On February 24, 2005, the Right Rev. Dr. Peter Short hosted a parliamentary breakfast in Ottawa for MPs who were invited to share in a dialogue about marriage. His speaking notes were as follows:
I want to thank you for accepting our invitation this morning in the midst of a busy and demanding day. We are honoured by your presence and thankful for this opportunity to address you briefly on the subject of same-gender civil marriage.
I am not here to inform you of things about which you already know. I am not here to ask you to do things it is not in your power to do. I am not imagining myself to be speaking to power. I am here to offer our support and to offer a contribution to your thinking as a human being. I bring this contribution from The United Church of Canada. We are a church that has a history of 20 years of learning about human sexual orientation; 20 years of working at the place of sexual orientation in church and society. We’ve come a long way in those 20 years. It has not been an easy road.
What I am about to say I will say from a Christian perspective, aware all the while that you have a responsibility to legislate for a multicultural and multi-faith society. Please then, in the context of your greater responsibilities, take what I say, wheat and chaff together; keep what is worth keeping and with the breath of kindness blow the chaff away.
Let me say something right at the beginning about values. The debate over marriage is fuelled by the language of values. We hear a lot about family values, faith values, and moral values. I think that the church has a profound responsibility to uphold values both in itself and in society. But here’s the thing: the church doesn’t create value or values.
In the Christian tradition value is created by God. God does not love because human creatures have value. Rather, it is in loving human creatures that God gives them value. To speak of values is to speak of gifts of God—not rules, not levers in a debate. The gifts of God are not weapons with which to subdue one another. Whenever values are brought out to do battle, a healthy dose of caution is called for. In the Christian tradition, values are always an occasion for humility and gratitude.
I want to offer four observations about context in the same-gender marriage debate. First, the emotional context.
I don’t have to tell you that the emotional atmosphere is highly charged. The first impulse of many who are concerned about an issue is to attempt to transfer anger and anxiety to their leaders. Perhaps they hope that anger and anxiety will contribute to a better outcome. In any case, an atmosphere is created in which intimidation thrives on all sides.
I want you to know that we recognize this atmosphere in which you will speak and vote on this question, and we offer you our prayers. We pray for your courage and your clarity, not so much that you will vote in a particular way (although we would have hopes for that). But beneath that we pray that you will be strengthened to think, speak, and act from your best self.
Second, a piece of historical context.
I am remembering the debate on capital punishment. I remember how, at the time, the polls indicated a country largely in favour of capital punishment. During the debate parliamentarians acknowledged the difficulty of the issue. They spoke freely and listened to one another. They thought it through. Some changed their minds. In the end, they led the country to a place where, at the time, the country was reluctant to go. That debate on capital punishment and the free vote that followed it was, I think, a fine hour in our democratic tradition. We want to remember that time. We want to acknowledge that it is a difficult passage to make—the passage between polling a country for opinions to leading a country on a challenging path.
Third, the context of religious faith.
The current debate on marriage appears to turn on an axis of human rights versus religious faith. From our perspective this is a false dichotomy.
Human rights: All people have the right to love and be loved. All people have the right to give themselves to a love that will demand their life in such a way as to change them and transform them into something, someone God alone can see. The question of who has access to marriage does involve human rights.
But there is an irony. Marriage, the thing itself, is not about rights. Marriage is an act of faith—faith in the transforming power of love, which is the greatest of the gifts. Marriage, the thing itself, is nothing less than contributing your life, including your individual rights, to a common quest in covenant with another human being in the bond of love, “for better or for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow….”
This is losing life in order to find it. This is giving life in order to be received by love. This is a great and profound act of faith. Faith is rather like character, it can never be possessed, only enacted.
To speak of marriage rights without speaking of faith is false in our tradition. To speak of faith without rights is equally false in our tradition. The whole faith versus rights axis is a false one. It fails to do justice to the substance of Christian marriage and it fails to do justice to those willing to give their lives to transformation by the power of love.
Fourth, a word about the context of tradition.
The United Church of Canada offers a history of 20 years of working through questions of human sexual orientation. Seventeen years ago we made a decision that changed our life, our understanding of ourselves, and our understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Seventeen years ago The United Church of Canada decided and declared that all its members, regardless of sexual orientation, are eligible to be considered for the ordered ministry of the church.
We are on a learning path. We understand the Christian tradition to be a learning tradition. We learn from science, we learn from scripture and from art and from the public forum of politics and from other faiths. We acknowledge, for example, that there was a time when Christian tradition supported slavery. You could find slavery in the Bible where it seemed to be accepted as a normal way of life. But we are thankful that it was Christian tradition, a learning Christian tradition, that eventually inspired the end of slavery on the grounds that all human creatures are created in the image of God. You can find that in the Bible, too. And by the way, there may have been Christian inspiration but it was political resolve and legislative action that ended the slave trade.
One of the things we’ve learned is that the Christian tradition of justice not only cares for the weak and the persecuted and the marginalized. It’s more than that. Christian tradition learns from the weak and the persecuted and the marginalized. Christian tradition learns its best self among the dispossessed and knows Christ to be in the midst of those cast aside.
It is our tradition that leads us to ask government to grant a welcome to all who seek to enter the honourable and cherished estates of civil society. We ask government to present an open door to all people in civil marriage regardless of orientation or colour (which was once a barrier too). We ask an open door to all people in civil marriage regardless of orientation or faith (another barrier at one time). When we ask government to present an open door to all Canadians it is not to go against our tradition, it is to fulfill it.
Finally, we must be clear with you about the difficulties. Some in the United Church are comfortable with same-gender marriage. Some are not—just like Canada. We are learning how to live with this. The General Council of the church has declared a welcome to same-gender marriage but it is up to individual churches to choose whether they will implement that welcome. Some will, some will not.
We believe that just as The United Church of Canada can live with differences of perspective on this, Canadians can as well. Therefore we are asking the government to extend a welcome to same-gender civil marriage without imposing it on anyone. The church and the country will be the better for our encouragement to work it out in an atmosphere of freedom, respect, humility, understanding, faithfulness to values, and faithfulness to the best of our tradition.
Our prayers are with you as you give leadership to the country. We offer our help where it might seem appropriate to you. May God bless you and may your work bless this country.
Egale Canada ©2007