This essay concludes a series leading up to the Anglican Church of Canada’s 2019 General Synod. Previous installments may be found here.
This series has been an attempt, from a group of Anglican conservatives, to begin answering the question: Where do we go from here? Our primary aim was not to argue against marriage canon revision, but rather to help fellow conservatives make scriptural sense of the present moment, and develop some strategies for faithful witness within a church that no longer shares some of our theological commitments.
Our essays have received mixed responses, which is to be expected. Some readers engaged substantively and thoughtfully, while others reacted with vitriol or defensiveness. We knew from the outset that the subject matter is deeply personal, even raw, for many. There are, after all, two rival visions of human flourishing underlying all of this, touching upon how we love, suffer, hope, and die, and how we bear and raise children along the way.
Unfortunately, most of the responses have been rooted in a misreading of our essays and a misunderstanding of our purpose. While we are all opposed to same-sex marriage in the church, arguing against it was not our point. We do not have anxieties about LGBTQ people in the church, and in fact we welcome them as children of God and as part of the church. We simply have traditional convictions about the purposes of sex and marriage. We were not mounting arguments, but rather trying to guide fellow conservatives as they navigate the realities on the ground in advance of General Synod. We are still finding our place in the church as a minority voice, and we hope that liberals can help us do so, not as adversaries but as brothers and sisters in Christ.
For everyone, the next steps depend upon the outcome of General Synod. There are three likely possibilities:
- The canon change passes, along with the amendments proposed by the Council of General Synod.
- The canon change passes, but the amendments fail.
- The canon change fails entirely.
Obviously, option 3 is the one for which we hope, not because we wish to discriminate against LGBTQ people. We recognize the pain that many LGBTQ people feel, and we recognize that conservatives have not always heard that pain well. Indeed, some have added to that pain. We can and must do better, regardless of General Synod’s outcome.
Nevertheless, we find ourselves bound by the teaching of Scripture, and do not believe that violating that teaching can be the way forward for God’s people, even as we strive to do better by our LGBTQ siblings in Christ.
Even if the canon change does fail there will likely be more bishops who will authorize same-sex marriage on the basis of Chancellor David Jones’s prior judgment (on which see Ajit John’s essay). We will continue to be a church divided on these matters, with strained relationships all around. The canon change failing will not be a cause for celebration; far from it.
Option 1 is the most complicated of the lot. In theory it provides official recognition of the legitimacy of the traditional view of marriage, but does so at the cost of enshrining theological pluralism in the church. Additionally, the amendment muddies the waters in several ways:
- It defines marriage idiosyncratically, claiming that “All Anglicans accept that marriage is a sign of God’s redeeming purpose to unite all things in Christ.” Since when have “all Anglicans” described marriage in these terms?
- It gives permission “to hold and exercise either view provided they recognize and respect that others may with integrity hold a different view.” Conservatives and liberals alike might ask what it means to recognize and respect the integrity of a deeply flawed view of marriage, or why a canon should tell people not only what to think but also what attitudes to have toward the opinions of others.
- It recognizes that indigenous people have “particular understandings” about marriage that must be recognized in the church. Fair enough, but does that mean cultural understandings trump scriptural teaching? And is it only indigenous cultures that enjoy such deference, or are other cultures favored as well? I have ministered among indigenous Anglicans for the last decade, and those who hold to traditional views of marriage consistently tell me that they do so because the Scriptures teach it, not simply because their culture does. Furthermore, this could lead to a bracketing of indigenous perspectives on marriage, which would mean these perspectives are acknowledged but, for all intents and purposes, ignored.
Option 2 is the least welcome possibility for conservatives, because it would mean that the official teaching of the Anglican Church of Canada has decisively changed, putting us out of step with the majority of the world’s Anglicans and Christians. It is the least inclusive possibility, effectively limiting which theological opinions are welcome and which are not. Contrary to popular perception, changing the canon does not extend the meaning of marriage; it changes it entirely, turning it into an erotic arrangement between consenting adults which has nothing intrinsically to do with procreation or children.
Many already assume this revised understanding of sex and marriage. The persistence of abortion, divorce, and extra-marital sex has created a context in which hardly anyone can articulate a purpose for sex and marriage beyond personal fulfilment. Although LGBTQ people have long been the scapegoat for “redefining marriage,” our cultural confusion is not the fault of one group. The fault lies with us all. If we cannot teach our children what is distinctive about Christian belief and ethics then we may as well find a cause other than Christianity to which to devote our lives.
But we are people of hope. We cannot give in to despair. Our God has entered the world in Christ, died for our sins and risen from the dead. He has sent the Holy Spirit to live among us and lead us. The Scriptures assure us of God’s final victory over sin, death, and the devil. There are setbacks, yes, but no failure is ultimate. It cannot be, because our God is indeed Lord over all.
So, where do we go from here? I have several directives that I think all Christian people can and should take to heart. What follows, like what’s come before, is written from a conservative perspective, but much of it may apply equally to liberals. All of us face a situation where things may not turn out the way we hope they will. And regardless of the outcome, our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ bids us to the following perspectives, demeanors, and behaviors.
First, then, we must keep an eternal perspective. If this doesn’t go our way, then it is not the first time the church has erred, and it will likely not be the last. Truth is not determined by counting votes; it is determined by the Word of God, which has spoken decisively on marriage, even if a portion of the world’s wealthiest people have grown deaf to it. Fix your eyes on Jesus, not on General Synod. That’s the first thing.
Second, pray for the leaders of the church. Tell them you’re praying for them, and make your voice heard. If they move ahead with same-sex marriage in the church, then express your disagreement to them, citing your reasons for doing so. Be respectful, but firm. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions, like: if same-sex marriage is God’s will for the church, then why have so few Christians embraced it? If the teaching of Scripture is so ambiguous, then why has the church taught male-female marriage exclusively throughout history? Talk to your priest or bishop in person, if possible. As much as possible avoid arguing on the internet.
Third, make your family a priority. The strongest witness for the traditional view of marriage is healthy families. The family is the place where faith flourishes or flounders. Churches are healthiest when families are healthy. This does not downplay the importance of adoption, but adoption is most often a gracious provision following a biological family’s dissolution. So, teach your children who God is and how to live in accord with God’s will. “Indoctrinate” them in the Christian faith. If you don’t, someone else will indoctrinate them and decades later you will be left wondering why your children have no interest in following Jesus.
Finally, stay put for now. Don’t do anything immediately. Let the dust settle. The truth is that no one – not conservatives, not liberals – know what this will look like in the next year, or five, or ten. We are navigating a period of division and decline. In the mean time we should choose to be patient, recognizing that there is nowhere to go where we can escape the cultural forces that have brought us here. God is judging the church, which is another way of saying God loves the church; pruning away is what God’s love looks like in our present situation. But remember Gamaliel’s wise principle: “…if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them…” (Acts 5:38-9). All of our petty preoccupations will ultimately be swept away on the Day of the Lord, and only that which is true will last. Until then, be faithful only to him who will judge the living and dead.
The Rt. Rev. Joseph (Joey) Royal is a suffragan bishop in the Diocese of the Arctic.