The Right Rev. Dr. Peter Short, 38th Moderator (2003-2006)
[ Moderator's Letter to Members of Parliament on Equal Marriage ]
January 17, 2005
Please accept greetings from The United Church of Canada, and our gratitude for your service to Canada through the work of Parliament. I am writing to you because of the recently delivered Supreme Court opinion on marriage legislation, and the prospect of an early introduction of such legislation in the House. We wish you well and pray for you as you prepare for the coming session.
I want to contribute a perspective from the United Church to your deliberations. Whether or not you agree with what I am setting before you, I think you should be equipped with the knowledge that the General Council of Canada's largest Protestant denomination welcomes equal marriage. I believe that this decision has been reached not by abandoning Christian faith, tradition, and values, but by implementing them. I write to you in the hope that you will resist the assumption that anyone who speaks from Christian faith, tradition, and values must be against equal marriage. Some are, some aren't. This is true within the United Church, just as it is true within Canadian society as a whole.
The United Church has been deeply engaged with questions of same-sex relationships for 20 years. In August 2003, its highest court asked the Government of Canada to include same-sex marriage in marriage legislation. I am attaching a copy of the letter to the Prime Minister outlining the United Church's resolution.
In some ways, The United Church of Canada is tracking a common path with the courts and the federal government. While our General Council indicated its welcome of equal marriage, our polity upholds the freedom of each of our congregations to follow its conscience. In the year and a half since the Council's decision, many of our 3,000 congregations have been engaged in the same discussion that is about to take place in the House: whether or not to proceed with equal marriage. We know this conversation is difficult for many of our congregations, just as it has been difficult in the public sphere. In our own house we experience all the elements of this issue that are familiar in Canadian society: a clear opinion from the highest court; varied beliefs and expectations on the part of participants; freedom of religion; discussion preceding emerging policy; and the price to be paid for it.
I want to put before you now a Christian perspective on faith, tradition, and values. I write of these precious things because I believe they ought to be considered in making public decisions. I am aware of your responsibilities toward a multicultural and multi-faith society, and so what follows is not intended to be normative for all. It is specifically and unapologetically of the Christian tradition, a tradition that runs deeply in Canadian life and history.
I understand faith to be a way of living. To have faith is to implement a vision in one's daily life; in this sense, all live by some faith or other. Faith is not simply about the received doctrines. Doctrine is essential to religious life but it is not the final arbiter, neither of our decisions nor of our hope. After all, doctrines have been used to support slavery, apartheid, and the exclusion of women.
Some will protest that we must have faith in the Bible, and that the Bible takes an unfavourable view of intimate same-sex relationship. But I would answer that Christian faith is not an uncritical repetition of a received text. It is a mindful commitment to the power of love, to which the text seeks to give witness. Every generation of the Christian faith must decide how they will honour that demand of love in the living of their days. Changing circumstances and changing ideas are not the enemy of faith.
In fact, change is the only medium in which faithfulness can truly become faithfulness. Uncritical repetition is more like being on autopilot.
Similarly, I understand tradition to be a living treasure. Tradition is not to be confused with habit, custom, or convention. These are simply vessels that seek to hold the living tradition of God's presence in the world. Habit, custom, and convention are not themselves the light; they come to bear witness to the light. John's gospel says that the Word of God became flesh in Jesus Christ. The Word became a living being, John writes, not words. The Supreme Court follows this traditional wisdom when it declares metaphorically that the constitution is a living tree. In Christian tradition the measure by which we choose a course of action is the measure of the love of Christ, a measure that judges even scripture. It is never legitimate to use the words of scripture to promote a loveless agenda.
Further, I understand value to be created by God, not by ancient custom nor by current fashion nor by general approval. God does not love because human creatures have value. Rather, it is in loving human creatures that God gives them value. Value is a gift -- not a rule, not a partisan lever, and certainly not a weapon. It is wrong to invoke the love of God in order that one person's "values" might diminish another's value. Those who claim that homosexual people threaten to dismantle the value of heterosexual marriage would do well to remember that if anyone destroys marriage, it is married people, not gays and lesbians.
In the end, faith, tradition, and values do not decide for us. They equip us to take up the responsible and difficult task of deciding for ourselves. This deciding is itself an act of faith. So we pray for one another, we struggle to live in the love of Christ, and we take our step in humble trust that the next generation will deal generously with us, knowing we did our best with the vision of love God gave us for our day.
For me, Christian faith, tradition, and values contribute to our hope for that day when earth once more is fair and all her children one, including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people -- all her children. The General Council of The United Church of Canada believes that equal marriage is a step on the path to justice, peace, and the common good. If prayer is a part of your life, please pray that we may tread lightly, wisely, lovingly, bravely, and faithfully.
Thank you for your consideration of these thoughts, which are offered in a spirit of commitment to the good of Canada. Please consider attending a breakfast [for Members of Parliament that] I will be hosting on marriage on Thursday, February 24, on Parliament Hill. In the meantime, I am attaching an essay on marriage I wrote for The Globe and Mail, in the hope that you may find it useful. Again, let me extend to you my prayers and the prayers of the church, as you pursue the difficult path of putting into legislation the best hopes of Canadians. May God bless you in your efforts and may your efforts be a blessing.
The Right Reverend Dr. Peter Short, Moderator
The United Church of Canada
The Right Rev. Dr. Peter Short, 38th Moderator (2003-2006)
[ Let No One Be Turned Away ]
By the Right Reverend Peter ShortModerator, The United Church of Canada
I have been married for 30 years, but I'll not put that forward as any sort of qualification.
Experience is not the same thing as wisdom. Wisdom is like a guide and grandmother to the changing, exploring, learning mind. Wisdom says that it's a good time to change your mind when it widens your heart.
