“Why I Left”—
Reflections on Leaving the Anglican Church of Canada
By John S. Oakes
On June 6, 2017, six weeks after retiring from active priestly ministry, I finally left the Anglican Church of Canada [ACC]. But it was on July 12, 2016 that I actually realised that I could no longer remain in the ACC in good conscience.
What was so significant about that date, as opposed to any number of others during nearly 20 previous years of ordained ministry? It was then that I became convinced that: 1), the church’s increasing decline from orthodoxy had reached a point that I could no longer live with; and 2), a significant number of its most senior leaders could not be trusted to uphold the existing canons of the church. Instead, they seemed determined to impose a revisionist “doctrine and discipline” as soon as possible.
The presenting issue was the authorization of same-sex marriages, but it could have been others. I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state. As a matter of public policy, I have long supported a right to civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples and I regret that the church has often mistreated people of homosexual orientation.
Yet in its efforts to become more accommodating, the ACC has sadly compromised the biblical principles and catholic tradition by which it claims to be guided. When the church’s triennial General Synod took the first of two major steps towards changing Canon XXI, “On Marriage in the Church,” to include same-sex couples last year, it also did so after a deeply flawed consultative and decision-making process. Following a confusing and somewhat indeterminate outcome, a bad situation was then made significantly worse by the immediate moves of some bishops to short-circuit established procedures and to enact what had not yet been fully approved by due synodical process.
General Synod 2007–2016: A Tortuous Descent
All this happened so quickly. When I was a clergy delegate from the Diocese of New Westminster to General Synod in 2007, the main point of contention was not same-sex marriage, but the blessing of same-sex unions. Yet that body declined to authorize a “local option” for dioceses to conduct the latter, never mind the former. In fact, Synod agreed to a motion which I personally moved on its final day, calling for further study and consultation on the issue precisely because Anglicans were so clearly divided over it nationwide.1
Three years later, when the issue of same-sex blessings came to the floor again, Synod acknowledged “diverse practices” in dioceses, several of which were already permitting such blessings, and urged “generous pastoral responses.” But it declined to legislate on the matter nationally. It was only in 2013 that the stage was set for the unravelling of nearly 2,000 years of Christian teaching on marriage and for the undermining of church order which followed.2
In passing a motion which called not only for the drafting of a resolution to be debated in 2016 to change the Marriage Canon to allow for same-sex marriage, but also for “supporting documentation” demonstrating broad consultation and showing a theological rationale for it, General Synod 2013 effectively asked the Council of General Synod to consult with others and produce a justification for a predetermined outcome. The consultation, which should rightly have preceded such a major change in church doctrine, was thus robbed of determinative significance. It simply became a means to an end.3
The conclusions of the resulting report inevitably reflected a limited stream of the national conversation intended to inform them. Given the terms of reference, they could not really have done otherwise. And by the time a resolution to change the Marriage Canon finally came to a vote at General Synod 2016, every procedural measure possible had seemingly been deployed to try to ensure the motion’s passage.4
2016: Synodical Pandemonium
A recorded vote put all on notice—perhaps especially ambitious clerics in progressive dioceses—that names would be noted for future reference. A “conscience clause” for dissenting clergy, which had been stipulated in the resolution of 2013 and included in the original motion for debate in 2016, was removed. Instead, dioceses [i.e., diocesan bishops] would have to “opt in” to conduct same-sex marriages, and the only protection for those who dissented would be the vague discretion allowing parish priests to decline to conduct “particular” marriages which was already part of Canon XXI.5
Then, when the final resolution came to a vote, the result was synodical pandemonium. An initial count on July 11, 2016 revealed that the motion had failed to pass by the requisite two-thirds majority in the House of Clergy by just one vote. But a recount announced the following day reversed that decision on the basis that the vote of the ACC’s General Secretary had been excluded from the initial tally. Over the course of less than 24 hours, it thus appeared that General Synod 2016 had first rejected then approved changes to the Marriage Canon.
The saving grace for theological traditionalists seemed to remain that same-sex marriages could not be officially enacted before 2019, when General Synod would be required to approve the same resolution again before the official doctrine of the church could be changed. But like so much else in last year’s debacle, this expectation, while true in principle, ultimately proved an illusion.
