Same-sex marriage in Canada

 — Mar. 1, 20041 mars 2004

During 2003, the Courts of Appeal in Ontario and British Columbia ruled that restricting marriage to couples of opposite sexes is discriminatory under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms equality provisions. As a result of the court decisions, marriage between same-sex couples in these two provinces became legal. The federal government has chosen not to appeal these rulings. Instead, the Chrétien government announced its intention to introduce new legislation in Parliament to legalise same-sex marriage across Canada and to ensure that the Charter provisions are respected. A reference was sent to the Supreme Court of Canada seeking clarification on a number of issues. In January 2004, the new Martin government affirmed its intention to reform the law, and asked the Supreme Court to respond as soon as possible. There will likely be a federal general election before any response from the Supreme Court is available.

The Canadian churches are interested in this issue, not only as a social issue of considerable importance to Canadians, but because the churches are involved in conducting marriages. In addition, some of the churches have expressed a concern that the institution of marriage itself is under threat, and some are concerned that the churches will be forced to conduct same-sex weddings.

The impulse for this issue does not only arise from the civil courts. A number of churches have been discussing the role of homosexual persons in the Christian community, the possibility of ordination of homosexual persons, and the wisdom of blessing same-sex unions. A same-sex union is normally considered to be a conjugal relationship between two people of the same sex that has not been solemnised as a marriage. Until quite recently, same-sex couples have not had been able to register their unions under Canadian law. This began to change in the few years before the court decisions, as three provinces introduced “civil unions,” a new category in law. The legal status of civil unions in other provinces, in federal law, and in foreign jurisdictions remains unclear.

In the links below, the response of some Canadian churches to the federal government’s legislative plans is found. Not all churches have been able to find a consensus, and others have not issued any statements. Some have re-affirmed their long-standing positions on homosexuality, while others have undertaken denomination-wide studies of the issue. One church, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, has only just completed a long-term study on human sexuality during the summer of 2003, although the issue of marriage was not in the terms of reference. The Special Committee on Sexual Orientation was given a mandate to consider biblical, theological, pastoral, scientific and medical understandings of sexual orientation. Their report is particularly valuable because of the care that they took to examine difficult biblical and psychological issues. The report also contains a section on the legal liabilities of churches arising from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Canadian Council of Churches (CCC)

The Canadian Council of Churches has not issued a public statement, position paper, or study resource on same-sex marriage. It is important to remember that the CCC membership includes a broad spectrum of churches with varying perspectives on marriage, human sexuality, and the role of the church in society. The CCC operates as a forum. The Council only issues public statements in the name of the Council when all the member churches are in agreement. The diversity represented in the denominational resources listed on this page provides an insight into the difficulty of finding common ground on this issue.

One effort to find common ground on the understanding of marriage among the Council membership was undertaken by the Commission on Faith and Witness. Based on a survey and dialogue on the theology of marriage, the Commission on Faith and Witness has produced Together in Christ – The Hope and Promise of Christian Marriage [October 2000]. Intended as a pastoral aid, the book contains an introductory chapter celebrating the common ground shared by the participating churches, and highlighting the areas of significant difference. Additional chapters outline the theology and pastoral practice of each of the member churches.

Anglican Church of Canada

The issue of same-sex couples is not restricted to Canadian marital law. In 2003, the Synod of the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster requested for the third time that Bishop Michael Ingham issue a rite for the blessing of same-sex unions. Bishop Ingham, having declined the two earlier overtures, acceded to the Synod’s request. As well, the Diocese of New Hampshire in the Episcopal Church U.S.A. elected the Rev. Gene Robinson as bishop. These two acts and the subsequent consecration of Bishop Robinson have led to substantial turmoil in the Anglican Communion.

The Anglican Church of Canada has not issued a formal statement or response to the federal government’s plans to legalise same-sex marriage across Canada. In November 2002, the House of Bishops asked the 2004 General Synod “to consider the question of the blessing of same-sex relationships.” The Council of General Synod, in turn, has commissioned the Committee on Faith, Worship and Ministry to prepare a process by which the Synod may work toward resolution. As a result of the changing context of the question in 2003, the metropolitans (archbishops of ecclesiastical provinces) in Canada have issued a statement calling for respect for the synodal process.

