Same-sex Blessings, Toronto, and the Anglican Communion

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Saturday, November 13th, 2010

The Bishop of Toronto recently issued a set of “Pastoral Guidelines for the Blessing of Same-Gender Commitments”. Some of the basic theological contradictions and destructive pastoral confusions involved in these guidelines have been pointedly disclosed by Catherine Sider Hamilton and F. Dean Mercer (see their “Response”, posted on the ACI website on November 9, 2010). In what follows I want to address a particular matter: where does the issuing of these Guidelines now place the Diocese of Toronto with respect to the Anglican Communion?

This question arises, obviously, because only recently and on the basis of a long string of official declarations by various Communion councils and groups – including the so-called Instruments of Communion – the formal adoption of rites of same-sex blessing has been declared to be incompatible with Communion teaching and discipline. In May of this year, representatives from The Episcopal Church (USA) were asked to withdraw from Communion groups dealing with matters of faith and order just on the basis of The Episcopal Church’s rejection of Communion teaching on matters of same-sexuality, including widespread and formally authorized use of such blessings. Since this requested withdrawal was viewed as a precedent, one must wonder if and how the new Toronto Guidelines might affect the diocese’s, and perhaps the Anglican Church of Canada’s standing on similar Communion councils.

Toronto’s Bishop, the Most Rev. Colin Johnson, has made clear in his letter accompanying the Guidelines that “these guidelines are not to be understood as an authorized rite of the Anglican diocese of Toronto”. This crisp statement alone, however, does not settle the matter. It is well known that debate over what is an “authorized rite for same-sex unions” has proven as much a maneuver of avoidance and obfuscation as it has aided in making real distinctions. At the end of the 2008 Lambeth Conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, addressed this situation in the following way, in response to a question from a reporter:

Question: On the issue of same-sex blessings is it your sense that it is good enough, far enough, for Churches to go to say they won’t legitimise public rites of blessing – or is it your sense that Anglicans need to go further to prevent the sorts of blessings we’ve seen in the Church of England and elsewhere in recent weeks.

Response: One of the problems around this is that people in different parts of the world clearly define ‘public’ and ‘rites’ and ‘blessing’ in rather different ways. I’d refer I think to what I said in the address this afternoon. As soon as there is a liturgical form it gives the impression: this has the Church’s stamp on it. As soon as that happens I think you’ve moved to another level of apparent commitment, and that I think is nowhere near where the Anglican Communion generally is. In the meeting of Primates at Gramado in Brazil some years ago, the phrase ‘A variety of pastoral response’ was used as an attempt to recognise that there were places where private prayers were said and, although there’s a lot of unease about that, there wasn’t quite the same strength of feeling about that as about public liturgies. But again ‘pastoral response’ has been interpreted very differently and there are those in the USA who would say: ‘Well, pastoral response means rites of blessing’, and I’m not very happy about that. (Aug. 3, 2008 Press conference)

What in fact, then, do the Toronto Guidelines constitute?

First, they are described specifically as “pastoral responses”, in the language that Archbishop Williams indicates is itself somewhat foggy. The diocese contrasts its “pastoral” response positively with the “legislated” responses that other dioceses in Canada have made in the face of the needs of same-sex couples. Second, the diocese is emphatic that they are “Guidelines”, not “rites” or “liturgies”.

But guidelines to what? We are told that they are guidelines to “an act of worship”, in which the “blessings” would occur, and occur in a certain way. What do we make of this?

Is an “act of worship” a “rite” or “liturgy”?

The act of worship in question is outlined, generally, as including the following elements:

  • It will be entered into the Vestry Book
  • Gathering (hymns, prayers, collects, explanation)
  • Proclamation of the Word (Scripture, sermon)
  • Blessing of the Commitment (including perhaps a statement of the covenant between the two persons; “symbolic expressions of commitment” [though not of “marriage”]; blessing of the persons involved);
  • Prayers (for couple)
  • Eucharist (optional)
  • blessing and dismissal

This outline is no more or less detailed than, say, the “Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist” in the American 1979 BCP (p. 400f.), which is there called a “rite”. Does it matter? The Windsor Report, for instance, judged to be “rites” the vague wordings of The Episcopal Church’s 2003 resolution – “local faith communities” “exploring and experiencing” “liturgies of celebration and blessing” (General Convention Resolution C-051; Windsor Report 27; 136) – and even considered the resolution to constitute “the authorization of public Rites for the blessing of same-sex unions”.

