This is the first of a series of essays examining same-sex marriage in advance of General Synod 2019 in July, where delegates will consider on second reading a resolution making changes to the marriage canon.
It is clear the Anglican Church of Canada has changed in fundamental ways. Our church has increasingly embraced the most progressive elements of Canadian culture: a combination of identity politics, gender fluidity, social egalitarianism and multiculturalism. Not all bad, to be sure, but also not identical with the Christian gospel, though it is often mistaken as such.
What is surprising is not that the church has been impacted by culture, but how quickly traditional beliefs have been swept away and replaced by revisionist alternatives. This has resulted in deep fissures and enduring division in the church. The momentum seems to be on side of revisionists, as evidenced by the widespread embrace of same-sex marriage in the church. That particular issue is the big one on the agenda this summer, when we will vote on the second reading to change the marriage canon. I cannot help but see this entire process as a misguided attempt to overturn the consensus of Christendom. If tradition is, in Chesterton’s words, “the democracy of the dead,” then our ignoring the voices of our departed elders in the faith represents a failure to take seriously God’s Word given in scripture and mediated in history.
Meanwhile, several dioceses have already forged ahead with same-sex marriage regardless of canon change, emboldened by General Synod Chancellor David Jones’s claim that since the current canon doesn’t explicitly forbid same-sex marriage then it essentially allows for it. The legal principle that “everything which is not forbidden is allowed” is useful for protecting personal freedoms in democratic states, but less useful for interpreting ecclesial laws founded on theological principles that lay claim on the entire life of the Christian person. The Chancellor’s judgment has been widely accepted by liberals, and thus far not seriously challenged by conservatives. It ought to be.
This moment in the life of our church is no mere provincial squabble; it is a full-blown crisis, and one which will impact not only the Canadian church but also the worldwide Communion. Most worrisome is how we got here. The “debate” which led us to this vote was hardly a debate at all, but rather a question-begging theological study, followed by a series of unilateral episcopal decisions buttressed by pastoral pronouncements given in the narcotizing language of diversity, inclusivity, and social justice. Much of what these terms represent is good, but still not identical with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.
While the presenting issue in our day is same-sex marriage, it is not the only issue, nor is it the fundamental one. Same-sex marriage, like other distortions of Christian teaching, arises from a rejection of biblical authority. Of course, revisionists would not describe it that way and, to be fair, their rejection is not a wholesale rejection of the entire Bible. It is rather an incremental, partial rejection – choosing this bit over that bit, bending the meaning of this verse, pitting one tradition against another, reinterpreting a passage here and there. Over time these hermeneutical acrobatics have had the effect of destabilizing any authoritative use of the Bible. As a result, sermons begin to sound like Globe and Mail op-eds and pastoral care identifies self-expression as the pinnacle of sanctification.
When fellow Christians visit the Diocese of the Arctic for the first time, I often tell them that we in the north “speak Bible.” When we talk about of our Christian faith, or seek to understand God’s will, we look to Scripture to discipline our speech and give coherency to our ideas. Of course, for this approach to make any sense at all, we have to assume that the Bible is God’s Word written, that it is fundamentally different from other books, that the Holy Spirit uses it to “read us” and bring to us words of judgment and truth, and that Jesus Christ is the center on which all things converge. Such a theologically thick account of revelation sits uneasily with contemporary efforts to accommodate Scripture to culturally-defined norms of belief and behavior.
The following series is an attempt to return us to the scriptural source of our faith. The theological vision undergirding these essays is conservative in the sense of trying to conserve the scriptural moorings of Canadian Anglicanism, lest it continue to float aimlessly on the seas of cultural change. We also intend the vision put forth in these essays to be hopeful, not because we have naïve optimism about the short-term success of the church, but because we are confident that the church belongs to God.
We do not assume any grand ecclesiological theory but do affirm what Ephraim Radner calls a “figural ecclesiology.” We discern the Church’s purpose and destiny by attending closely to the Old Testament depiction of Israel, and particularly the way the words, themes, stories and characters of Scripture reveal the person of Christ and – by extension – his body, the Church. We want the church to learn once again how to “speak Bible,” and in doing so to recover a vision of the church that is more catholic, more sacramental, more biblical, and more committed to the difficult but liberating process of growing into Christlikeness.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he admonishes Christ’s followers to remain “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (4:3). The unity of the church is God’s accomplishment and not ours. Our call is not to create unity but to preserve the unity that God has created. God has bound us together, which requires a commitment in ecclesial decision-making to ask the crucial question: “will this decision help the unity of the church or harm it?” In the case of voting to allow same-sex marriage, the answer is clearly the latter, a fact that is occasionally acknowledged but seldom seriously reflected upon.
Each piece in the series approaches our cultural and ecclesial crisis from a different angle, with the goal of shining rays of scriptural light into the dark corners of ecclesial deliberations. We hope that what follows will help bolster the confidence of fellow conservatives and maybe even change a few minds in the process. Here is a brief rundown of the contributions:
- Jeff Boldt will offer guidance on how to survive spiritually in a church where theological pluralism is the norm, and where there are competing definitions of the gospel.
- Dane Neufeld will reflect on the implications for inter-ecclesial relationships, both at home (with Indigenous Anglicans) and abroad (within the larger Communion).
- Jonathan Turtle will urge repentance in the face of church division, but will also attempt to make scriptural sense out of this cultural moment.
- Cole Hartin will give practical advice on how to continue faithfully in a diocese where bishops make decisions that hinder the proclamation of the Gospel.
- David Ney will focus on upholding the authority of all of Scripture, showing how marriage-canon revision fails to do so and what the implications are.
- Peter Robinson will offer a vision of ministry centered on Christ and his cross, one which is humble, bold, charitable and clear.
Finally, we’re all pastors. Every one of us is ordained; we have committed our lives to the care of souls. We recognize that these essays touch on deeply personal matters. We also recognize that what we are urging – voting against a change to the marriage canon – will be hurtful to some. I don’t know how to avoid that, but I do hope we are not unnecessarily hurtful, and that any wounds we inflict will be seen as “the wounds of a friend” (Prov 27:6). We too see ourselves as under God’s judgment, caught up in the same spiritual and cultural forces, and subject to the same chastening as the rest of God’s beloved children (Heb. 12:6).
Our unity is being sorely tested, and I fear the worst is yet to come, but the church is God’s and he will make of it what he wills. Our call in the meantime is to be faithful, and to navigate the conflicts and confusions of our time with clarity, charity, and fearlessness.
The Rt. Rev. Joseph (Joey) Royal is a suffragan bishop in the Diocese of the Arctic.