronto. Photo by Tom Evers/Courtesy of Proud Anglicans

Anglicans at a crossroads

They will vote on same-sex marriage at their General Synod in July. The consequences could be far-reaching.

By Michael Coren

It’s going to be a busy summer for the Anglican Church of Canada. In July, the General Synod meets and one of the most divisive issues will be a motion from the Synod itself proposing to reform the marriage canon to include same-sex couples. In other words, Canadian Anglican churches being allowed — but not compelled — to conduct same-gendered marriages. To pass, it will need a two-thirds majority in all three orders — bishops, clergy and laity — and this result would have to be repeated at the next Synod in three years time. So if all goes well, by 2019 Canadian Anglicans will be able to marry gay couples.

But they won’t. It will be virtually impossible to get all three orders to achieve the required majority. The order of bishops, who are avowed to guard church unity, have already stated they are unlikely to support the motion. So if equal marriage is to progress within Canadian Anglicanism, another approach will have to be found.

Whether or not the Anglican Church of Canada adopts gay marriage matters. There are around a million Canadians who self-identify as Anglicans with perhaps half that number active in the parishes, making it the third largest denomination in the country, after the Roman Catholic Church and The United Church of Canada.

Right now, a working compromise has allowed certain churches to at least bless same-gendered unions. Typically, the bishop must consent, the couple must be civilly married and at least one person in the couple must be baptized. In 2002, Bishop Michael Ingham of New Westminster Diocese became the first to consent to same-sex blessings — amid much controversy. As of 2013, 11 of 30 dioceses allowed this, with varying numbers of parishes within each diocese performing the ceremony.

Yet even a non-legally binding blessing doesn’t meet with everyone’s approval, which is surprising because on so many subjects this is a progressive, welcoming and intelligently tolerant church. We won’t know until July’s vote exactly how divided the church is on gay marriage. Anglican Church Archbishop and Primate Fred Hiltz recently estimated that a third of bishops are in support, a third in opposition and a third on the fence. Among parishioners, there may well be strongholds of support in British Columbia, Toronto, Niagara and Ottawa but, as with so many other institutions, the urban doesn’t reflect the entire country.

So why the resistance to what so many Canadian Christians regard as a self-evident example of God’s love and an extension of basic human rights? The United Church, for example, began blessing same-sex unions in the early 1990s and endorsed gay marriage in 2003, two years before it was legalized in Canada.

The explanation is complex. The global Anglican Church was originally built upon the co-existence of Catholic and reformed, high church and evangelical, conservative and liberal. While there remain heartfelt divisions between various factions of the 85 million-strong denomination today, that tension has produced some of the finest theologians and Christian witness of the past five centuries. It’s a fertile theological symbiosis when it works. Alas, sometimes it doesn’t.

So what would happen within the global Anglican Communion if the Canadian church were to adopt same-sex marriage? Anglicans in this country need only look south of the border to find out. The Episcopal Church, the branch of Anglicanism in the United States, caused a stir in 2003 when it made Gene Robinson, an openly non-celibate homosexual, a bishop. More provocation ensued last June, when the Episcopal Church, at its General Convention, voted to allow equal marriage.

This past January, the 38 primates representing the 38 provinces (or regions) of the global Anglican Communion gathered in Canterbury, U.K., and made their displeasure known, voting overwhelmingly “that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.” (Though the vote was conducted in-camera, it appears that only the Americans themselves, Canada and New Zealand voted against the motion.)

The primates’ statement, however, has no legislative authority. The Anglican Communion is a fellowship rather than a top-down hierarchy, so nobody can be kicked out or suspended. And much to their dismay, the conservative factions can’t even stop the Americans (or the Canadians) from showing up to their meetings — except by boycotting those same meetings themselves, which is precisely what is happening. Prior to the April meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council, archbishops from Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria stated they would boycott until “Godly order is restored.”

In response to the primates’ January statement, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, wrote: “This is not the outcome we expected, and while we are disappointed, it’s important to remember that the Anglican Communion is really not a matter of structure and organization. The Anglican Communion is a network of relationships that have been built on mission partnerships; relationships that are grounded in a common faith; relationships in companion diocese relationships; relationships with parish to parish across the world; relationships that are profoundly committed to serving and following the way of Jesus.”

This is important. As much as Curry might be stung by what happened, he continues to emphasize that the American church is Anglican and is part of the wider, international Anglican Communion.

'Many conservative Anglicans in the west have a sophisticated opposition based on Scripture, natural law and precedent. I believe them to be wrong.'