At best, the distinction between an “act of worship” that follows an authorized form and a “rite” is unclear. Furthermore, because of this lack of clarity, it is a distinction that probably does not helpfully sustain theological policy. We can, at this point, say this much at least: the fact that this “act of worship” is recorded in the Vestry Book makes it a formal and public liturgical event.

What kind of liturgy is a “Blessing of Same-Gender Commitment”?

The Guidelines, however, emphasize that this “act of worship” is not a marriage. Among the things that distinguish it from a marriage rite, according to the Diocese of Toronto, are the following:

  • No exchange of consents
  • No opportunity for public legal or canonical objections
  • No declaration of union
  • No “rite of civil marriage” in context of the blessing;
  • No signing of marriage register
  • No “nuptial blessing” from any authorized Anglican prayerbooks.

One might raise some questions about all this:

  • If no exchange of “consents” is given because the presence of the couple at the blessing “presumes” them, as the Guidelines claim, are we therefore to think that, in a true marriage, the presence of a couple at the marriage ceremony is prima facie in doubt? And just how much are we to “presume” anyway? Why not “presume” the entire meaning of marriage, for any number of reasons?
  • Again, no opportunity for “objections” is given: does this mean somehow that it is the possibility of objection that in part makes a marriage? Or is this omission something that makes the “blessing” non-contestable by definition? Or does it mean that protest is simply being forbidden by the Diocese?
  • Again, the fact that there is no “declaration of union” may be important in the eyes of the Diocese, because at issue in Communion requests for a moratorium is something described as “same-sex unions”, and the Diocese wants to be clear that this is not what they are doing. But by insisting that no “union” is taking place (despite the fact that, according to the Book of Alternative Services [p. 146], the baptismal covenant that founds the character of the Guidelines’ same-sex blessing, is described in terms of a “union”), does this mean that there is no “union” of any substantive kind between the couple who come for the blessing? In which case are we to “presume” that the couple is celibate, since, in traditional Scriptural terms, the act of sexual engagement “joins one” to the partner (1 Cor. 6:15ff.; cf. 10:14-22)? Or are we to “presume” the opposite? Would it matter?
  • Finally, the theological “foundation” for the blessings, we are told, is the reality of “covenant”, and a “statement of covenant” or “commitment” may be a part of the liturgy. But since marriage is also a foundationally “covenantal” engagement (cf. the Book of Alternative Services, p. 532), liturgically informed, what is the theological difference here?

None of these questions is addressed or clarified in the Guidelines.

Leaving these confusions aside – and they are evidence of a larger and pervading deep confusion – there are indeed some further elements, stated by the Guidelines but not underlined by them, that distinguish these blessings from a true marriage.

  • For instance, unlike a marriage, no episcopal permission is required if only one member of the couple is baptized. It is not clear why this difference is effected, although it does seem to suggest that the blessing is somehow “less” demanding of Christian commitment than is marriage. But is this the message one wishes to give?
  • Again, although vows may be exchanged by the couple – the Guidelines call them “statements of commitment” in “covenantal” terms – these are not life-long as they would be in a marriage (“… as long as you both shall live…”). While the blessings are to be given to those in “long-term committed relationships”, what constitutes a sufficiently “long term” relationship is never defined – a few months? a few years? In any case, this is far less commitment than is expected for a marriage.
  • Finally, the decoupling, as it were, of the liturgy of blessing from a “civil marriage” means, of course, that such a marriage is not assumed to be a condition for a blessing. Taking all of the above together, the Guidelines seem to recommend a liturgy for the blessing of cohabitation, and there is no reason such a blessing should be confined to couples of the same sex.

We can leave aside the actual theology of “blessing” here – the Guidelines call it a “public acknowledgement within the faith community [of] the already present creating and loving presence of God” – because, in itself, such a theology is not enough to found, let alone, distinguish a particular “act of worship”. “Blessing” in this broad sense, after all, is applicable to everything from the Eucharist to Morning Prayer to a prayer at breakfast to the words spoken over the animals gathered on St. Francis Day.