I have changed my mind about marriage and had my mind changed by marriage many times in 30 years. It isn't over yet. I could say the same thing about my many years of interpreting and articulating the treasures of the sacred scriptures. I suspect that the aim of scripture is not so much fixing the mind as it is widening the heart.
Marriage, whatever it comes to be in Canadian law and society, will not benefit from excessive sentimentality. While I would be the first to encourage a joyous and festive celebration of the marriage rite, I know that in most of its moments, marriage is less like a celebration and more like a trade.
Marriage lays a foundation, constructs a framework, and builds a house for love. Since constant perfect love is impossible (that's another story) marriage provides a structure, a habit of being together, a promise of faithfulness to carry us through those times when we know we must act with love but do not feel like loving. Eventually the house becomes a home, the wedding becomes a marriage, and the relationship becomes a habit of the heart.
Marriage functions the way any good habit or discipline functions. It helps us hang on through short-term ambiguity on the way to long-term freedom. The ambiguity is in the conflict between feeling and commitment. The freedom is in knowing there's a place to stand beneath the ambiguity - common ground. Common ground is not the same as having things in common, but you find that out in time.
Because it is a habit of the heart, marriage should be hard to get out of -- and into. Marriage is not casual, just as any good house is not casually built. That's what the old tradition of an engagement is about. It's a probationary period. In most jurisdictions, you can't get a licence and be married on the spot. The law requires that you afford yourself sufficient time to consider and reconsider.
Thus, marriage is not a spontaneous relationship, but a formal one. This is why a couple plans a wedding carefully and sets the wedding in significant traditions of people, place, clothing, and language. The marriage is constituted by promises given and its will to survive is sustained by a dependence on grace, that gift beyond explanation. It is not temporary. Not casual. Not for convenience.
We fail to take marriage seriously when we think of it as the private "experience" of two people. It's more than an experience. Marriage is an event that holds a couple from within and from without. The within part has to do with the love and commitment the couple generates. The without part has to do with society's investment in marriage as a carrier of stable relationships, social cohesion, and shared values.
The Christian tradition to which I belong has called marriage an "estate." This estate is a reality into which two individuals enter. In the act of marriage, they leave one estate and pass into another estate. Taking this passage changes both of them. It is a transformation they enter willingly and knowingly (well, at least they know in part). They are transformed from individual artists into a collaborative work of art. It is a transformation that is much too perilous an undertaking for those who are concentrating only on having their needs fulfilled. It is also a transformation that can never be fully realized if the depth, strength, and mystery of marriage are defined exclusively in the language of human rights.
The estate itself is not perfect (not to mention its occupants). Divorce happens. It hurts. Life must be reoriented. People must find a way to love again. For all its good and humble powers, marriage cannot banish the alienation that haunts the human condition. Marriage is, nonetheless, a good house that shelters the imperfect human's quest to persevere in love.
In the tradition to which I belong, we bring faith to the discussion of marriage. More importantly, it is faith that brings us to this discussion. Faith prompts that old question that stands at the heart of our experience as followers of Jesus; the question that runs like an aortic artery through the writings of the New Testament; the question that has haunted us from the very beginning and haunts us still: "Who is in and who is out?"
Christian faith brings us again and again to this question, as it brought our ancestors and will bring our children: "Who is in and who is out?" Our faith brought us here in the question of the ordination of women in the early years of The United Church of Canada. It brought us back again in the debate about divorce and remarriage in the 1960s. This same question is the essential element of our slowly dawning awareness about right relations with Aboriginal peoples: "Who is in and who is out?"
In the current discussion about marriage, the question looks like this: "Who will be invited to enter and live in the good house? Who will be welcome to give themselves to transformation by love in the honourable estate
This is not a question that can be answered adequately by relegating it to "the marriage file" in Ottawa. Certainly anybody who has been married knows there is no way in God's green earth you can put that experience in a file.
As we await the responses of the Supreme Court of Canada, the House of Commons, and Mr. Martin to questions raised in "the marriage file," it is a good time to think and pray and talk about marriage--an estate that in one form or another has been with us since time immemorial.
The General Council of The United Church of Canada has made clear its response. All those, regardless of sexual orientation, who are willing to give themselves to transformation by love in the honourable estate are welcome in marriage. I am aware that among ecumenical and interfaith responses to equal marriage, the United Church is mostly alone. Nevertheless, and with great respect for our partners and friends, I believe that the General Council has made the right response, true to the gospel and true to our tradition.
The identity of The United Church of Canada has never been primarily in our denomination. At our very beginning, denominational identity had to be relinquished by those Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists who took the risk of becoming the United Church. Our deepest and truest identity is still in our willingness to follow Jesus Christ as he crosses the boundaries that divide and alienate people. This is not an innovation. This is our tradition. God help us; it will always be that way. We expect change. At our best, we give ourselves to transformation. We hope for the widening of the heart. We believe that when you give yourself to following Jesus, you are led to a place God alone can see, in other words, to that same place marriage leads those people who give themselves faithfully and willingly to it. **
How, then, shall we be faithful to marriage? Not by forbidding change. Change is the only medium in which faithfulness can really be faithfulness. Faithfulness is to an unchanging environment as autopilot is to flying.
So let me express my hope and my prayer for all who are married and for all who stand at the gate of the honourable estate. Love is always a risk. So is life. But we believe in marriage as a good house that shelters the presence of the greatest of gifts. It is a good house for all the people and an honourable estate from which no one should be turned away.
** This paragraph was edited for space in the version of this commentary that appeared in the Globe and Mail on Saturday, January 31, 2004