Canadian Anglicans and Same-Sex Marriage: Why Can’t They Agree?

The Anglican Church of Canada, historically one of the two major Protestant Christian denominations in this country, last week came within a very few votes of accepting nationally the full validity of same-sex marriage (SSM). According to their tradition, the Anglican representatives voted in three bodies: laypeople, clergy, and bishops, with a two-thirds majority required in all three groups required to change such a basic tenet. The majority requirement was met in the first two houses, but it failed by several votes in the third.

Thus, following a decision made in 2016, localities can continue to choose to bless same-sex marriages, but the national church as such continues to demur.

On an issue as basic as marriage, however, one has to wonder: What’s going on? Why haven’t decades of study and conversation and controversy—extending even to the secular courts of the country—settled this matter firmly in the minds of people who, one might assume, read the same Scriptures, believe the same basic doctrines, and desire the same goods?

Here are some suggestions as to why this process has been so long, so difficult, and so unlikely to resolve anytime soon into a happy consensus.

• Because the issue is binary. Ironically enough, with all the talk of gender fluidity, multiple sexualities, and the like, the fundamental issue is stark: Either heterosexual marriage is the one and only norm, or it isn’t. Either there is something importantly wrong with same-sex attraction or it’s perfectly all right.

There is no middle ground for those who seek unity through compromise. So the struggle grinds on, with progress coming only as each individual involved undergoes a significant alteration of view.

• Because the issue is important. There are lots of other issues for the Anglican Church of Canada to deal with, of course, and it deals with many. But this issue matters and in several respects. It matters because of the mistreatment of people of different sexualities and gender identities that has gone on under the influence of Christianity in Canada— mistreatment that is acknowledged and regretted on both sides of the controversy.

It matters because Canadian society has undergone a rapid conversion, in just one generation, from finding alternative sexualities repellent to embracing sexual diversity as an expression of human freedom. Institutions and individuals who do not embrace that diversity are increasingly seen as mere bigots, and the Anglican Church of Canada understandably doesn’t want to be viewed that way by the country it desires to serve.

And it matters because so much of the Christian Scripture emphasizes the importance of marriage—as the fundamental institution of human society and as the paradigm of God’s relationship to Israel and Jesus Christ’s relationship to the Church. To support a quite different view of marriage means to support a significant re-thinking of much of the Bible’s revelation of God and God’s will for the world, a re-thinking that is squarely at odds with much of Anglicanism’s tradition.

• Because the theological arguments often talk past each other. Unlike the arguments on behalf of the ordination of women the best of which rely in large part on careful reinterpretation of key New Testament texts and new paradigms for integrating all of the Bible’s material on gender, the arguments for SSM have produced little in the way of significant new findings to justify alternative theological interpretations.

John Boswell’s work of several decades ago tried to redefine key terms in the New Testament to argue that consensual adult same-sex relationships were never actually forbidden: just exploitative ones. But his work was quickly debunked, and no new information of that order has emerged.

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