The WebElf Report

A Matter of Doctrine… +Victoria, Chair of the Primate’s Theological Commission, Addresses the Qu’Appelle Diocese Synod
pp. 8-9, The Saskatchewan Anglican, May 2007

A Matter of Doctrine…

Chair of the Primate’s Theological Commission Addresses the Qu’Appelle Diocese Synod
The Right Reverend Victoria Mathews, Bishop of Edmonton, is chair of the Primate’s Theological Commission. That Commission, having been asked to determine whether the issue of the blessing of same sex unions is a matter of doctrine, arrived at their decision inApril 2005. Bishop Victoria has travelled many miles and spoken to many audiences in an attempt to educate Anglicans about this issue. Because the matter will be debated at the General Synod in Winnipeg this June, and a determination (with respect to due process, at least) will be made, it is important to understand the issues. Her address to the Diocese of Qu’Appelle Synod is therefore reproduced, for the most part, below.


On June 2nd, 2004, General Synod was slated to discuss the blessing of same-sex unions by means of a resolution, which read in part:

        “That this General Synod affirm the authority and jurisdiction of any diocesan synod,

        with the concurrence of its bishop, to authorize the blessing of same sex unions”

This “section 2” was deferred to the 2007 General Synod with an amendment that said that this General Synod “Request that the Primate ask the Primate’s Theological Commission to review, consider and report to the Council of General Synod, by its Spring 2006 meeting, whether the blessing of committed same-sex unions is a matter of doctrine”.

At this point let me explain my own rather strange relationship to the amendment. During the time the General Synod was debating the resolution and the amendment to defer, I was under general anesthetic having a bilateral mastectomy!

When I came to, not absolutely right away but fairly soon after, I asked how General Synod had voted. I was told that it was deferred to the Primate’s Theological Commission. I thought to myself that they meant Faith, Worship and Ministry and went back to sleep. But the next morning I called my secretary Barb White from the hospital and asked the same question. I got the same answer.

I have to tell you I have found it quite amusing that they handed it to the person who absolutely couldn’t refuse at the moment! Of course the request was really to the then Primate-elect (Andrew Hutchison) and I appreciate his willingness to do as he was asked. Later in June he did ask the Primate’s Theological Commission to decide if we thought the matter of the blessing of same-sex committed unions was doctrinal. He also asked that we try to have our answer by the Fall of 2005.

The Primate’s Theological Commission decided that was still too late and we put enormous energy into having the report by the Council of General Synod meeting in May 2005…

The Report was finished in early April 2005 and we sent it for printing. In early May, Lisa Wang and Madeleine Urion joined me at the meeting of the Council of General Synod, meeting in Mississauga. I was surprised that the Council of General Synod had allotted only 20 minutes for the Report.

Consequently we simply read aloud the Brief Overview and of the Report to back up each of those statements. There were few questions. In fact, almost few questions. In fact, almost immediately, questions were addressed to Ron Stephenson, the Chancellor of General Synod, about the implications of our “opinion”. How many General Synods does it take to change doctrine? The Chancellor replied that General Synod did not have a mechanism per se to change doctrine but that we understood some canons, such as the General Synod canon #21, to enshrine doctrine, and it took two Synods to change a canon substantially. Indeed it requires a 2/3 majority in each house, each time.

Do you see what happened at Council of General Synod? There was very little interest in really engaging the Report. There was much more energy for figuring out if the Report was a barrier to, or an aid for, the passing of a resolution about the blessing of committed same-sex unions. Such is the anxiety in our denomination!

However today we are not here to debate how “canonical” [text missing] ….

[ text resumes] …. of the Eucharist. And we still get along because our church is able to embrace both.

In terms of the sacrament of baptism we live with a BCP that requires parents and godparents questions are variously handled by General Synod. I am here to invite you to engage theologically with the large question of how you understand doctrine as an Anglican and secondly, where you perceive the question of the blessing of committed same-sex unions to lie, vis-à-vis other doctrines of the Church..

Just how big an issue is the blessing of committed same-sex unions? It seems huge because it has rocked our Communion so hard. But I invite you to think about the theological differences (about some really, really important issues) we live with day in and day out.

To give a couple of examples: the sentence in the BCP for the administration of bread at the Eucharist is “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life: Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving”.

That sentence has two parts: the first half boldly declares the sacrament as “the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ”. The second half speaks of reception “in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving”. In that one sentence we have side by side two different understandings of the Eucharist.

