Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ whose ministry we share.
Last August, the General Council of The United Church of Canada met in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Three hundred and seventy-two spiritual elders, elected by presbyteries and Conferences, and travelling from congregations all across Canada, gathered to do the work of the church.
There was worship. There were reports for information. Commissioners studied, did business, celebrated with overseas and ecumenical guests, and carefully tried to set directions that would assist the denomination in its continuing journey toward faithfulness.
There were satisfying moments, and there were tough times. As the Council ended, guest Dow Marmur, Rabbi Emeritus at Toronto's Holy Blossom Temple, said, "I thank you for your courage.... You have not resisted [trying to do God's work], and therefore there is hope it will be completed."
It was a reminder that God calls us to be faithful, sometimes at a cost.
That stretching to reflect God's purpose has been evident throughout our history. In the debates about ordaining women. In the controversies over conscription and divorce. In the ways the church has thoughtfully and prayerfully attempted to discern the Spirit's leading on matters of sexuality, the authority of scripture, health care, poverty, or more recently, the invasion of Iraq. Rabbi Marmur noted that he had learned much from the United Church about "not losing one's nerve in the midst of the struggle."
In August 2003, one significant action taken by the General Council was related to same-sex marriages.
This letter offers comment on the implications of that decision and what it means for congregations, for ministers, and for individual members.
Acting on a petition from Saskatchewan Conference, the Council called "upon the Government of Canada to recognize same-sex marriages in the marriage legislation."
This decision came as a logical extension of a number of actions by the church (advocating on theological grounds for justice for gay and lesbian persons) since 1985. This sequence of decisions is outlined in a spreadsheet made available with this letter. This compilation, which is part of a package of resources, both current and otherwise, known as The Marriage Kit, is available to congregations for their study purposes in the weeks and months ahead. In addition, a new resource, Of Love and Justice, is available.
In petitioning the government to include same-sex marriage in the proposed legislation, the General Council has indicated to congregations that they may celebrate same-sex marriages if they so choose, and if they are in a jurisdiction where such marriages are legal. This is a step in continuity with previous statements of the General Council on homosexuality in general and same-sex unions in particular. The Council has clarified that our welcome is to all people regardless of sexual orientation--and that it is an unqualified welcome. For the Council, this means that for all who believe in Jesus Christ and want to live in obedience to his way, there is a welcome to baptism, a welcome to membership and confirmation, a welcome to mission and to pastoral care (both given and received), a welcome to church courts, and a welcome to the full life of Christian community. The Council has now clarified that its welcome includes a welcome to marriage.
That having been said, however, the General Council does not perform marriages. Congregations celebrate marriage through their ministry personnel. Marriages (and in fact all services of worship) are performed with the permission of, and under the responsibility of, the Session or Church Council. This aspect of our polity has been in place since church union in 1925 and has not been changed by the decision of the General Council. This means that while the General Council has indicated that same-sex marriage is permissible and welcome in the United Church in general, it has not made same-sex marriage compulsory in congregations. Congregations are responsible through their elders or Church Council, in consultation with their ministry personnel, to decide which ceremonies will and will not be observed in their churches.
The Council's decision did not in any way lessen the authority of our congregations to determine local policy about the conduct of marriages. This authority is provided in The Manual, in Section 153 v. It is part of the covenant between The United Church of Canada and its congregations. The local Session (or its equivalent in a Church Council system) is the body within the church having responsibility for determining marriage policy on behalf of the congregation.
The fact that General Council makes some decisions about marriage and congregations make other decisions reflects the wisdom that some decisions are best made centrally and some decisions are best made locally. We know, for example, that farmers rely on central agencies like governments and co-ops to regulate and facilitate certain aspects of their work, such as, crop insurance or marketing. But the government does not tell a farmer when to plant the lower field in a wet spring. Only the farmer who knows and loves the land can make that kind of decision. In other words, The United Church of Canada recognizes and honours more than one voice in this conversation of discernment. There are other institutions and agencies where one voice speaks for all. With us it is not so.
The Council's action presents both challenge and opportunity. There is a lot of work ahead of us, critical work of the heart, and of the head.
It is tender work; it relates to the beliefs and the conscience of people of good faith who sometimes differ. Former Moderator Bruce McLeod used to say, "the church is in its 'honing' time." We are in one of those moments of sharpening our focus now.
One opportunity is for congregations to focus intently on a question of faith, as well as law. Creating forums for civil discussion about delicate questions is, historically, part of "who we are" as a church. One gift to the larger society from United Church discussions over the years about turbulent matters is that these conversations have modelled respect and hope.
