Canadian Anglicans make theological case for marrying same-sex couples

By Savi Hensman
September 23, 2015

There is a strong theological case for the marriage of same-sex couples, according to a new report.

This Holy Estate, prepared by a commission of the Anglican Church of Canada, opens the door to a decision by next year’s synod to celebrate such marriages. It is also a thoughtful contribution to an often heated debate.

Across the world, Christians from many denominations have been arguing about attitudes to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and same-sex partnerships.

In the international family of churches which makes up the Anglican Communion, tensions over this issue reflect deeper divisions. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, recently suggested that there should be more space for disagreement, as he called a meeting of primates (the most senior bishops in each member church) for January 2016.

In the early-mid twentieth century, mainstream Anglicanism tried to steer a middle way. It sought to avoid taking biblical quotes, out of context, as timeless truths on the one hand and being swept away by modernity and cultural trends on the other hand. This drew on the approach of earlier thinkers such Richard Hooker in the sixteenth century.

At international gatherings, churches were urged to learn from the insights of scholars on the Bible, and from scientific advances, while holding to core truths and being willing to challenge current trends.

Views on contraception, women’s roles and racial equality shifted. In addition, there was more emphasis on defending human rights and protecting the poor and marginalised, in line with Gospel values. But on key doctrinal matters such as belief in the Holy Trinity, most Anglicans remained conservative.

By 1940, theologians were beginning to examine a sexual ethic that embraced loving same-sex partnerships, though at the time there was widespread social disapproval of such relationships. Gradually, attitudes changed and it became possible to revisit Scripture and tradition without being hindered by mediaeval and later assumptions about what was ‘normal’, ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’.

In line with this, from 1978, the ten-yearly global Lambeth Conference of bishops called for study of sexuality and dialogue with gays and lesbians. But there was a backlash from some church leaders and members against such openness and even the acceptance of basic human rights. They rebelled against the very notion of such discussion and insisted that their own views represented God’s will.

Meanwhile some churches had begun to discuss the issue, including in Canada. In these, it became increasingly difficult to insist on enforcing anti-LGBT discrimination when growing numbers of members felt this was contrary to Christ’s teaching of love for all.

At the same time, there had been a trend towards greater centralisation (though some who favoured this also believed that they themselves should be free to reject any decisions which did not suit them). Divisions intensified.

Against this background, Justin Welby decided not to hold a Lambeth Conference in 2018 and to try to find a way forward that made space for difference, at least to a limited extent.

Some commentators believe his latest announcement marks the end of the Anglican Communion, others a more realistic way of co-existing. Leaders of the Gafcon (Global Anglican Future Conference) grouping – who want to rule out any move towards greater LGBT inclusion – have responded by again emphasising their belief in their own holiness and unquestionable correctness.

Against this background, the Canadian commission re-examining the church’s stance on marriage has taken an approach grounded in historical Anglicanism. It follows extensive consultation and seeks to navigate a middle way (via media) between extremes.

It emphasises the value of the Bible, but not as a set of rules imposed from on high: there is a “movement from hearing to internalising (‘inwardly digesting’) Scripture that marks the church as a community continually shaped by God’s revelation”. Both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament teachings are considered at some length.

The report also takes church tradition on marriage very seriously. Some readers, myself included, might question its suggestion that the marriage of same-sex couples is theologically similar to that of opposite-sex couples in some key ways but different in others. However, it deserves careful consideration, like the rest of this very thorough document.

The recommendations of This Holy Estate make it clear that those who do not agree with its conclusions should continue to have a valued place in the church. If anything, it goes too far in its attempts to be generous by proposing that diocesan bishops and synods should be able to exercise a local veto. The decision on whether to open up marriage to all couples is better left to parish clergy and congregations.

Overall however, it is a valuable contribution to a discussion about how the church today can better witness to God’s love.

*This Holy Estate: The Report of the Commission on the Marriage Canon of the Anglican Church of Canada is available on http://www.anglican.ca/wp-content/uploads/Marriage_Canon_REPORT_15Sept22...

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator of politics, religion, welfare and allied topics. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector.

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