[Anglican Journal] As Council of General Synod (CoGS) members gathered March 10 for their last meeting of the triennium, the question of how they will prepare the 2016 General Synod for its upcoming vote on same-sex marriage hung heavily over the proceedings.
CoGS was charged by General Synod 2013 to bring a motion to the 2016 General Synod meeting July 7-12, asking for a change to the marriage canon (church law) to allow for same-sex marriage.
However, a week before its meeting, CoGS was informed by the House of Bishops it is “not likely” that the motion to allow same-sex marriage will pass with the required two-thirds majority in the Order of Bishops.
Speaking before CoGS members, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada and chair of CoGS, acknowledged that reactions to the bishops’ statement have ranged from “gracious to vitriolic.”
But Hiltz assured them that the bishops’ decision to disclose their position on the issue “was not designed to be some kind of an attempt to derail the process of General Synod, or to scuttle the possibility of [the same-sex marriage motion] being considered at General Synod.”
Rather, Hiltz said the bishops “felt really obliged to advise the church. That is how it has come to [CoGS].”
Some bishops who are also members of CoGS spoke candidly about the deep divisions within the House over the question of same-sex marriage, and shared their anxieties over whether or not the church can come through the vote intact.
“We’ve been doing this for three years now, looking at marriage and theology and the issues that are coming through, and we’ve been trying to be honest with each other. There were people saying, ‘Well, you know, unity at all cost.’ And there were others saying, ‘No, it wasn’t necessarily unity at all cost,’ ” said Bishop Larry Robertson, of the diocese of Yukon. He added that he personally hopes the church will be able to find a “third way.”
Bishop John Chapman, of the diocese of Ottawa, expressed frustration over what he said was an attempt on the part of some bishops to “blackmail” other bishops into choosing between the unity of the church and the dictates of their consciences.
“A couple [of bishops] made it pretty clear that if this motion were to pass, they would seriously question their membership in the Anglican Church of Canada,” said Chapman, who told CoGS he was voting in favour of the resolution. “I didn’t hear anybody say, ‘If this doesn’t pass, our membership is questionable.’”
Three of the church’s Indigenous bishops — National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh Bishop Lydia Mamakwa and Missinipi Bishop Adam Halkett—spoke of their ongoing concern about whether or not Indigenous voices are being heard in a debate that they see emanating from Western cultural assumptions that they do not necessarily share.
“I think that you have to understand with some compassion that we don’t debate the way the larger society debates—we don’t undertake questions in the way the larger society undertakes questions,” said MacDonald. He noted Indigenous Anglicans are often put in the position of adapting to Western ways of thinking, and when it comes to questions of same-sex marriage, “it is brought to us as if we are the ones who are not tolerating diversity.”
Archbishop Percy Coffin, metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Canada and bishop of Western Newfoundland, said he was aware that the bishops’ statement drew strong negative reactions, which he described as unfair. “We are an integral part of the church. We’re elected after all,” he said, adding that their role requires them to have a “strong relationship” with members of their diocese and with their fellow bishops.
Meanwhile, CoGS also heard from a working group that was established by CoGS to explore how the motion might be brought forward in a way that would minimize pain and distrust between delegates who have differing opinions on the issue.
The working group was going to suggest dividing General Synod members into “neighbourhood groups,” which would consider a series of questions, but its chair, the Rev. Karen Egan (ecclesiastical province of Canada), acknowledged that the bishops’ statement had changed the nature of the conversation.
“What our intentions were may have to change because of the things that we know now about the motion,” Egan said. “We have to take quite seriously the communication from the House of Bishops. And so we have allowed ourselves in this meeting at least a couple of sessions in which we can talk to each other and in which we can come up with new ideas…”
Some questions the working group originally considered included, “What does marriage mean to you? Has your understanding of marriage changed in your lifetime? What is your greatest hope/fear about this resolution? Does the proposed conscience clause create sufficient space for you?”
Egan suggested that CoGS members consider whether or not to append any comments or recommendations to the motion, and explore ways that discussions leading up to and following the marriage canon vote could be structured to emphasize the church’s unity.
Canon (lay) David Jones, General Synod chancellor, said that while CoGS has the power to change the draft resolution brought forward by the commission on the marriage canon in its final report, given time limitations, it would be difficult to draft a substantially different resolution that would still meet the legal requirements laid out for it in the original resolution (C003) from General Synod 2013.
“I think that it would be unwise for us to think that in a day or two we could craft a differently-worded motion that meets all the requirements of C003,” Jones said. CoGS later voted to continue their discussion about the marriage canon in an
CoGS later voted to continue their discussion about the marriage canon in an in camera session. Discussions were held behind closed doors “to ensure that members could process and work through the House of Bishops communication and to speak freely and without reservation,” said a statement issued later in the afternoon.