As congregations consider this action, there is an opportunity to discuss "What is marriage?" and/or "Why do we marry?" The scriptural images of marriage illustrate a changing understanding of both its form and its character. Those stories and the people who lived them form a long list of biblical and theological processes which have shaped the church over the years.
Hope arises when churches, facing potentially divisive issues, take time to reflect on "What is the best way for us to be with one another?" This is a critical question in a denomination where there is a diversity of opinion, as well as a rich mix of different cultures with unique understandings of marriage. This denomination historically has valued freedom of choice. The struggle for justice is one of its cherished values and, again, part of "who we are." In a recent Globe and Mail column on the subject of same-sex marriage, former Moderator Lois Wilson acknowledges how difficult this matter is for many. "I am 76 years old and was raised in a Canada that told me homosexuality was wrong. It took me years to work through the issue, assisted by many colleagues, including gays and lesbians whom I knew and respected as persons before I ever knew they were gay or lesbian." Our faith communities have the capacity to walk with people who differ. Society needs that example.
In light of General Council's decision, congregations have the opportunity, once again, to create places where discussions are rooted in scripture, where time is taken for quiet and prayer, and where all members of the Body of Christ are respected and valued as they seek to discern God's will for them.
At the same time, this carefully considered action by the General Council will be a challenge for some more than others. The elected spiritual leaders of the denomination, speaking through the General Council, have stated clearly that The United Church of Canada is committed to encouraging the government to include same-sex marriages in its legislation.
For many years the United Church has historically committed itself to the practice of recognizing "the whole people of God" rather than segregating society into categories. It is not of our tradition to objectify people. To understand the significance of this, one only has to replace the category now before us and to take actions, for example, to refuse to marry inter-racial couples.
At the moment, some congregations do not have intentional marriage policies. Others confidently "leave it to the minister." Some churches make it an option for ministers to seek the wisdom of the Session when particular instances arise. Other Sessions might make the decision on a case-by-case basis. There are many variations. And there are various references within our belief statements and polity that are helpful for all of us struggling to be faithful in this effort.
The framers of the Basis of Union declared that, "It shall be the policy of the United Church to foster a spirit of unity." (1.2) In the Articles of Faith there is affirmation of "the inviolability of marriage and the sanctity of family." (2.20) Keeping that in mind in its on-going deliberations, the United Church eventually included divorced persons in its understanding of those whose marriages would be blessed within the church and embraced within the faith-family. This clear commitment to families, by honouring a diversity of family configurations, is a part of our history. There are parallels in churches elsewhere. Again, as an example, many churches now bless inter-racial marriages, an action that they formerly denied.
Congregations are encouraged by our history as "those who share a common life encounter with God in Christ [to] enter into a covenant relationship with God and with one another. Together they seek to understand Jesus' life and ministry among them, and to live out its implications by Christian stewardship of all gifts given by God, continually depending on grace and affirming one another." (Manual 102)
We are also advised that, "Church structures should be designed to liberate and to enable the people of God to exercise their ministry in building up the body of Christ through worship, reconciliation, evangelism and outreach, service, and the seeking of justice." (Manual 103)
Some congregations have chosen to bless same-sex marriages by allowing them to be conducted in their sanctuaries, by their pastors. Others are not there, and may choose never to go there.
A challenge is how does a congregation reconcile a General Council action with that church's differing opinion? Or, what if the congregation itself is divided? And what if the congregation and the minister disagree on how to proceed?
These questions indicate the work we have ahead of us to translate the processes and the action of the General Council into faithful expressions of Jesus Christ.
Again, this is work both of the heart and of the head.
The Christian Church has celebrated and honoured marriage since the Middle Ages. Over the course of the church's long history of celebrating and honouring marriage, understandings have changed. For example, it wasn't until the early 19th century in Europe that Christian marriage was a matter of choice rather than arrangement. While the Roman Catholic tradition, and later Anglicanism, determined marriage to be a sacrament of the church, the reform tradition in which the United Church finds its roots did not. For us, marriage is sacred without being formally sacramental.
In British Columbia and Ontario, where same-sex marriages are now legal, some pastoral leaders have conducted such ceremonies.
Some congregations and clergy have been educating themselves about this question for some time. They knew it was coming, legislatively. They knew it required time and thoughtful consideration on the part of congregations and that it would be a question before the General Council.