We live as Anglicans with people and clergy who hold quite different theologies of the Eucharist. And we still get along because our church is able to embrace both. In terms of the sacrament of baptism we live with a BCP that requires parents and godparents to take responsibility for their children’s confirmation when they reach a certain age; but in the BAS we have a view of baptism that clearly says that it is a complete and final sacrament of initiation. Confirmation in the BAS is a renewal of baptismal vows, and has prayers for the strengthening and defending power of the Holy Spirit, rather than the giving of the Spirit as presented in the BCP. The BCP assumes confirmation is normative prior to the reception of holy communion, the BAS says all who are baptized may receive.

The list goes on. We already live with differences, but they are differences that we don’t trip over.

So when I hear that the Primate’s Theological Commission should never have said that the blessing of committed same-sex unions should not be a communion breaking issue, I ask you to consider what it is that is truly upsetting people.

Is it that third world Primates are suggesting that North American Anglicans aren’t faithful Christians and are threatening to close ranks? I find that pretty upsetting.

Is it the realization that the absence of a central teaching authority for the Anglican Church sometimes leaves us feeling like a ship without an anchor? I find that pretty upsetting.

Is it that we realize that faithful, praying, Bible-reading, church-going Anglicans can do everything they can think of to convince other Anglicans of their point of view on this (Anglicans who also pray, read Scripture and go to church) and we are still divided? What does that say about the diverse ways in which we read Scripture and hear God speak?

Or, does it mean that we are engaged in a power struggle with neither side swayed by the actions and statements of the other?

What we do know is that there is a sense of urgency to this discussion. Many on both sides of the question believe, in good conscience, that the Holy Spirit is calling the church to take a stand on this. (Mind you they don’t agree on what the stand should be). Thus the Commission is agreed that this matter must be addressed as a matter of doctrine, i.e. it involves the vital teachings of the Gospel. Not the doctrines that declare who God is and what God, the Holy Trinity, does, but nevertheless the teaching of the church about the life of Christian discipleship.

We know that there are those who claim that the question of the blessing of committed samesex unions is of the “highest importance”, because there are those who believe same gender relations involving sexual activity is such a serious sin that it puts “the salvation of people in such relationships in jeopardy” (paragraph 23). That is a pretty harsh reading of Scripture (1 Corinthians 6.9) and it is interesting that we do not hear the other sins listed in that verse being held up as being “salvation breakers” for those who commit them without repentance.

One of the sins in that list is greed. Some would say Anglicans could almost claim a monopoly on the sin of greed. But we don’t fret! And what about drunkenness? Again we don’t get as upset as we do over sex. On the other hand, there are other Anglicans who “argue that we fail the Gospel mandate when we uphold social taboos and systems that serve to keep people who seek such from fellowship with God (Romans 3.21-25; 2 Corinthians 5.16-21)”.

In light of this great divide in our interpretation of Scripture, the Primate’s Theological Commission believes there is an urgent need for a dialogue where participants agree to pay full and careful attention to Scripture and especially to the authority of the whole witness and its claim upon the Church.

One of the very important arguments of the St. Michael Report is found beginning with paragraph 13. It addresses the development of doctrine. “The history of Christian theology demonstrates that over time doctrines have developed and changed. Some such developments are viewed as true and some as false”.

How can this be? Well, let me give an example: In the early centuries of Christianity, baptism was the sacrament of spiritual birth into the Body of Christ and the way one’s sins were forgiven through the death and resurrection of Christ. What that meant was if you were baptized and then committed what was understood to be a very serious sin, such as offering a sacrifice to pagan gods in order to save your life, thereby denying Christ, there was no recourse to further forgiveness. Over time it was realized that the Cross of Christ and baptism in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit open up the possibility of forgiveness time and again for those truly repentant. So the doctrine of reconciliation (the forgiveness of sins) was developed and embraced as “Gospel”.

Another and perhaps the most important example is usury – the loaning of money for personal gain, i.e. charging interest. In the Middle Ages this was a hard and fast rule, i.e. Christians were not allowed to do it. But now we know Christians loan money for interest both as the church (the Anglican Foundation for building projects) and as members of secular society (e.g. bankers).

My last example is the Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments and a key piece of the Law. Think how Jesus was criticized for healing people on the Sabbath. And remember it is Jesus in the Gospel who says “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath”. Growing up I remember lots of peers who were not allowed to go to movies on Sunday. Not so today.

