Anglican Church will weather divide on same-sex marriage, officials say

A passionate divide within the Anglican Church of Canada doesn't threaten its unity, officials say, after a dramatic vote first appeared to reject, but then approved, same-sex marriage earlier this week.

Resolution must pass 2nd vote in 2019 to become church law

Michael Thompson, general secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada, speaks at the synod — or gathering of church leaders and layperson representatives — where the vote on same-sex marriage was held. (Anglican Church of Canada)

A passionate divide within the Anglican Church of Canada doesn't threaten its unity, officials say, after a dramatic vote first appeared to reject, but then approved, same-sex marriage earlier this week.     

"As long as there's been a church there's been a controversy somewhere in it," Archdeacon Michael Thompson, general secretary for the church, told CBC News, citing as examples past debates about contraception and the ability of divorced people to remarry. 

It was actually Thompson's vote in favour of the resolution to allow same-sex marriage that was miscounted in error, leading to an emotional roller-coaster of elation and despair for church members on both sides of the debate. The church appeared to have rejected same-sex marriage after the mistake on Monday night, but a recount led to the reversal that supported the same-sex marriage resolution.    

Thompson said the voting mistake may actually have helped those in favour and opposed to same-sex marriage to "understand each other better."

"That offered us a glimpse into each other's realities," he said. "Both sides have had the experience of deep disappointment. We know now, much better, how it feels to be … on the side that does not prevail."

Rev. Allison Courey, a university chaplain in Winnipeg who is a lesbian and legally married to her partner, was ecstatic about the final vote result, but noted that the division within the church is palpable. 

Anglican Rev. Allison Courey, who is legally married to her same-sex partner, says she wishes people would 'come hang out with a bunch of queer Christians for a while and see how normal they are and what their struggles are.' (Allison Courey/Twitter)

"There's just a lot of tension," she said. "It's almost like familial tension, right?  When things are going as one person wanted and not how someone else wanted."

Courey said she was "super impressed" by the gracious reaction by young people in the Anglican community who identify as "gender queer" and are personally affected by the church's decision. 

"They have been the first to say, 'OK guys, this is super exciting, but let's be kind and try to make space for one another and recognize that, you know, this isn't a victory for everyone," she said.

Same-sex marriage faces another vote

But Courey also said it's important to realize that the vote is still not final. 

"People are kind of saying, 'Yes, this is done.' But actually it's not done," she said. "This is the first vote and it's going to be voted on again in three years," she said.

The resolution must pass a second reading at an assembly of clergy, bishops and lay representatives in 2019 before the church's law governing marriage can be changed, the Anglican Church of Canada confirmed.  

However, some bishops have released statements saying they will not wait for the second reading, the church added. 

Courey said she views the three-year wait as an opportunity to keep talking to church members who oppose same-sex marriage and to heal the divide as people have "time to grow and to learn." 

"I like to think that, you know, in three years, the people who said, 'Well not yet, we're not ready,' will be ready," she said.  

"I wish some people would just come and, you know, join my family for a little while and join some of my friends and community members and hear some of our stories," Courey said. "To just, you know, come hang out with a bunch of queer Christians for a while and see how normal they are and what their struggles are."   

Rev. John-Peter Smit, a regional minister with the Presbyterian Church in Canada, said there would always be a divide on the same-sex marriage issue, but felt his Anglican colleagues were handling the decision-making process well. 

The Presbyterian Church is poised to bring same-sex marriage to a vote as early as its general assembly next year, he said, and agreed with Courey that seeing the human element behind the issue can lead to people changing their minds. 

"It feels like everybody has a friend, everybody has a family member, everybody has a co-worker, you know, everybody has a child or a niece or a nephew [who is LGBT]," Smit said. "Biologically they always did, but it just seems like it's easier to talk about now."

Where is the divide?

Smit said it's difficult to determine whether opinions about same-sex marriage correlate with urban versus rural congregations, and Thompson rejected the idea outright. 

"I think it's absolutely unfair to think that all urban people have a particular way of thinking and all rural people, or town, village people, have another way of thinking," Thompson said. "We all encounter the whole world."
Presbyterian Rev. Charles Fensham says the difference between generations may be one of the factors behind the divide in attitudes about same-sex marriage among church members. (Rev. Charles Fensham)

Courey said she sees more of a north-south divide than an urban versus rural one, noting that LGBT people tend to be less visible in northern communities. 

Rev. Charles Fensham, a professor at the Presbyterian Knox College at the University of Toronto, said his personal experience doesn't bear out the notion of urban and rural differences in attitude about same-sex marriage. A more important factor, he said, is how the pastoral leaders of congregations deal with the issue.   

Another factor, he said, may be "simply generational." 

"As the church moves from generation to generation, the next generation just doesn't have time … for homophobia," Fensham said.

About the Author

Nicole Ireland is a CBC News journalist with a special interest in health and social justice stories. Based in Toronto, she has lived and worked in Thunder Bay, Ont.; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Beirut, Lebanon.

With files from Colin Perkel and The Canadian Press