From what has been already noted, however, we have enough to draw a clear conclusion: what the Guidelines offer is indeed not a marriage. It is, rather, a public rite of same-sex blessing for cohabitation outside of marriage, something that would seem to be a contradiction of every traditional claim made by the Church regarding sexual behavior.

What is the formal standing of this rite of blessing?

The Bishop of Toronto, as we noted, underlined the fact that the Guidelines represent, not a “legislated” but a “pastoral response”; not “authorized rites” (“these guidelines are not to be understood as an authorized rite of the Anglican diocese of Toronto”) but “authorized guidelines” (“I attach the Pastoral Guidelines for the Blessing of Same Sex Commitments that I am authorizing for use in the Diocese of Toronto, effective today”). At the same time, the Bishop says that the Guidelines only “suggest” what might be included and what “must not” be included (“The guidelines suggest what might be included and what must not be included in any blessing”). What is the value of a “suggestion” on “mights” and “must nots” in this context? What is the difference between an “authorized guideline for planning an act of worship drawing from [listed] elements” and an “authorized rite”? Does the Bishop “authorize suggestions”?

Finally, does the fact that “guidelines” offer choices among elements to be used in the blessing detract from those choices in fact constituting a “rite”? The Book of Alternative Services (e.g. p. 527, in the marriage “rite”) permits “variations in the text” as participants may choose, but this does not, in fact, detract from the standing of such a marriage ceremony (or perhaps “act of worship”) as a “rite”.

Taking into account what was said above about the “suggested” form of the blessing being an “act of worship” that is “public” and “authorized”, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that what the Guidelines in fact and according to normal semantic usage, and despite claims to the contrary, are providing is an “authorized public rite for same-sex unions”.

How does this square with the requests of the four Instruments of Communion and their commissions?

We must be clear that there has been official unanimity about the unacceptability of such blessings: not only did the 1998 Lambeth Conference in the celebrated Resolution I.10 reject such blessings, but a slew of affirmations of that resolution by the Anglican Consultative Council, the Primates Meeting, and the Archbishop of Canterbury have upheld that rejection. The unanimous character of this rejection of same-sex blessings has founded subsequent Communion-wide judgments such as the Lambeth Commission’s Windsor Report and the Windsor Continuation Group’s reports. None of this is disputed.

Hence, it is not a surprise that the Diocese of Toronto “recognizes” that there is a “tension” between the larger Communion’s teaching and the “pastoral response” the diocese is pursuing. Indeed, the Diocese of Toronto has made a clear (if muted) admission that it has chosen a path that goes against the Communion’s call for “gracious restraint” “embodied in the three-fold moratoria” that include the moratorium on such blessings. The Diocese of Toronto, through her Bishops, has decided to move forward, publicly, through the authorization given by the episcopal office, and through the framework of authorized forms of worship, to do that which the Communion’s official representative bodies and “consultative organs” have said must not be done.

In May of this year, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote to the Communion about the consequences of this kind of choice: “there is an obvious problem in putting forward representatives of the Communion who are consciously at odds with what the Communion has formally requested or stipulated.” In this case, he was speaking explicitly about larger national “provinces” of the Communion, and doing so in the light of the American Episcopal Church’s choices on the matter of same-sexuality. And in fact, The Episcopal Church’s representatives on Communion commissions dealing with matters of faith and order were asked to step down. If precedent and consistency were to mean anything, members at least of the Diocese of Toronto would need to withdraw from all such Anglican consultative bodies.