One issue of significant weight in the Anglican discussion is whether the blessing of same-sex unions constitutes a matter of doctrine. While this issue may seem trivial compared to the more immediate ethical dilemnas posed by same-sex blessings, the freedom of an individual diocese and bishop to act without approval of the General Synod is based on the assertion that same-sex blessings are not a matter of doctrine. To resolve this question, the General Synod of 2004 requested “that the Primate ask the Primate’s Theological Commission to review, consider, and report to the Council of General Synod, by its spring 2006 meeting, whether the blessing of committed same-sex unions is a matter of doctrine.” The resulting report, known as the St. Michael’s Report, was released a full year earlier than requested to provide sufficent time for a church-wide consultation prior to the General Synod of 2007.

The current policy of the Anglican Church of Canada with respect to issues of homosexuality, is embodied in two resolutions of General Synod. In 1995, General Synod resolved that it affirms “the presence of gay men and lesbians in the life of the church and condemns bigotry, violence and hatred directed toward any due to their sexual orientation.” In October 1997, the House of Bishops issued a statement on human sexuality, and acknowledged the need for continuing study and dialogue.

The Anglican Church of Canada has the following resources on its website:

Individual dioceses may have also issued resources for their parishes to consider. Consider for example:

Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB)

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops is a forum for Roman and Eastern Catholic Bishops in Canada. The Conference holds a plenary assembly each fall. At other times of the year, the CCCB Permanent Council carries out the tasks assigned to it by the assembly. There are also a number of CCCB commissions, and a secretariat that assist the Permanent Council in its responsibilities.

The following resources are found on the CCCB website. The perspective of the CCCB on the issue of same-sex marriage is drawn from various papal and curial documents and the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church. The position of the Catholic Church affirms the essential dignity of homosexual persons while rejecting homosexuality as “objectively disordered.” Homosexual genital activity is thus considered to be a sin. In previous statements the CCCB has expressed concern about discrimination in Canadian society and in our laws. However, same-sex marriage is judged in the following documents to be a grievous threat to the institution of marriage, such that the CCCB has rejected any form of same-sex marriage.

Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF)

The Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF) is a Canadian pro-life organization formed by the CCCB and the Knights of Columbus. Though most actively concerned with legal issues relating to abortion and reproductive technologies, COLF has recently taken up marriage concerns as well. The following documents have been prepared by COLF.

Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC)

The Christian Reformed Church in North America is a bi-national church with congregations in both Canada and the United States. Its roots are in the Dutch Reformed community that settled in the Grand Rapids area of Michigan. It is considered a “bridge church” due to its active participation in both the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Canadian Council of Churches. Similarly, in the United States, the CRC is active in the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Council of Churches of Christ. The CRC is a relatively small church, but its ecumenical involvement in peace and justice work as well as Faith & Order has been exceptional.

The CRC conducted a church-wide study of homosexuality from 1970 to 1973 resulting in a brief position statement on homosexuality as follows:

Homosexuality is a condition of disordered sexuality that reflects the brokenness of our sinful world. Persons of same-sex attraction should not be denied community acceptance solely because of their sexual orientation and should be wholeheartedly received by the church and given loving support and encouragement. Christian homosexuals, like all Christians, are called to discipleship, to holy obedience, and to the use of their gifts in the cause of the kingdom. Opportunities to serve within the offices and the life of the congregation should be afforded to them as they are to heterosexual Christians.

Homosexualism (i.e., explicit homosexual practice), however, must be condemned as incompatible with obedience to the will of God as revealed in Scripture. The church affirms that it must exercise the same compassion for homosexuals in their sins as it exercises for all other sinners. The church should do everything in its power to help persons with homosexual orientation and give them support toward healing and wholeness. [CRC Synod 1973]

The above distinction that the CRC makes between “homosexuality” and “homosexualism” generally corresponds to the distinction many scholars draw between homosexual orientation and homosexual behaviour. The ethical judgement that homosexual orientation is “disordered” is a crucial starting point in CRC pastoral care of homosexual persons. In 1996 and 1999 the CRC Synod established a “Committee to Give Direction about and for Pastoral Care for Homosexual Members.” The committee report acknowledges that there are many who challenge the scriptural exegesis on which the 1973 judgement is based. Nevertheless, the committee:

reached the conclusion that we were not asked to reexamine scriptural texts that deal explicitly or implicitly with homosexuality. This conclusion appeared consistent with the latter part of the mandate given by Synod 1996, which stated that we were to give direction .” . . in a manner consistent with the decisions of 1973.” Thus, we considered the Scriptures more in light of how they could guide us attitudinally as we looked at where we have been since 1973 and how we could more effectively encourage and equip individuals and churches to minister to members with same-sex attractions. [CRC, Agenda for Synod 2002, p. 305]

By avoiding the exegetical question, the committee has avoided the conflict that many other churches have faced. However, as the committee points out, it may be advisable for the CRC to examine the exegetical question at some future date. The report recommended that CRC churches and ministries give greater attention to the pastoral care of persons with same-sex attraction. The complete report of the committee is found on pages 303-341 of the Agenda for Synod 2002.

Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC)

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada is not a church. It is a fellowship of churches, para-church ministries and individuals who have a common “evangelical” consensus on theological and social issues. Marriage is one of the issues on which Canadian Evangelicals show a great deal of consensus, namely that marriage should be reserved for heterosexual couples. The EFC reflects that consensus and has undertaken major legal and political initiatives to preserve the traditional definition of marriage in Canada. The EFC website offers a series of resources for individual and congregational action, and a description of EFC legal endeavours. The website does not acknowledge the perspectives of Evangelicals who disagree with the EFC consensus.

Below are some of the articles available on the EFC site

Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC)

Excerpts from: ELCIC National Church Council adopts action plan for addressing Same-Sex Blessings

National Church Council (NCC) adopted an action plan on Tuesday, November 4, 2003, for addressing the question of same-sex blessings across this church. Although the issue has been under discussion in this church for years, and a pastor was disciplined in 1999 for conducting such a rite, the urgency surrounding the matter was increased by several incidents that took place this spring and summer.

In response, the Conference of Bishops circulated a pastoral letter outlining its interpretation of this church’s present policy on marriage. On the basis of this interpretation the bishops felt that they could not grant permission for the blessing of same-sex unions. The letter caused considerable controversy in some quarters and prompted a new round of letter-writing; some from individuals, some from consulting groups of members. The response to the bishops’ letter was reviewed at the Conference of Bishops meeting on October 27, 2003, resulting in a recommendation to NCC to initiate a church-wide process of engagement with the issue.

National Bishop Raymond Schultz reported that the Conference of Bishops was not prepared to recommend any particular process outline, but that any engagement, whether by congregation, conference, clergy gatherings, study groups or special events, meet certain criteria. These criteria, as Bishop Schultz outlined them include:

  1. An assessment of the value of church unity
  2. Implications for our ecumenical relationships
  3. How we grant authority for decision-making in this church
  4. The Lutheran way of interpreting and applying scripture
  5. A fair and respectful process that allows for a full expression of all opinions without fear of attack

Mennonite Church – Canada

The Mennonite Church – Canada was formed in 1999 as a union of the Mennonite Church, the General Conference of Mennonite Churches and the Conference of Mennonites in Canada. A sister church, the Mennonite Church – USA, was formed at the same time. There remain other Mennonite communities in Canada that belong to a number of regional, national, and international conferences. Although a recent union, the MC Canada predecessor bodies shared a common confession of faith and similar perspectives on many theological and pastoral concerns.

The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective offers the following definition of marriage:

We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life. Christian marriage is a mutual relationship in Christ, a covenant made in the context of the church. According to Scripture, right sexual union takes place only within the marriage relationship. [Article 19]

It is important to understand that Mennonites are not a confessional community. The Confession is offered as guidance to Mennonites but does not bind the churches or members. Mennonites follow a “free church” polity that leaves freedom to individual congregations to determine their own response to issues of concern.

The response of MC Canada to the federal government’s proposed revision to the definition of marriage has primarily focussed on the issue of whether churches will remain free to refuse marriage to homosexual couples. Reflecting a typical Mennonite ambivalence towards civil government, some discussion has also occurred about whether Mennonite churches should be involved in the legal aspects of marriage at all. In July 2003, the MC Canada annual assembly very narrowly passed a resolution to communicate to the federal government MC Canada’s definition of marriage and to request that legal provisions ensure the continued freedom of the churches to practice and proclaim their understanding of marriage. The resolution was only narrowly approved as a result of a number of factors.

