CANADA: Toronto bishops propose pastoral response to committed same-sex relationships

February 1, 2009

The bishops of the Anglican Diocese of Toronto are proposing to respond pastorally in the matter of committed same-sex relationships.

In making their proposal, the bishops made it clear they are attempting to work within the national House of Bishops' 2007 statement on sexuality. In that document, the Canadian bishops said they are committed to "develop the most generous pastoral response possible within the current teaching of the church."

Bishop Colin Johnson, the diocesan bishop, is assisted by four suffragan bishops: George Elliott, Linda Nicholls, Philip Poole, and Patrick Yu.

At a monthly meeting of the Diocesan Council, held on January 29, the bishops outlined their plan to engage in a consultation process in order for the pastoral care of all Anglicans to be strengthened. They will implement their response when the bishops discern that it is appropriate.

The bishops' proposal suggests that:

  • Episcopal permission be given to a limited number of parishes, based on Episcopal discernment, to offer prayers and blessing (but not the nuptial blessing) to same-sex couples in stable, long-term, committed relationships, as an extension of the current pastoral norms;
  • Episcopal guidelines on the nature of the prayers/blessing be established. A particular rite will not be authorized;
  • Episcopal permission for blessings will be required;
  • Evaluation of this pastoral response will be undertaken after one year;
  • No parish or clergy will be required to participate;
  • A Bishop's Commission be formed to create the guidelines, monitor activity and review.

Johnson said that it is too early to say what form the proposed prayers or blessings in the diocese will take. However, he emphasized that the bishops' pastoral response does not include the provision for a marriage rite. He was clear in saying that any movement towards the recognition of same-sex unions as marriage or the approval of authorized liturgical rites would fall under the purview of General Synod and not diocesan authority. The bishop emphasized that no parish or priest would be asked to act contrary to their conscience, and that pastoral generosity must also be extended to those who would oppose this proposal.

Johnson hopes that the proposal will offer the diocese the opportunity to be purposeful in addressing the issue and that "this will take prayerful listening and discernment." The bishop told the council that he and the other bishops realize that the issue is a complex one and requires prayerful consideration as well as an opportunity for respectful engagement throughout the diocese.

Johnson said the bishops believe the issue of same-sex blessings requires a pastoral response rather than a legislative decision such as a vote at synod. He said that "we are committed to remaining in alignment with the decisions and recommendations of General Synod and Lambeth," and that "at the same time, we are trying to act in accordance with the House of Bishops' statement to develop the most generous pastoral response to our local situation. Given that, we think that a pastoral response and not a legislative one is the correct way to move forward."

The bishop said the diocese's synod, which will meet May 29-30 and for a day in November, will discuss the pastoral response using indaba, which comes from the Zulu word meaning "purposeful discussion." The indaba process was used at last summer's Lambeth Conference in England.

Johnson said the discussion about the bishops' pastoral response in the coming months might be difficult but he encouraged Anglicans to take a "prayerful and respectful" part in it. He said the diocese's diversity is one of its strengths and is a sign of health.

"There is no result that will fully satisfy those on all sides," he said. "But at the moment this is what we, as bishops, feel is the right thing to do."