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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Instead, traditionalists argue the traditional way while progressives generally adopt a liberal theological approach based on a combination of experience (hence the constant reference to people’s “stories” in this dialogue), social science (hence the celebration of the dropping of “homosexuality” from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1973), appeal to analogy (hence the comparisons with racism and sexism), and a focus on select Biblical themes that govern, or even submerge, others that do not fit support for SSM (hence the invocation of diversity, inclusivity, welcome, and, above all, love).

Indeed, traditionalists are stunned when progressives dismiss contrary Biblical passages as mere “clobber texts,” and when it is claimed that only a few Bible verses address the issue—when traditionalists note that other sexual deviances get relatively few mentions as well, not because they don’t matter, but because there isn’t much doubt about those issues among Biblical audiences. And then there are the many verses that take heteronormativity for granted, including all those verses about God and Israel and Christ and the Church…

…but by this point, the progressives are standing on their own verses: Scriptures about God’s love for everyone, about God’s ever-widening embrace of different sorts of people into the Church, and especially about Jesus’s welcoming posture toward even the most marginalized.

Well, yes, sputter the traditionalists, but God doesn’t accept people into his care only to leave them just as they are, but to make them better versions of themselves. So if same-sex attraction isn’t right, God’s love for people who feel it doesn’t mean God endorses it. And so we’re back to problem number 1, with little to show for all our disputation.

  1. Because it’s easy to feel terrible about all this. There is so much pain, and shame, and frustration, and fury surrounding these matters. And where there is this much grief and rage, demonization of the other side easily results. Instead of familial concern for each other, there is denunciation and distance. Instead of respect for each other’s views, there is insult and inflammation. Instead of conversation, there is posturing and politics. Pain doesn’t normally express itself in measured cadences, and there is plenty of pain on every hand.

Indeed, it’s hard for an observer to confidently interpret the vote going as strongly as it did toward SSM without quite passing the tipping point, since the Anglican Church has already suffered numerical losses over this issue. Over the last decade or so, many Anglicans have left buildings and congregations and the denomination itself over what they see to be a betrayal of faithful Biblical tradition in favour of a culturally captive progressivism…even as others have left over what they view to be a failure to fully accept Christians of diverse sexualities and gender identities. So are Canadian Anglicans in fact generally moving toward, or still importantly resisting, SSM?

  1. Because the voting patterns are complex. Tempting as it would be to see the traditionalists as cisgender straight ignoramuses, how do we interpret two interesting facts about the vote—that it was the house of bishops that prevented the change, and that many of the traditionalist voters were native Canadians?

Most laypeople and clergy understandably experience the Anglican Church as their local congregation. But bishops must take a larger view, a national and even international view. The bishops are personally connected with the global Anglican communion in a way that few priests and laypeople are, and that communion is generally against SSM. Those who rise to the rank of bishop normally are committed to Anglicanism worldwide, so many are reluctant to step out of pace with their peers.

Indeed, the two interesting facts are connected, because the global consensus among non-white Anglicans is mirrored among aboriginal believers in Canada: orthodox theology and traditional ethics. Progressives are thus in a bind: happy to celebrate their aboriginal brothers and sisters, even to extol native spirituality as intrinsically superior to “settler” religion, while hotly disagreeing with many of them on this issue.

So is the Canadian Anglican dispute over SSM to be properly understood as similar to the long struggle to free the church from endorsing slavery? Or is it better seen as a campaign to keep the church from collapsing into cultural conformity?

Alas, there isn’t middle ground visible between these crushing alternatives, and so the crushing of hearts in the Anglican Church of Canada goes on.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).