The local option, legislative procedure, and pastoral generosity in the Anglican Church of Canada

In early 2016, the House of Bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada held a special meeting to discuss proposed canonical changes that would permit same-sex marriages. At the conclusion of that meeting, they indicated that the changes were not likely to achieve the necessary majority. They also said: “We continue to wonder whether a legislative procedure is the most helpful way of dealing with these matters.” They also spoke of “achieving the greatest pastoral generosity possible.” It’s safe to say that this statement was not universally welcomed. Why pre-judge a vote? Why question a legislative procedure after voting to initiate one in 2013? Responses ranged from “gracious to vitriolic.”

As it turned out, the bishops were wrong. The proposed changes did (narrowly) achieve the necessary majority in 2016. But church procedure mandates that the changes be passed in two consecutive synods. Earlier this month in Vancouver, the changes failed (narrowly) to gain the necessary votes. But Synod also passed a set of affirmations that “acknowledge[d] the ongoing reality that there is a diversity of understandings and teachings about marriage in the Anglican Church of Canada, and we affirm the prayerful integrity with which those understandings and teachings are held.” After the vote was defeated, the House of Bishops released a statement saying that they “are walking together in a way which leaves room for individual dioceses and jurisdictions of our church to proceed with same-sex marriage according to their contexts and convictions”. They  referred to this as the “local option.” It is based on the view that the existing (unamended) marriage canon actually does not forbid same-sex marriage. (This view is disputed within the church.)

It seems safe to say that this chain of events has inflicted maximal pain on the church. The 2016 vote seemed to fail before it was discovered to have passed. The pain of the defeat of the 2019 vote was immense for supporters of same-sex marriage. Many people who hold a “traditional” teaching of marriage are left wondering why so much energy was expended on trying to change the canon if the view is now simply that a “local option” can prevail. Many people who support revising the church’s teaching fail to understand how a vote can have the support of a vast majority of delegates but be defeated by a few votes in the House of Bishops.

Nonetheless, somewhat by accident and not without an immense deal of pain, it seems that the bishops have got their 2016 wish:  they have found a non-legislative approach to the question of same-sex marriage. It is essentially this: dioceses can choose to do what they wish on the matter.

But the “local option” (unlike the proposed changes to the marriage canon) has a crucial unclarity. If dioceses get to decide, who in the diocese makes the decision? What we have seen, in the two weeks since Synod ended has been a real-time unfolding of the implications of varying views of episcopal ministry. Some bishops (e.g. Huron, Kootenay, Territory of the People, Niagara) have declared on their authority as chief liturgical officer that same-sex marriage will be permitted in their dioceses as of August 1. In some cases, this is an extension of existing practice and in others it is an innovation. Others (e.g. Algoma, Brandon, Ontario, Central Newfoundland, Eastern Newfoundland) have said that they will not make the decision on their own but will instead wait until it can be discussed at a diocesan synod. Still others (e.g. Caledonia) have said that they interpret the current canon to mean that same-sex marriage cannot be permitted. Others (e.g Yukon) have left it for their successor. Others (the Arctic) have interpreted the “local option” phrase more broadly than simply marriage to assert that the General Synod “has given us permission to decide for ourselves what direction we should take”—without any indicated limitation. Others have been silent (haven’t seen anything from Calgary or Quebec, as yet, for instance).

In reading these letters, it is clear that different bishops have different understandings of their role. Is the decision to permit or forbid same-sex marriage theirs alone? Or is the church “episcopally led and synodically governed,” a phrase invoked by the Bishop of Ontario? Is the decision to allow same-sex marriage primarily a liturgical one or is it doctrinal and canonical as well? How quickly should a bishop write to his or her people? During Synod? Only after it has concluded? After a time for reflection? Should pastoral letters be addressed and read first by members of the diocese or posted online for all the world to see simultaneously? The Archbishop of Algoma, for instance, was careful to ensure that her letter went first to priests and congregations to be read in churches on Sunday and was posted online only the Monday after. The technical capacities of different dioceses are on display as well. Are letters posted to Facebook, on the diocesan website, or sent around via MailChimp? Or should it be a video communication, as in Toronto?