A New “Doctrine and Discipline”
On the very same night that General Synod appeared to have rejected same-sex marriage—or, at least, failed to approve it by the required two-thirds majority in all three Houses of Bishops, Clergy, and Laity—bishops from some of the most progressive dioceses, including Ottawa, Niagara, and Huron, indicated that they would effectively ignore their duty to uphold the existing “doctrine and discipline” of the church. Since then, a number of dioceses, including my own former Diocese of Toronto, have proceeded to authorize same-sex marriages in certain parishes.6
In Toronto, such canonical latitude was taken one step further at an Electoral Synod on September 17, 2016, when a priest in a partnered gay relationship was elected a suffragan bishop. The objection voiced at the Synod itself that the “lifestyle” of this candidate was then “irregular according to the teaching of the church regarding chastity and marriage” was overruled on the basis that he was member of clergy “in good standing.” The provincial House of Bishops subsequently endorsed this rejection of the church’s guiding moral principles by confirming the election.7
If events at General Synod had already prompted me to leave the ACC, the September 2016 Electoral Synod confirmed that decision. Of the 12 initial candidates, only one had publicly expressed his clear disagreement with the introduction of same-sex marriage in written and recorded pre-Synod information materials. There were three separate episcopal elections that day, but this candidate received just 20 of 618 possible votes on the very first ballot.
Months after my departure from the ACC, on August 24–25, there was a mediated conversation between the diocesan bishop of Toronto and representatives of those upholding a traditional view of marriage. According to a statement issued following that meeting, he undertook “to communicate the commitment of the diocese to assure that clergy and laity holding the historic view of marriage have a sustained and valued place in the life of our church.”8
On September 29, the archbishop duly released a “Pastoral Statement on Commitment to Diverse Theological Positions in the Diocese of Toronto,” endorsed by the diocese’s four suffragan bishops. This assured readers that “there is and will be a continued and honoured place in all aspects of diocesan life for those who do not agree to the provisional arrangements for same sex marriages.” But it also confirmed permission for “a small number of priests . . . to preside in their parish at the marriage of a same-sex couple in certain limited circumstances” and again redefined the traditional Anglican doctrine of marriage as “historic.”
The statement admitted that “most of the Provinces of the Anglican Communion remain[ed] unchanged in their teaching of the historic Christian understanding of marriage as a sacramental covenant between one woman and one man.” But it insisted that the disputed position of some in a small minority of churches in the global Communion was now “within the contemporary spectrum of Anglicanism.”9
A Personal Journey
After so many years of ordained and lay ministry in the ACC, it was no surprise that a marginal position should now be declared mainstream and the mainstream “historic.” When I was asked to sign a document indicating my support of the “39 Articles of Religion” just before ordination, I was informed that my signature need indicate nothing more than my agreement with their validity as an historical statement. I subsequently lost count of the number of more or less heterodox sermons and presentations that I heard from ACC leaders.
So why, after all that, did General Synod 2016 finally lead me to take early retirement from the Diocese of Toronto and to relinquish my priestly ministry there? I have already indicated two major factors. To clarify my position, I can state three more specific reasons, one of a more personal and two of a more theological nature, although it is difficult to separate the two categories.
Loss of Trust
Beginning with the personal, I basically lost trust in the leadership of the ACC. Following last year’s General Synod, I not only came to the conviction that a significant number of its most senior leaders could not be relied upon to uphold the existing canons of the church. Once I reached that realization, my confidence deteriorated to the point where I no longer felt comfortable ministering in the church at all.
In what amounts to an exit memo like this, it is tempting to focus solely on the negative. But it is important to be clear that for most of my ministerial career, I enjoyed good relations with people of many different theological positions. I still do. I also remain grateful for what I learned in the ACC, for the different parishes where I ministered, and for the many opportunities I had to serve and to reach out with the good news of the gospel.
But after General Synod—and especially after some bishops effectively negated a national decision-making process by making “interim,” pastoral arrangements for same-sex marriage before it had been fully approved—the trust I once had in the church’s local and national leaders was severely weakened. And I came to the conclusion that I could no longer continue to serve in the ACC either to the best of my abilities or in good faith.
Related to this loss of trust was a parallel sense of losing voice. As incumbent of a diverse parish of differing viewpoints, where strong advocacy on either side of the same-sex marriage debate would have been highly divisive, I refrained from expressing my position from the pulpit for pastoral reasons, even though it was quite well known. So, I understand, have other clergy, even in parishes otherwise recognized as evangelical. By taking the first of two steps towards officially authorizing marriage for same-sex couples in the ACC, General Synod aggravated the challenge for traditionalist clergy wishing to address such issues. And by jumping the gun in making pastoral provisions for it, bishops only made matters worse.
