jQuery Slider

You are here

In Theological Praise of Common Sense: A Reflection on the St. Michael Report

In Theological Praise of Common Sense: A Reflection on the St. Michael Report

The Rev. Canon Dr. George Sumner

The St. Michael Report was produced by a theological commission of the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada. Archbishop Hutchison asked the commission to answer a single, specific question which grew directly out of the debate at the 2004 General Synod over the blessing of same sex unions: is this a doctrinal question?

The implication was that an affirmative answer to that question would require canonical and Prayer Book revision, a longer and more daunting task, while a negative answer would open the door to blessings approved by dioceses, i.e. "local option". The commission was chaired by Bishop Victoria Matthews of Edmonton, and they submitted their report in May of 2005. The upshot of the report is still not clear, since Synod does not meet again until the summer of 2007. Though the process of reaction has barely begun, the report has already met criticism of different sorts from liberals and traditionals.

What distinguishes the English religious sensibility? Most any answer you can think of risks pride, since other traditions can doubtless claim the quality as well. Still, perhaps the most admirable is the most humble, English common sense.

In the debate over same sex unions, a controversy with no lack of hype and hyperbole, the St. Michael Report represents, first of all, an achievement of common sense. Its background is of course the 2004 General Synod, where proponents of same sex unions contended that such rites were "pastoral" rather than "doctrinal", and so could be approved as a local option in the dioceses rather than on the basis of a nation-wide decision.

The delegates, though liberal of opinion in the main, were reluctant to accept this argument. Those Church men and women understood the obvious, namely that the matter before them was a serious decision, altering centuries of teaching and threatening our international Church relations. Most of all, they sensed that, no matter what side one might be on, the matter at issue was marriage.

In the jargon of the same-sex debate, people on both sides speak of the "looks like a duck, smells like a duck, quacks like a duck" argument. However the arguments may swirl, the truth is that the same-sex revision is about redefining marriage.

This has been grasped more clearly and forthrightly by today's secular and political contestants, in whose realm the change in the definition of marriage is now a fact. The heart of the St. Michael Report is the judgment that the rites for the blessing of same sex unions are so closely "analogous" to marriage as to constitute a redefinition. Whatever side of this fractious debate you may be on, dear reader, you know in your heart that this conclusion is self-evidently and commonsensically true.

Since the canons of the Anglican Church of Canada include a traditional definition of marriage, and the Prayer Book, with its marriage rite, assumes the same doctrine of marriage, the implication is clear Same-sex unions can only be introduced into the Anglican Church of Canada by a decision over two General Synods, by two thirds of each house. This is of course precisely what the framers had in mind, namely that major changes to teaching, especially when they prove divisive, should be harder and slower to achieve.

In a moment of theological confusion and ecclesial distress, a theological question was referred by the Primate to a commission of theologians, Church leaders, and theological students, and a clear and decisive answer given. This may seem an obvious way forward, but it was anything but obvious, given that the same-sex struggle has often been waged with by means other than the genuinely theological.

By contrast, what could be more traditional than a bishop bringing a questio disputata to the doctores? This single act by Archbishop Andrew Hutchison shifted the ground on which this difficult question is to be contested in a more theological direction, at some possible cost to the chances for his own preferred outcome. For this act the Primate deserves praise.

There was a time, not so long ago, when two professors of theology (from Trinity and Wycliffe Colleges, I might add!) sat close to the Bishop in synods of the diocese of Toronto, in case a question of doctrine arose. But in our cultural moment, in our Babylonian captivity to the lawyers, we can imagine more readily two chancellors whispering in the Episcopal ears.

There is still the possibility of stratagems to rest the matter of same sex unions away from the theologians and return it to the lawyers, perhaps by trying to distinguish between a "theological" definition of doctrine and a "canonical" one. How demoralizing it would be if such a stratagem should work, for we would inhabit a Church governed by doctrines that are consciously and deliberately not theological- now that would be the defeat of common sense indeed.

What does the St. Michael Report mean for the introduction of rites for the blessing of same sex unions? It means that false distinctions between the "pastoral" and the "doctrinal" are vanquished, and the day of the local option is past. Of course the Anglican Church of Canada could, over two synods, proceed to redefine marriage so as to include same-sex couples.

This may prove difficult, and not only because of the higher bar in terms of votes. Proponents might find themselves stymied rather than helped by the grassroots assumptions of many lay people, whether or not they can articulate them theologically. For many Anglicans would share with our culture the wish to be tolerant and inviting of the gay couple who live down the street. This is a legitimately pastoral attitude. But to change the marriage canon, and so the Church's doctrine of marriage, would constitute altering our normative teaching about human sexuality and its goal.