But there is more than the Diocese of Toronto that is implicated in all this. Note that Toronto has done what it has done on the basis of the Canadian church’s General Synod decisions. “Pastoral response”, the diocese claims, is authorized by General Synod, and the diocese’s Guidelines fit with the Synod’s desires. Unless there is any determination otherwise, by e.g. the national Synod office, one must assume that Toronto’s interpretation of General Synod’s views is correct and acceptable to the national Church. But Toronto has defined Pastoral Response, as I have argued, as a public rite for same-sex unions. Thus, without contradictory explication by the Synod’s spokespersons, this too is the meaning of General Synod’s notion of “pastoral response”. Must we not conclude soon that General Synod as a whole, and the Anglican Church of Canada as whole, now stands outside the faith and order of the Communion? (I leave aside the national Church’s response to other Canadian dioceses’ already “legislated” pursuit of public rites for same sex-blessings.) Where are the objectors to such a conclusion? And if there are such objectors, it would be helpful if they could make formally clear their own distance from Toronto’s understanding of an acceptable “pastoral response”.

“Pastoral Responses” and the North American context

What, in fact, could a “pastoral response” be that is coherent with the Communion’s articulated understandings on the matter? One place to begin to answer that question is to go back to some of the original discussions of “pastoral responses”. Archbishop Williams refers to the 2003 Primates Meeting in Gramado, Brazil. At the time, the Primates issued a Pastoral Letter that spoke to the question of “pastoral responses”:

The question of public rites for the blessing of same sex unions is still a cause of potentially divisive controversy. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke for us all when he said that it is through liturgy that we express what we believe, and that there is no theological consensus about same sex unions. Therefore, we as a body cannot support the authorisation of such rites. 

This is distinct from the duty of pastoral care that is laid upon all Christians to respond with love and understanding to people of all sexual orientations. As recognised in the booklet “True Union”, it is necessary to maintain a breadth of private response to situations of individual pastoral care. (Pastoral Letter from the Primates Meeting in Gramado, Brazil, 2003).

This quotation was commended and its conclusions affirmed by the Windsor Report (143). And given the place of True Union in this discussion of Primates and Windsor Report, it is worth noting the booklet’s discussion of what is meant by an acceptable “pastoral response”.

A full chapter (Chapter 5) in the booklet is in fact devoted to the question, which is discussed in terms of joining “truth” with “grace” in any pastoral response to the reality of homosexual desire and lived experience among the Church’s members and the wider population which the Church serves and to which it witnesses. The “truth” in this case is that heterosexual marriage and celibate singleness are the proper vocations for sexual expression as Christians understand God’s creative will for human beings. The “facts” on the ground, however, are that not all persons are able to engage this vocation either immediately or successfully. A valid Christian “pastoral response”, then, attempts to address these facts, in light of the truth, with “grace”. Hence, Chapter 5 of the booklet outlines four elements in which this is properly embodied in a “pastoral response” to homosexual persons:

  • forgiving grace: the church must found her witness and engagement with all persons on the genuine and powerful reality of God’s forgiveness in Christ given to all people who are all equally in need of this forgiveness because of their sin, manifested in diverse ways;
  • welcoming grace: this is described in terms of the church’s active willingness to receive into her midst, just because of her life as a gathering of forgiven sinners, those who are still not convinced of the character of this particular reality of homosexual attraction as he church has taught it; thereby, the Church “learns together” the character of transformation and sacrifice with respect to sexuality (all of which, the book notes, is a “difficult tightrope to walk”);
  • transformative grace: the Church must be open in commending and engaging the reality of God’s work to transform desires and voluntary choices regarding actions, even in the sexual sphere, and not accept a deterministic notion of human sexual expression;
  • costly grace: the Church can and must also order her common life and final decisions in accordance with the truth of God’s creative will; and then take the trouble to support its embodiment in personal life, e.g. actively support singleness, friendship, family, extended family and so on.

True Union’s argument, commended by the Gramado Primates’ Meeting and the Windsor Report, and indirectly by the Archbishop of Canterbury, is that only when all of these aspects of grace are taken together and lived out does the Church provide an integral “pastoral response” that can be considered coherent with the Church’s fundamental life and witness in and to Christ Jesus.

Until now, the Diocese of Toronto has in fact been a remarkably vibrant and non-ideologically charged gathering of diverse churches, unique in her ability to receive, encourage and sustain a wide array of cultural and immigrant groups and their congregational witness. I have known of no equivalent Anglican diocese in North America in this respect. Indeed, the diocese has been able at least to permit (if not necessarily commend) just the kind of “pastoral response”, in its breadth, that True Union describes. And the positive fruit of such a more integral pastoral response has been clear.