In making this last point, I am aware of its obvious weaknesses. No-one is called into gospel ministry to tell people what they want to hear or to avoid controversial issues because they may upset or divide. Jesus’s own example clearly indicates otherwise. But when one reaches a point, as I did, where one feels inhibited, for strong pastoral reasons, from speaking the gospel truth as one understands it, it becomes impossible to minister with full integrity.
Decline from Orthodoxy
Yet while personal considerations were significant, the underlying theological issues were more important. And my belief that the church’s increasing decline from orthodoxy had reached a point that I could no longer live with was ultimately more decisive in my departure from the ACC.
The Anglican tradition has long centred on a generous understanding of orthodoxy resulting in a “big tent” encompassing significant theological diversity. But in recent years, the limits of this tradition have come under increasing strain, as fundamental, credal truths have been questioned or even rejected by senior leaders and scholars. Aided and abetted by prominent figures who have openly declared their loss of faith in basic Christian beliefs, tendencies towards Unitarianism, universalism and syncretism have become widespread, especially in the more progressive churches of the West. And as clergy have wavered in or lost basic doctrinal convictions, they have often retreated to a constricted vision of ministry as social justice advocacy or community service, rather than the full proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed.
In pursuit of otherwise laudable goals of greater inclusion and sensitivity to those of diverse backgrounds, there has been a parallel tendency to transplant the identity politics of the world into the church. And as significant issues of gender and sexuality have come to the fore, resulting changes in doctrine have sometimes been elevated above the clear guidance of Scripture and orthodox tradition. In the past 50 years alone, churches in the Anglican Communion have thus relaxed or rejected traditional positions on a range of issues including divorce, remarriage and abortion, as well as homosexuality.
Taken together, such changes have led to a highly confusing situation, particularly in the churches of the west, where some leaders charged with upholding orthodoxy have not only walked away from it on key points of credal doctrine. They have also adjusted their moral theology to bring it more in line with the values of contemporary society. At the same time, churches’ failure to honour their own biblical standards has led to an unmanageable situation, where ordained leaders have often flouted established ethical guidelines, while not only avoiding discipline, but securing advancement. Resulting pressures from within the church have thus added to calls to legitimize the irregular lifestyles of people already in leadership.
For years I was able to live with such contradictions on the understanding that those of traditionalist conscience could still find a place in the ACC, where we could continue to work for a return to orthodox standards. After General Synod 2016 and the various moves to authorize same-sex marriages, I no longer felt able to do so in good conscience. A significant change in my understanding of the theological importance of this issue was also a factor in my decision-making.
On biblical and theological grounds, I have long held that homosexual activity falls short of God’s ideals for the legitimate expression of human sexuality and that any relationship involving such behaviour should not, therefore, be blessed by the church. But since the early 2000s I had also argued quite extensively that matters of sexual morality were secondary, not first-order issues, over which believing Christians could disagree in good faith, while remaining in full communion with one another.10
As I have reflected further on the question of same-sex marriage, however, I have concluded that far from being a second-order issue, it goes right to the heart of Judaeo-Christian morality. So to argue, as many do, that this is not a credal matter is not only questionable; it is actually beside the point.