Has Scripture changed? No. Has society changed? Yes. Has how we read scripture changed? Yes. Are we sure we now have it “right”? Not at all, but we keep going.

If there is one conviction I hope you will carry away with you at the end of today, it is that there are faithful, believing, praying Bible reading Anglicans on all sides of the present debate. Not every person who says no to the blessing of committed same-sex unions is a fundamentalist. Nor is everyone who holds this conviction over the age of 50. Nor are they homophobic.

On the other side, not every one who is “in favour” of or open to the blessing of committed same-sex unions, is irresponsible about reading and studying Scripture. I know people who radically disagree about this issue who are, without exception, some of the finest Christians imaginable. So please let’s not demonize or characterize the other side as ‘simply wrong’.

Culture: The role of culture is an important consideration when we struggle with this issue. It is important because from the early days of Christianity, it was understood that preaching the Gospel demands that the preacher understand the local culture. And because you need to stand alongside and preferably inside the culture if you are going to evangelize for the sake of the Gospel, the expression of the Gospel has always been influenced by local culture. Let’s talk about “Christian” marriage for a moment.

Think how many different models of marriage we have in Scripture and Christian history. Models which we do not require or even recommend in our culture.

1. In Scripture and various cultures today there are numerous instances of polygamy.

2. There is the instance of Abraham asking Sarah his wife, to pretend she is his sister so he isn’t killed by local tribesmen (Genesis 20).

3. We have Mary, mother of our Lord, who is in her early teens and betrothed to Joseph but not married. When it is discovered she is pregnant she is in danger of being stoned.

4. In numerous cultures marriage is a contract involving the exchange of property. One important piece of property is the woman.

5. Our own church has changed from believing that marriage is to help people avoid the sin of fornication and for the sake of having children, to an understanding in the BAS that children are a probable but not necessary outcome, and that marriage is largely about the couple’s “mutual comfort and help, that they may know each other with delight and tenderness in acts of love” . . . . caring for each other in good times and in bad”. That reflects huge changes of perception…

So in conclusion, why does this issue of the blessing of committed same-sex unions matter so much? It matters because it addresses who we are as the children of God, in relation with one another and with God, and helps us determine how we are meant to live by the two great commandments “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself”. Getting that right is truly important.

The Marriage Canon of General Synod states that marriage is a doctrine of our church. It has to do with the teaching of the Gospel. It isn’t the heart of the Gospel – on that I hope we can all agree – but there is in the Gospel a lot of teaching about marriage and the marital relationships.

For its day it is extremely progressive. When we were asked, as the Primate’s Theological Commission, to determine whether we thought the blessing of committed same-sex unions was doctrinal (a matter of doctrine), we said yes! And I will conclude with briefly listing some of our reasons:

1. We believe it is a matter of doctrine because what is proposed in the blessing of a same-sex union is analogous to marriage. (Sometimes called the duck test: if it walks like a duck, looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then?) i.e. two people profess their love for each other, make a commitment to the exclusion of all others, promise life long fidelity; exchange vows and ask a blessing. Sounds like marriage . . . . and marriage is a doctrine.

2. We believe it is a matter of doctrine because the doctrine of creation claims that the creation of man and woman is the pinnacle of creation (Genesis 1.31; 2.18,19). The two genders seem made for one another and are necessary for the procreation of children… The fact we are created by God, redeemed by Christ and invited into lives of holiness through the power of the Spirit means we have a share n the divine life, i.e. God’s very self (2 Peter 1.4).

Is there something; anything, about recognizing same-sex unions and blessing them that is inherently wrong because it necessarily moves away from the gender complementarity of male and female?
Does the extraordinary grace of participating in the divine life come to an abrupt halt if the genders are the same and not different? Is the grace or gift of participating in the divine life open to Christian heterosexual couples and single people but not same-sex couples?

3. By determining that the matter of the blessing of same-sex unions is doctrinal, the Primate’s Theological Commission is not denying that it is also a huge concern pastorally. Nor do we think we can separate doctrine from pastoral concern. In whatever direction our church proceeds, we need to find ways to be doctrinally vigilant and pastorally present. It is essential to who we are in Christ, i.e. forgiven sinners each and every one of us, that we proceed in ways that are deeply respectful of the dignity and integrity of the gay and lesbian members of our church (and those who are not members of the church).

– END –

26-04-2007 — Copied via Adobe Acrobat by CaNN News Editor, corrected for spelling, spacing, paragraphs.


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