If we are dealing with doctrine, then for consistency's sake the new teaching about same-sex relations would have to work its way down to youth group and confirmation class. At this point many would come to balk at the change. This is not simply prejudice, but an intuition of a real theological difference. It is one thing to be tolerant of a deflection from the goal God gives to us (since "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God"); it is another matter to hold that deflection up as part of the new norm. In other words, the task of changing the marriage canon would require a candor about the magnitude and nature of the revision which has not heretofore been shown.

The St. Michael Report goes on to state that the Church's teaching on marriage is doctrinal, though not "core" or credal, and hence not a "Church-dividing issue." These conclusions have generated the strongest reactions among both of the opposing camps, and so we need to concentrate on understanding this conclusion.

First of all the commission was decisively correct in discerning that there are doctrinal teaching which are neither "core" nor "matters indifferent", and that these are often matters of great importance. It is a serious error to suppose that not being credal, and so dogmatically defined, relegates all other claims to "indifferent" status. (It is precisely at this point that the Righter decision in the Episcopal Church went so disastrously wrong). "Thou shalt not steal" is not in the creed, but I dearly hope it does not become a matter indifferent. The Report argues strongly for the connections between the doctrine of marriage and other central doctrines such as salvation, the image of God, and the incarnation. While the doctrine of marriage may not be credal, it is intimately connected to issues that are. (One example given by the Report of a doctrine which is not core, and yet certainly is not indifferent, is apartheid).

Secondly, this helps us to understand better the question of "Church-dividing issues." Such an issue puts the believer in what the Reformers called the status confessionis, in which a strong response of witness and protest, and even temporary separation, is required. Credal issues by definition place the very identity of the Church at risk and so, necessarily and immediately, require the strongest response: so a Church that, for example, declared that God is not Father, Son, and Spirit, would necessitate such a response. The Report asserts that the blessing same-sex unions is not an issue of the sort that automatically requires such a response.

It would be a mistake, however, for proponents of same-sex unions to suppose that not being a Church-dividing issue necessarily works in their favor. For a proponent of same-sex unions might argue that the claims of the Gospel and of justice require that the Church proceed now, come what may. But this would make of the issue precisely a Church-dividing issue, since such a course of action will clearly lead to damage within the communion. In the present climate, same-sex unions not being a Church-dividing issue is in fact a strong argument for restraint and patience.

The issue of consequences for the ACC proceeding with same sex unions raises the question of the relation of the St. Michael Report to the wider communion, and in particular to the Windsor Report. The former, after all, answered a narrower question, that about same sex unions and doctrinal status, while Windsor addressed the wider issue of maintaining global communion. Here too, the point of most consequence, stated explicitly in the Windsor Report, has been missed by the some in the Canadian Church. Even after the St. Michael Report, the ACC could choose to change its definition of marriage (though the Report does offer the lingering, telling question whether one Church is really free to take this step in a manner that puts the larger communion at risk.) What Canadians cannot dictate unilaterally is how their global brothers and sisters will respond. The autonomy argument is at this point simply beside the point, for communion must surely be more than the assertion of our bare legal rights (here the analogy of the family is most helpful).

The Windsor Report, for its part, makes several points perfectly clear: first, that the doctrine of marriage presently found in the Prayer Book and canons of the ACC, is in fact the common teaching of the worldwide communion, most recently articulated in the Lambeth resolution of 1998, and that the Communion does not deem this a matter on which national Churches can unilaterally change. In a sense Windsor comes to a parallel conclusion as St. Michael, only on the international rather than the national level, namely that this matter is not adiaphoron.

Secondly, Windsor and the actions of the other instruments of unity have made it equally clear that even passage of rites of same-sex union on a first synodical reading would constitute in international eyes an intention to "walk apart," and so could trigger serious disruptions of the international communion. At this point the temptation to thumb our noses at the international communion might present itself, though the gesture has an "don't tread on me" American rather than a multi-lateral Canadian feel to it.

On this point one may hope, one last time, that the common sense of the laity will have an effect. While most lay people may not articulate a doctrine of the catholicity of the Church, they do have a sense of its reality. They know that to be an Anglican, for all its frustrations, is to be part of something that stretches out to the ends of the earth and back to the earliest centuries of the Church.

This sets us apart from the sect down the street and, for all our differences, sets us close to our Catholic or Orthodox siblings. Though Canterbury may seem far away, and Nigeria farther still, damage to our relations with them costs us something real, something that lay people do have a sense of.

On this count too, moving ahead with same-sex unions might well prove a difficult row to hoe. For here too, there are good theological reasons to value common sense intuitions, whether of an esteemed doctrinal commission, or of ordinary parishioners in the pew.

--The Rev. Canon Dr. George Sumner is Principal of Wycliffe College, an. Evangelical Anglican Theological College, based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. This analysis was taken from the Anglican Communion Institute's website with permission.

Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Trinity School for Ministry
Go To Top