The following links have been compiled by the MC Canada website:

Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC)

The Presbyterian Church in Canada has not issued statements on the marriage of same-sex couples, or on the blessing of same-sex unions. The church’s response to issues of human sexuality is still in the formative stages. Formal action on these issues occurs within the varying levels of church courts. Two early statements on homosexuality by the General Assemblies in 1969 and 1985 illustrate the scope of the issues. Two church-wide study processes have been conducted from 1987 to 1994, and from 1997 to 2003. The issue remains an open and vital one for the PCC.

  1. Special Committee on Sexual Orientation
    • Terms of reference for the committee:
      1. to clarify the limits of the role that homosexual and lesbian people play within the Presbyterian Church in Canada. [A&P 1997, p. 503, 19]
      2. To investigate and explore the biblical, theological, pastoral, scientific and medical understanding of the phenomenon commonly called sexual orientation. [A&P 1998, p. 54]
      3. That the Special Committee report annually to General Assembly, providing information, reporting progress and inviting discussion and feedback. [A&P 1998, p. 54]
      4. That the Special Committee consult with persons with relevant expertise and competence. [A&P 1998, p. 54]
      5. That the Special Committee also be in regular dialogue with the Committee on Church Doctrine, Ministry and Church Vocations and the Clerks of Assembly. [A&P 1998, p. 54]
      6. In order that the Special Committee be funded appropriately it is asked to present a budget to the Assembly Council for its consideration. [A&P 1998, p. 54]
    • Listening… A study guide [2003]
      A recommendation to encourage the use of this study by congregations was defeated by the 129th General Assembly in 2003.
    • Final report of Special Committee on Sexual Orientation [A&P 2003, p. 526]
  2. Study on Human Sexuality [113th General Assembly, 1987]
    “That General Assembly accept this statement as a foundational study document and commend it to Sessions and congregations for study, reflection, and response to the Board of Congregational Life.” With this motion, the General Assembly initiated a church-wide study that culminated in a 1994 Statement on Human Sexuality by the 120th General Assembly.
  3. Statements on Homosexuality [1969 & 1985]

United Church of Canada (UCC)

A brief summary of actions The United Church of Canada has taken toward welcoming all people, regardless of sexual orientation, into full participation in the life of the church and society:

Government of Canada

In Canada, the legal status of marriage is a joint responsibility of the federal and provincial governments. The Government of Canada has passed legislation that defines marriage, provides limits on who is able to be married, identifies certain rights and responsibilities of the marital partners, and makes provision for the dissolution of marriage. Provincial governments have the responsibility of registering marriages and other vital statistics, according to the guidelines established in the federal law. Provincial governments also are responsible for issuing marriage licenses and licensing ministers of marriage.

It is important to note that the federal law provides a number of limits on marriage other than those of gender. Consanguinity is the term used in law to refer to the degree of relationship between two people. The federal law prohibits marriage between people who are related by blood, marriage, or adoption to one degree of consanguinity. This means that first cousins may not marry, nor may an aunt marry a nephew. Federal law also prohibits bigamy and provides for penalties where this restriction is ignored.

The legal challenges to the federal law on marriage have primarily focussed upon the provincial responsibility to issue marriage licenses and to register a marriage. These challenges in provincial court seek to have marriage licenses issued. In at least one case, a same-sex couple was married without a license having had the banns read as provided for in the provincial law. The court challenge in this case sought to require the provincial government to register a marriage that was conducted legally according to the provincial law.

In Canada, an alternative to marriage is provided in common law. Couples who live together for a period of time may, under certain conditions, become recognised as married in common law. Federal and provincial law specifies the conditions for obtaining a common law status and for the disposition of assets following a separation. In recent years, four provinces have instituted or introduced legislation regulating “civil unions.” A civil union is something new in Canada. It falls somewhere between a civil marriage and a common law marriage. Civil unions included same-sex unions, although they were also used to recognise “equivalent to married” relationships between non-conjugal partners such as siblings or parent-child dependencies. The recent court decisions on same-sex marriage have generally rendered civil unions moot for many homosexual couples.

One major issue of concern for some churches has been the involvement of churches in conducting marriages. Some churches have expressed a concern that courts will require churches to marry same-sex couples. Despite assurances from the federal government and legal experts that this would violate the religious freedoms of the Charter of Rights, these churches continue to be concerned.

Posted: Mar. 1, 2004 • Permanent link:
Categories: NewsIn this article: Canada, Christian, Christianity, human sexuality, marriage
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Catégorie : NewsDans cet article : Canada, Christian, Christianity, human sexuality, marriage

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