Why the value of this response has been discarded is a mystery. For it is obvious that the Toronto bishops, through their new Guidelines, have now chosen to understand “pastoral response” in a new way, a way that reverses the actual meaning of the original hopes the Primates and others laid out in commending the concept. And thereby and most significantly the Toronto Guidelines have chosen to constrict the fruitfulness of such a pastoral response, one from which, until now, the diocese has benefitted: by redefining it in terms of a same-sex blessing – to which the Primates had contrasted the notion of pastoral response — all the elements of forgiveness, welcome, transformation, and sacrifice are siphoned off into a newly constructed realm of “objectors” and “unwelcoming” conservative reaction. This represents a potentially disastrous disruption of Christian witness and mission within the diocese itself, portending a withering of energies and common hopes. In order for such grace-commending witness to proceed, the lines of “response” would need to remain open and devoid of “authorized” alternatives that now set congregations and clergy into opposing and, frankly, mutually exclusive camps of commitment.


To repeat the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury: “But again ‘pastoral response’ has been interpreted very differently and there are those […] who would say: ‘Well, pastoral response means rites of blessing’, and I’m not very happy about that.” The Archbishop is not alone in his feelings. But the bishops of the Diocese of Toronto have decided to pour more fuel upon the smoldering flames of that unhappiness.

Interestingly, the Toronto Guidelines tell us that parishes can go forward with requesting to be designated as places where same-sex blessings can be performed only when some kind of “consensus” within it has been found on the matter. This is further explained as follows: “Consensus is not total agreement; however, every effort should be made to reach a decision where everyone feels heard and is willing to live with the wider body’s decision.” This is explicitly qualified in this manner: “The way forward should not be achieved or prevented by a few taking an opposing view to the vast majority”.

An obvious question arises in the face of this definition of consensus and its requirements: is there in fact a “consensus” of this kind in the Diocese of Toronto around the motives, meaning, and substance of the new Guidelines? The process for putting the Guidelines together precluded such a consensus, and the implementation of the Guidelines moves forward without it. How should those within, but also those outside of the diocese interpret this failure to discern consensus? For we should also ask another and related question: where do the bishops of the Diocese of Toronto stand vis a vis the “consensus” of the Communion’s bishops and her “consultative organs”, a consensus that in fact is equivalent in this case to a unanimity? Do they stand with the “vast majority”? Or do they stand with “a very few taking an opposing view” that is thereby seeking to “prevent” a “way forward” towards the healing of the Communion? Does this matter to them?

Certainly those in the Diocese of Toronto who are not part even of this unachieved consensus to perform same-sex blessings in their churches need to make clear what they believe and what they are prepared to do in the face of these Guidelines. And they need to do this publicly, for the sake of both the consciences of their flock and the understanding of the larger Anglican Communion. Beyond this, some may feel that they have been placed in an impossible practical bind, being commanded (or only “suggested”?) to send same-sex couples whom they themselves cannot bless along to the bishop to have their desires for blessings fulfilled. In fact, though, nothing prevents those who oppose these blessings from giving clear counsel to a couple as to the teaching of the larger Communion and Church on these matters and to its meaning, though in doing so they will be necessarily counseling against the views of their own bishops.

Still, it is not, it seems to me, the practical issue that poses an insuperable dilemma. Rather, the deep problem is, as Sider Hamilton and Mercer say, the wedge that has been placed between loyalty to Gospel and loyalty to bishop, a wedge that undercuts the lived coherence of witness and of trust within the relationships of the church’s common life and order. No doubt, the bishops of Toronto are sincere in wanting to offer a genuine pastoral response to gay persons in their diocese. Within the context of 21st-century Canadian urban society, how could they not without being both blind and irresponsible? But in doing it as they have, they have created a new problem here with many of their own clergy and people. And it is a problem that now, by 2010, has a strong track record within Anglican churches as to its destructive burden. Given that the Guidelines are provisional, we can pray that the bishops will rethink the wisdom of their issuance, and step back from going down the road where too many Anglican dioceses have already lost their way.

November 13 2010 11:20 am | Articles