One essay question I often set for my students is this: in the Anglican tradition, what are bishops good for? The question is meant to get them to reflect on the varying understandings of episcopal ministry that are evident throughout the history of Anglicanism. The aftermath of General Synod shows us why thinking about a question like this matters. The varying understandings of episcopal ministry are creating a patchwork of wedding practices across the church.

They are also leaving unanswered a number of questions about same-sex marriage. Normally, a priest does not need the permission of a bishop to marry a qualified couple. But in recent years some dioceses that have permitted same-sex marriage have required some kind of communication between priest, parish, and bishop before such marriages can be performed or required that the same-sex couple be members of the church (not usually a requirement for heterosexual couples). Some episcopal letters have been quite clear in lifting these restrictions in favour of true equality of marriage. But not all have done so and it will be interesting to see what diocesan synods decide, if given a voice. This leaves unsettled a question that is perhaps the most basic of all: are same-sex marriages a different kind of rite than heterosexual marriages in the church or are they the same? The proposed changes to the marriage canon would have addressed this. The “local option” does not.

The aftermath of Synod has also raised questions about where authority lies. To take a single example, one delegate to General Synod said afterwards, “The Anglican Church of Canada has approved same sex marriage by local option, diocese by diocese.” To my reading, the phrase “local option” appears in no resolution passed by General Synod. It does appear, however, in the statement from the House of Bishops. But it is worth noting that statements from the House of Bishops have no canonical or intrinsic authority in the church. Sure, bishops and their statements can “set the weather” as it were in the church and they have—but this doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. In 2016, their statement wrongly predicted how they would vote on the marriage canon. In 1997, the House of Bishops issued “Human Sexuality: A Statement by the Anglican Bishops of Canada” that called for celibacy for gay people who are to be ordained. That statement had no intrinsic authority—but it slowed the ordination process of many gay people.

At a time of great change and strain on the church, there is a noticeable trend towards greater congregationalism in the church, a kind of we’ll-hunker-down-and-do-the-best-we-can-in-our-parish-and-hope-we-make-it. Bishops have never been the most popular of figures and the annual apportionment paid to diocesan offices has never been entirely welcome. But it seems there is a greater sense of resentment towards church hierarchy: if they can’t help us, then they should get out of the way. I wonder if something similar is happening on a national level as well. The Anglican Church of Canada has always been a somewhat loose affiliation of dioceses (looser than, say, The Episcopal Church or the Church of England; not as loose at the Anglican Church of Australia) due to the country’s size and its ecclesiastical provinces that pre-dated the General Synod. The logic of the marriage canon process and now the “local option” seems to push the church further in this direction. If we don’t like the decision the General Synod comes to, then let’s give ourselves permission to do our own thing. For a church that has long prized the idea of belonging to something bigger than ourselves, ecclesiastically speaking, this loosening is a disappointment. It’s unclear, for example, in this “local option” world how the question of which liturgies to use for same-sex marriages will be addressed. The church has generally believed that liturgy is a unifying aspect of our common life and that they are rightly approved by a supra-diocesan body, as indeed General Synod did in relation to several liturgical matters this month in Vancouver. What are the next steps for marriage, liturgically speaking?

(Speaking of next steps, a couple of years ago the Primates of the Anglican Communion started imposing “sanctions” on churches that permitted same-sex marriage: first the American church and then Scotland. The key step was when those churches made canonical changes. It will be interesting—particularly in the run-up to the next summer’s Lambeth Conference—to see what the Archbishop of Canterbury makes of the Canadian church: no formal canonical change but a “local option.” Perhaps it will finally prove that the “sanctions” model never worked—a point I made when it was first initiated.)

A non-legislative solution may, indeed, be the best one. Certainly, the church has learned how hard pastoral generosity can be in the midst of a fraught legislative process. Pastoral generosity may rightly look different in one diocese than another. But the way in which “local option” has suddenly risen to the fore of the church leaves much to be desired. I have already heard people say that they have no desire for General Synod ever to consider this topic again. For all kinds of reasons, that may be a good idea. But we shouldn’t think that wishing away the issue means that the substantial and interesting questions raised in this process have all been resolved.

Still, it is still early days. Synod is only just over and many people have gone on vacation. Much can still change. But these past weeks have been traumatic for the church—and the impact of that trauma will likely continue to shape Anglicanism in Canada for some time to come.

The Rev. Dr. Jesse Zink is principal of Montreal Diocesan Theological College.


Leave a comment