In a September 2000 Ruling about "Services of Blessing for Same Gender Partnerships," the General Secretary, Virginia Coleman, stated, "that a minister is not required to take part in a service of blessing. If the minister refuses to take part, the minister should make every effort to assist the persons requesting a service of blessing by arranging for another United Church minister to perform this function."
One question now before the church is just the reverse. If a congregation is not willing to allow same-sex marriage, but the minister is, is there an equal requirement on that community of Christ's followers "to make every effort to assist" in making the marriage possible?
This question is particularly relevant in conjunction with a Ruling that was issued in September 2003. In response to the question of whether a congregation, through its governing body (Session/Board/Council), can set policy on whether a minister may conduct a same-sex marriage outside of church property, the ruling states "...that where a minister is in a pastoral relationship with a congregation, the minister must always comply with that congregation's policies in all marriage ceremonies conducted by that minister."
For all of us, it is the pastoral relationship with those authorized to conduct marriages that is probably one of the most sensitive aspects of this matter. This is a teachable moment. At the same time there is the possibility of brokenness.
As the response to the General Council action moves along, there will be reminders of brokenness within the Body of Christ. At the same time, a major action, widely supported within the Council and elsewhere, to include same-sex marriages in federal legislation, continues.
The licence to marry, granted by a province on the recommendation of a Conference, rests on the fact a pastoral relationship exists between the congregation and the minister. Legally, clergy do not act as "marriage commissioners," a category of civil functionaries made available in several provinces. Ministers are in a covenanted relationship with a community of believers. One way of enabling clergy to share Christ's ministry in that congregation is to provide them with a licence to marry. Marriages in the church are intended to be public acts of worship, moments of kairos (God's time), rather than chronos (something ordinary).
If the local Session denies its clergy the right to conduct same-sex marriages while in that pastoral relationship, we have a serious conundrum: a congregation denying its covenanted minister permission to conduct a worship ceremony.
The pastoral relationship has many different dimensions. It rests on commitment to the shared ministry of Jesus Christ, to the traditions and policies of The United Church of Canada, and to a particular "chemistry," the mystery of the Spirit at work.
Throughout a pastoral relationship, this "chemistry" is tested in a variety of ways: e.g. "That sermon wasn't helpful," "That committee's action embarrassed the minister." Past experience shows that for most of our congregations these differences can be tolerated, and sometimes even inspire creativity and growth.
In terms of a major difference on this question--as on any issue--between congregation and clergy, there may be a need to explore together in a supportive manner what this means for the pastoral relationship.
The General Council, in partnership with Conferences and presbyteries, has a responsibility to support the discernment process of the church by providing educational resources that help to illuminate the many questions, perspectives, and issues involved. Surely no decision is well and carefully taken until its many facets have received a respected hearing. We believe that in the midst of a congregation's conversation, study, thought, and prayer the spirit may speak and a direction may be discerned.
St. Paul talks about "the parts of the body" and their intricate and essential relationship. The United Church of Canada is a connectional church. As congregations and their pastoral leaders wrestle with the question of same-sex marriage, there will be obvious need for prayer and support from the wider church. We are aware of this happening already and are grateful that it is.
Theologically and historically, the United Church has a fundamental commitment to develop and maintain strong ecumenical ties with sister churches of the Christian community, as well as substantial interfaith relationships with people of other religious traditions. "It's who we are." Over and over again these partners remind us that our unique contribution to the continuing dialogue about faithfulness is essential to the health of our mutual relationship.
On the matter of same-sex marriage, other Canadian churches have taken decisions similar to the United Church's decision. The Quakers are one such church. Metropolitan Community Churches are another. As Sr. Jean Goulet of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops* reminded the commissioners at General Council in Wolfville, "Friends can disagree and often do," and so there are other churches in Canada who disagree deeply on the question of same-sex marriage.
Richard Schneider, the President of the Canadian Council of Churches,* told the Council, "I can assure you for myself that the passionate and excellent testimony I have heard at this Council is deeply etched in my mind and heart and will, forever, inform my conscience as I try to understand God's will in the matter." He went on to note that at the same time "as The United Church of Canada has opted for a 'yes' in this matter in the sincerity, wisdom, and prayerfulness of its reflections," others have opted for 'no.' He asked for respect from churches and individuals on both sides of this question, saying "We are all seeking to 'enter by the narrow gate.'" (Matthew 7: 13)
We sincerely hope this commentary is helpful to you in the days ahead.
The Right Rev. Peter Short, Moderator
Rev. Dr. Jim Sinclair, General Secretary, General Council