Much of the earlier discussion about same-sex blessings in the ACC revolved around the question of whether authorizing them would involve a change or breach in essential Christian doctrine. And following the release of the “St. Michael Report,” which was debated at General Synod 2007, the church effectively answered this in the negative.11
With respect to doctrines of creation and redemption, that decision was clearly questionable. But the credal implications of authorizing same-sex blessings or marriages are not the only issue at stake. Since neither is intended to prescribe a particular Christian lifestyle, it would be possible to uphold every single tenet of the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed while leading a totally immoral life. And that highlights the fundamental problem with defining Christian orthodoxy solely in terms of what people believe.12
In practice, most churches tend to recognize what Jesus taught consistently: that however we define these terms, orthodoxy without orthopraxy means little. So why separate Christian belief from Christian morality, when it comes identifying first-order doctrinal issues? Surely, there are basic moral principles which should inform our faith as much as essential credal tenets?13
And where should we look for them? The most obvious answer lies in those which have informed the Judaeo-Christian tradition for millennia, including the 10 Commandments (Ex. 20:1-17) and Christ’s twofold summary of them (Mt. 22:37-40). And these guidelines are inextricably linked—in the seventh and tenth commandments, for example, in Jesus’ strict positions on divorce and adultery (e.g. Mt. 19:3-9), and in his prohibition of “porneia” (traditionally translated “fornication”)—with a view of marriage, going back to the creation narrative, as a male-female union to the exclusion of others.14
Robert Gagnon has authoritatively demonstrated both the persistence and consistency of this view throughout Scripture, where neither Testament contains any evidence of the approval of homosexual relationships. The only biblical example of non-monogamous heterosexual marriage is found in the Hebrew practice of polygamy, of which there is no decisive evidence, still less sanction in the New Testament.15
There has been much discussion of whether biblical writers had realistic conceptions of homosexual “orientation” or of long-term homosexual unions as they are widely understood today. The related question of whether biblical prohibitions against homosexual activity can be rightly applied to them has also been frequently debated. Yet given the clarity of biblical teaching, such questions are really beside the point. If homosexual acts are biblically proscribed, the sexual orientation of those who engage in them and the nature of their relationships are ultimately irrelevant.16
And while it is always dangerous to categorize some sins as more consequential than others, biblical principles of sexual morality clearly go right to the heart of how we understand ourselves, our relationships, and our overall place in the world. In that sense, there is a strong case for the argument, which I will explore further in a future article, that these are first-order moral issues, which are inextricably connected with foundational principles of Judaeo-Christian morality, as well as, by implication and extension, with orthodox theological doctrines of creation and redemption.
Although I retired from the ACC on April 30, 2017 and formally relinquished my ministry in that church on June 6 on grounds of conscience, I have not retired from pastoral ministry. On June 15, I took up a new appointment as senior pastor of a Baptist church in Vancouver and in November I became an accredited minister with the BC Association of the North American Baptist Conference. Since I first came to faith in a Baptist church in the UK, this partly marks a return to some spiritual roots and to underlying ecclesiological convictions which I had never fully rejected as a low church, evangelical Anglican. But it also enables me to pursue my vocation in a setting where I am now free to minister in good faith.
On August 30, my Anglican ordination was subsequently reaffirmed, when I was licensed as a priest in good standing in the Diocese of CANA (West) under the auspices of the Anglican Church of Nigeria. I have no formal ministry responsibilities in that diocese and I retain full accountability to the Baptist congregation where I now serve. And despite obvious second-order differences in polity, I see no major contradiction between these two ministerial credentials. The common calling, which I no longer felt able to pursue in the ACC, is to preach the full-orbed gospel of Jesus Christ—a calling which combines commitments to foundational Christian moral principles as well as to essential theological doctrines.
- The 2007 resolution read as follows:
“That in light of the statement of the House of Bishops to members of General Synod, dated April 30, 2007, this General Synod 2007:
1. Ask the Primate to request the Primate’s Theological Commission to consult with the dioceses and parishes and to report in advance of General Synod 2010 on:
• the theological question whether the blessing of same-sex unions is a faithful, Spirit-led development of Christian doctrine;
• Scripture’s witness to the integrity of every human person and the question of the sanctity of human relationships.
2. Ask the Primate to request the Anglican Communion Task Force to report in advance of General Synod 2010 on the implications of the blessing of same-sex unions and/or marriage for our church and the Anglican Communion.
3. Support and encourage dioceses to offer the most generous pastoral provision possible within the current teaching of the church to gays and lesbians and their families.
4. Request Faith, Worship and Ministry to develop a process to engage the dioceses and parishes of the Anglican Church of Canada in a study of the Christian perspective of human sexuality through the lens of scripture, reason, tradition and current scientific understanding.”
(Diocese of Niagara, “General Synod 2007 Motions Pertaining to Issues of Human Sexuality”)
- “Discernment on Sexuality Statement,” General Synod 2010.