Anglican opposition to equal marriage has various motivations. Many conservative Anglicans in the west have a sophisticated opposition based on Scripture, natural law and precedent. I believe them to be wrong, but while some of them are harsh and unbending, many are loving followers of Christ who do enormous amounts of good work in numerous areas. It would be foolish and unchristian to generalize.

While we have no precise numbers, many openly gay priests serve Anglican churches in Britain, Canada, the United States, Australia and the rest of the western world. In Canada, openly gay priests may marry their same-sex partners in civil ceremonies and still enjoy acceptance as clergy.

In England, a number of clergy live in gay relationships — both open and closeted. Gay priests are accepted into the lower and even middle ranks of the church but there are ceilings made of more than glass.

In 2003, for example, Jeffrey John, currently Dean of St. Albans Cathedral in England, was named as the new Bishop of Reading. John lives with his partner in a same-sex relationship that’s celibate — an effort to comply with Church of England teaching. Even though his personal life fulfilled church requirements, an alliance of British, American and African conservatives, almost all of them Anglican, made the appointment so difficult and controversial that he graciously withdrew. It was an incredibly ugly campaign.

And it makes me wonder why other gay Anglican priests in the United Kingdom don’t take a stand for equality. I am not about to “out” anybody, but some gay priests and bishops routinely vote against same-sex marriage. Their double standard is astounding.

While there is certainly hypocrisy at play there’s also a valid fear by western Anglicans that if they speak too vociferously they will divide the international communion for good. Frankly, a schism may in the long-term be unavoidable, yet the quest for unity has taken on iconic proportions within Anglicanism and the practical desire for unity has triumphed over the moral demand for equality. For how long do progressive Christians have to compromise and for how long do gay Christians have to suffer?

Matters in Asia and in particular the Caribbean and Africa are even more challenging. While they juggle the daily threats of economic hardship, AIDS, military conflict, exploitation and the advance of Islamic fundamentalism, often they simply cannot understand what they see as a western obsession with homosexuality. African Christian leaders often speak of resentment of a new western imperialism that is now trying to impose liberal rather than conservative values. On the other hand, western evangelical Christians have spent a lot of time and money trying to influence churches in Africa and the Caribbean. American evangelical television has caused colossal damage with its harsh and sometimes blatantly homophobic message. Western leaders have made numerous visits to the regions to explain how “the gay agenda” functions and the best ways to stop it.

For all their criticism of the gay-obsessed west, many of the countries in question pass ever-more draconian legislation against gay men and women, often with the support of the local Anglican and other Christian churches. While the Canterbury conference reiterated the Primates’ opposition to “homophobic prejudice and violence” and “criminal sanctions against same-sex attracted persons,” the reality is that life for gay people in countries such as Uganda and Jamaica is worse than ever. The orientation is usually seen as disordered — acting on it condemned as sinful and repugnant. There is little hope, at least in this generation of leadership, of acceptance of same-sex attraction within the African and Caribbean Christian purview.

There are, of course, many exceptions, and many younger, highly educated Anglicans who — like their contemporaries in the west — cannot comprehend opposition to full gay equality and will by sheer force of numbers eventually change the direction of the debate and the underlying assumptions.

Whether we’re talking about Canadian, American, British, African, Asian or Caribbean Anglicans, gay-marriage equality will take time. In Canada, the most plausible hope is probably some sort of creative compromise where the canon is amended to allow for a marriage liturgy that would include same-sex couples, based around a theology inspired by Acts 10. This is the passage where the Roman centurion Cornelius is accepted by St. Peter, who says, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” The Kosher laws are no longer required; God’s plan extends to all. Applied to sexuality, God’s love is for all: Jew and gentile, straight and gay.

It’s far from ideal, but the reality is that equal marriage simply won’t be achieved in the short-term. If an amendment satisfies enough people and is purely optional it might, just might, be acceptable to all sides. As such it could enable the Canadian church to avoid the treatment handed to the Americans.

One thing to remember is that the Anglican Church has always moved forward not in unison but with a certain religious limp. It’s simply not built for sprinting. As frustrating as that can sometimes be, it also has some merit. There’s an authentic danger of wanting the church to resemble us, we, me. Yet that doesn’t diminish the pain and anguish of countless gay Anglicans who have been patient for so long and ask not for special privileges but simply to be treated just like anybody else. Their sacrifice, commitment and forgiveness has been an inspiration to other Christians. It’s long overdue that the circle of love was made complete.

Michael Coren is a columnist, broadcaster and author in Toronto.

Author's photo
Michael Coren is an author and journalist in Toronto.
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