Holy disobedience

Breaking the law for the sake of love.

From June 18 to 25, members of the Anglican Church of Canada gathered from across the country to hear reports, to worship together, and to make decisions on some fairly important issues. The most controversial of the issues, of course, was the ongoing acrimonious debate about the place of queer folk in the church. As someone who has been in the thick of this particular battle for the past several years, I was watching closely (via internet coverage) to see where the chips would fall.

At the end of the week, we did what the Anglican Church does best, and found a way to keep our ecclesiastical backside firmly on the barbed-wire fence. Two key decisions had been made: 1) the church decided that the blessing of same-sex unions was not in conflict with core doctrine (the central teachings) of the Anglican Church, but 2) permission would not be given to individual dioceses (regional bodies) to go ahead and actually authorize blessings of same-sex unions.

Say what? Well canon law and interpretation of doctrine is a fairly Byzantine business in the Anglican Church, but basically what this means is that weâe(TM)re going to move ahead, but not just yet. The writing is on the wall. Both key votes were extremely close, and it was the bishops of the church who put the brakes on. My guess is that next general synod (in three years time) will see the church give the thumbs up to the blessing of same-sex unions, and maybe even marriages. But for some of us, three more years is just too long to wait.

It was almost a year ago when my own patience ran out. I found myself caught on the horns of a vexing ethical dilemma: as a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada, I had taken a vow of obedience to my bishop (yes, slightly medieval, I know), but now that vow was putting me in a position where I would be actively discriminating against GLBTT members of the church. As the chaplain for our local chapter of Integrity (a group within the church for queer folk and their allies), I had received a request from a gay couple to bless their relationship. Church law forbade me. My bishop forbade me. But the Spirit compelled me, and She trumps the others. There was no way I was going to turn this couple down.

So after a fair bit of soul-searching, I told my bishop that I would not be towing the line on this issue anymore. I called my position an act of ecclesiastical civil disobedience, but I donâe(TM)t think he really got it. In any case, I soon found myself delicensed and out of a job, in exile along with the many who have been marginalized by the ecclesiastical powers that be. Interestingly enough, others in the church have picked up on my action, calling it “holy disobedience,” and it is not impossible that more clergy will follow suit in the months to come. In fact, recently Holy Trinity parish in downtown Toronto voted to do just that: clergy and people together, they are not waiting any longer for the full inclusion of queer Christians — the entire parish is prepared to break canon law. Holy disobedience indeed.

For many people uninvolved in the church, the whole thing is a bit of a non-issue, just another example of backward religion getting in the way of real life. But for people of faith, straight and gay together, this is a matter of vital importance. The gospel of Jesus is about love, acceptance, and justice for those who have been oppressed and excluded. As a priest, that is what I stake my life on. It is what gay and lesbian Christians cling to in the face of widespread homophobia in the church and in the dominant society. I only pray that the church as a whole can stay faithful to the only “core doctrine” worth anything in this broken, beloved world: Love.

Rev. Shawn Sanford Beck

Anglican priest-in-exile

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