Archbishop Colin Johnson has authorized pastoral guidelines for the marriage of same-sex couples in the Diocese of Toronto. The guidelines, to be used in specific circumstances, are intended to respond to the pastoral needs of parishioners in stable, committed same-sex relationships.
The guidelines, released on Nov. 10, will be in place until General Synod convenes in 2019. At that time, General Synod will hold a second vote on changing the marriage canon to include same-sex couples. The first vote, held by General Synod in Toronto this past July, narrowly passed the two-thirds threshold in each of the orders of laity, clergy and bishops.
“The norm for the church continues to be the marriage of couples of opposite sex,” wrote Archbishop Johnson in a letter to the clergy that accompanied the guidelines. “The Anglican Church of Canada is currently in the process of changing this to include same-sex couples. Until that decision has been finalized, and as an interim pastoral response, as Bishop of Toronto, responsible for the pastoral care and oversight of this diocese, I will permit selected priests, licensed to the cure of souls in a community, to preside in their parish at the marriage of a same-sex couple in certain specific instances. Both priest and congregation must concur that this ministry will be offered.”
Archbishop Johnson acknowledged that the guidelines will not be welcomed by all – “some because they go too far, some because they are not enough.” He noted there are strong affirmations in the guidelines that assure “a continued and honoured place in all aspects of diocesan life” for those who do not agree with his pastoral response.
“Yours is an authentic, sustainable conviction that is significant, but not the only coherent, theological, biblical and historical position within our Anglican tradition,” he wrote. “All of us need to extend to each other the most generous Christian charity that our Redeemer calls us to exercise as we, together, seek to discern and live out God’s will.”
He said no one will be obliged to act against their conscience. “Neither parishes nor individual clergy will be required to celebrate marriages contrary to their convictions.”
According to the guidelines, churches wishing to hold same-sex marriages must seek the permission of the diocesan bishop, who will make the decision based on number of criteria. Among them, the parish must have demonstrated “a process of prayer, education, consultation, discernment and consensus” that widely engages the parish community. When the priest, churchwardens and advisory board or parish council feel that a consensus has been reached, the churchwardens will write a letter to the diocesan bishop outlining the process and decision reached, and request that permission be granted. The priest will separately communicate his or her support. If either the priest or the churchwardens do not concur, then the process ceases.
The diocesan bishop will grant permission to the priest only within the context of the parish in which he or she has pastoral responsibility. When a priest leaves a parish that has been designated to hold same-sex marriages, that designation will be revisited by the diocesan bishop upon the appointment of a new cleric. The priest will confer with the diocesan bishop prior to presiding at any same-sex marriage.
The provisions in the guidelines are similar to those in the diocese’s “Blessing of Same-Gender Commitments,” issued in 2010. It is assumed that some priests of parishes that have been permitted to offer blessings may choose not to offer same-sex marriages. The provision for blessings will continue as a pastoral response in a number of cases, such as situations where couples have already been civilly married.
The guidelines say that the blessing or marriage of any same-sex couple is expected to be part of an existing pastoral relationship with the priest and local congregation, and at least one of the couple must be baptized. All requirements of civil law must be followed, including proper legal documentation, and the marriage must be registered with the government and recorded in the proper parochial registers. The same theological and moral values, pastoral care, liturgical and other parish policies and practices apply equally to both heterosexual and homosexual couples. The marriage liturgy will take place in a church.
The guidelines say that every member of the clergy retains the right to decline a request to officiate at a marriage, according to the Anglican Church’s marriage canon.
Same-sex couples in a parish not designated to perform blessings or marriages may approach the bishop to seek an alternative. It is expected that the couple and the priest designated will first seek to develop a pastoral relationship before a blessing or marriage is offered. A cleric who serves in a parish not designated but wishes to assist in a same-sex marriage in a designated parish must consult with the diocesan bishop.
The Episcopal Church’s liturgy, “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Marriage,” will be the only liturgy authorized for the marriage of same-sex couples in the diocese. This liturgy will also be authorized as an alternative rite for any marriage in the diocese until the next General Synod. The rites “Solemnization of Holy Matrimony” in the Book of Common Prayer (1962) and “The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage” in the Book of Alternative Services (1985) are not permitted to be used for the marriage of same-sex couples until explicitly authorized by General Synod.
The guidelines state that the diocese “honours and appreciates the diversity represented in its parishes and clergy. This diversity will continue to be reflected in the selection and appointment of clergy, and in the membership of committees and councils of the diocese. We recognize there are theological and cultural differences across our diocese and within parishes which are strained by both the limits and permission represented in blessing same-sex relationships.”
In concluding, the guidelines reiterate that permission to participate in the marriage of same-sex couples will be extended only to those parishes and clergy who fulfill the requirements outlined and receive permission from the diocesan bishop, and that no clergy or parishes will be required to participate in the blessing of same-sex relationships or the marriage of same-sex couples.
In his letter to clergy, Archbishop Johnson wrote that the next few months will require “considerable prayer and restraint. The bruising, confusion and pain of General Synod are echoed in our church and certainly in our diocese. We need to provide the greatest pastoral generosity to each other, who will be in very different places and have been formed in very diverse contexts theologically, spirituality, scripturally and experientially.
“We need to be tender with each other, recognizing in each other the image of God redeemed by our Saviour Jesus Christ, a beloved child, the desire of God’s heart and will,” he wrote. “And we need to remember that what unites us is far more central than what divides us: our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and our service together in his mission in the world.”