- The resolution approved by General Synod 2013 was: “That this General Synod direct the Council of General Synod to prepare and present a motion at General Synod 2016 to change Canon XXI on Marriage to allow the marriage of same sex couples in the same way as opposite sex couples, and that this motion should include a conscience clause so that no member of the clergy, bishop, congregation or diocese should be constrained to participate in or authorize such marriages against the dictates of their conscience.This motion will also include supporting documentation that:
a) demonstrates broad consultation in its preparation; b) explains how this motion does not contravene the Solemn Declaration; c) confirms immunity under civil law and the Human Rights Code for those bishops, dioceses and priests who refuse to participate in or authorize the marriage of same-sex couples on the basis of conscience; d) provides a biblical and theological rationale for this change in teaching on the nature of Christian marriage.” (“Summary of Marriage Commission Report,” from “‘This Holy Estate’ The Report of the Commission on the Marriage Canon of the Anglican Church of Canada,” September 2015)
- “‘This Holy Estate’ The Report of the Commission on the Marriage Canon of the Anglican Church of Canada,” September 2015
- General Synod 2016, Resolution A051-R2. Canon XXI provides in 1:11d that “the discretion of a minister to decline to solemnize any particular marriage shall not be abrogated by this Canon.“
- Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press, “Some Anglican Bishops to Defy Church Law and Approve Same-Sex Marriage,” July 12, 2016; Andre Forget, “Same-Sex Marriage Motion Passes,” Anglican Journal, September 2016, 1, 12; Colin Johnson, “Archbishop’s Pastoral Letter to Vestries, 2017,” January 17, 2017.
- Martha Holmen and Stuart Mann, “Diocese Elects Three New Suffragan Bishops,” Diocese of Toronto website, September 17, 2016; David Virtue, “CANADA: Diocese of Toronto Elects Partnered Homosexual Bishop,” Virtue Online website, September 19, 2016.
- Like much else in the recent mediation process, this statement does not appear to have been released widely. But it did emerge online.
- “Pastoral Statement on Commitment to Diverse Theological Positions in the Diocese of Toronto by the Most Reverend Colin R. Johnson, Archbishop of Toronto,” September 29, 2017.
- Throughout this piece, I make two key assumptions that undergird the whole of my position. The first is that Scripture is and should be the church’s primary source of deontological authority on matters of sexual morality. The second is that the biblical testimony against the immorality of homosexual acts is clear and decisive. For the most cogent account of my views, see “A Biblical Case against the Blessing of Same-sex Unions,” an edited and revised version of a paper first presented at a Synod Day on April 23, 2005, organized by the Task Force on Homosexuality and the Blessing of Same-sex Relationships of the BC Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Since I wrote that paper, I have not seen anything in recent scholarship to cause me to change my views. The strongest work advocating a more “liberal” position based on detailed biblical exegesis is James Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013).
- The motion actually passed read: “That this General Synod resolves that the blessing of same-sex unions is not in conflict with the core doctrine (in the sense of being credal) of the Anglican Church of Canada.”
- With regard to the credal doctrines of creation and redemption, it has been argued, for example, that:
• to bless a same-sex union is implicitly to deny a fundamental creation order, in which God created women and men to be complementary partners in the procreation of humanity and the stewardship of the rest of creation; and
• to bless relationships which tend to involve the contravention of biblical standards of sexual behaviour by their very nature, is to undermine the creedal understanding that “for our sake [Christ] was crucified . . . suffered death and was buried.” Since Christ gave himself as a living sacrifice to save all who come to faith in him from the penalty and power of sin, the church thus risks imposing a false limitation on the intended scope of Christ’s atonement by pronouncing God’s blessing on sinful acts rather than proclaiming potential redemption from them and their consequences.
- “Orthopraxy” is here understood as right living in accordance with Jesus’ teaching.
- In three key references, “porneia” is best understood as comprising for Jesus all illicit sexual activity beyond the bounds of monogamous, heterosexual marriage, including adultery (Mt. 5:32; 15:19; 19:9). See P.D.M. Turner, ”Biblical Texts Relevant to Homosexual Orientation and Practice: A paper prepared for the June 1997 issue of Christian Scholar’s Review with Additions and Emendations, ” in Holy Homosex? This and That (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013), 1-27, esp. 9-10: “The πoρv- group of cognates is very interesting. In extra-biblical Greek πoρvεία has a limited semantic range, but in biblical Greek this is greatly extended, for reasons connected with the need in many idolatry-adultery contexts for two terms for unchastity in the Septuagint version. Professor Sir Kenneth Dover is wrong to reproach Paul with using it for all behaviour of which he disapproved, but right in his instinct that in the Greek Bible much more is wrapped up in it than the people and activities of the world’s oldest profession. It comes to mean all irregular genital contact except adultery and in some contexts seems to be a portmanteau for adultery too. Mt. 5, 15 and 19 are cases in point: unchastity is very serious sin which defiles us inwardly, and is grounds for divorce.”
- See especially, Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001).
- See further, Robert Gagnon, “Understanding and Responding to a Pro-Homosexual Interpretation of Scripture,” Enrichment Journal, Summer 2011.