On Friday the General Synod considered second reading of a motion to amend Canon XXI, on Marriage in the Church. The rules for amending canons having to do with doctrine, discipline or worship (including Canon XXI) require that any amendment be adopted by a 2/3 majority in each of the three Orders (laity, clergy and bishops) at two successive sessions of the General Synod. The proposed amendment was adopted by the requisite majorities in 2016, and came back for second reading in 2019. This time it was defeated in the Order of Bishops.
There was much weeping and gnashing of teeth.
But what happened and what didn't happen?
This process started in 2013 with a motion requesting that amendments be brought to the 2016 General Synod to permit solemnization of marriage for same-sex couples. The underlying assumption was that, since we weren’t doing same-sex weddings at the time (at least not openly) then there must be something in the canon that prevented such weddings and those who brought forward the 2013 resolution wanted that changed. But the assumption was wrong.
As I noted in a previous post, I realized in 2005 that the Canon does not define marriage or prohibit same-sex marriage. No canon in the Anglican Church of Canada ever has. So what would the defeated motion have accomplished if not to give permission to solemnize same-sex marriages?
The resolution would have done three things:
- it would have declared that the canon applies to same-sex marriage as well as opposite-sex marriage;
- it would have replaced a couple of incidental gendered references to the couple with gender-neutral language;
- it would have added a provision prohibiting solemnizing a marriage between a same-sex couple except where the bishop grants permission.
So what does the (narrow) defeat of this resolution mean?
It’s important to understand that defeating a motion is not the same as passing its opposite. So when we did not declare that the canon applies to same-sex marriages, it does not mean that we declared that the canon does not apply to same-sex marriages. Synod said no such thing.
It’s true that we didn’t change the couple of gendered references to the couple into gender-neutral references, but the vast majority of references are, and always have been, gender-neutral, using phrases such as “the parties to the marriage” and the word “persons”. And the gendered references do not imply any restrictions or a definition of marriage. They are completely incidental.
And, crucially, we did not add a prohibition on same-sex marriage. No such prohibition exists, and it has not been added.
Read that again: there never has been a prohibition on same-sex marriage in our canon and the Synod in defeating the resolution failed to introduce such a prohibition (and an exception where the bishop gives permission.)
Many thought that by defeating the motion they were defeating a mechanism to give permission for something was previously banned. In fact, they failed to introduce a mechanism to ban something that was not previously prohibited.
The three quarters who voted for this resolution were surely voting for equal marriage. Yes, three quarters of the members of General Synod were saying they support equal marriage. They were prepared to accept a local option to prohibit equal marriage in some dioceses to send the message to LGBTQ+ persons that they can marry in church if they so desire. That was the deal: say yes officially to equal marriage overall, in return for individual bishops having the authority to opt out in their own dioceses. By not adopting the motion due to the vagaries of our procedure, we have also not adopted that ability to say “no” locally.