A priest's doctoral research probes Anglican attitudes ...

Gay Storm Clouds

by George Porter

From Anglicans for Renewal, the ARM magazine, Summer 1994

Storm clouds are gathering in the Cana­dian Anglican church. Among the issues about which storm winds blow, few have the potential destructive force of sexual orientation—particularly the issue of ordi­nation. Controversy in other denomina­tions, discussions of General Synod and comings-out of gay clergy are propelling issues of homosexuality into the teeth of the storm.

As my doctoral dissertation took shape, I was troubled by the lack of original re­search concerning attitudes in the Cana­dian church towards issues of sexual orien­tation . Many writers just quoted other writ­ers, and did little new research of their own. To begin filling this gap, my doctoral research tested the theory that a gulf exists between the positions and attitudes among lay people and denominational leaders, including clergy, toward potential ordina­tions of gay men and lesbians.

A random sampling of clergy, lay read­ers and lay synod delegates in three prairie dioceses (Brandon, Qu'Appelle, and Cal­gary) formed data basis for this research. The survey questionnaire was constructed in consultation with representatives of various theological positions and of Integ­rity/Toronto (a gay activist group).

A wide variety of opinions were re­vealed, but people's attitudes could not be predicted on the basis of whether they were clergy or laity. No statistically significant differences could be identified between clergy and lay attitudes towards potential ordinations of gay men and lesbians.

Responses indicated a clear majority opposition. For example, 74% of respon­dents disagreed—40.9% strongly—with the idea that a gay man or lesbian involved in a committed relationship would be an acceptable candidate for ordination. Op­position rose to 83.3% where temporary homosexual relationships might be in­volved.

A distinction is often made between orientation and behavior. In that light, 63.6% agreed that celibate gay men or lesbians who meet other canonical require­ments could be ordained.

Most respondents believed that homo­sexual sexual activity falls short of the divine ideal (71.2%) and purposes for hu­man sexuality (77.3%). It was seen as sinful by 59.8%.

A small majority (57.6%) believed that gay men and lesbians can, with divine help, change their sexual orientation. The same number also believed the church should be helping them to do so, and 55.3% believed that the church should encourage them to live in celibacy. Those who hold these beliefs are likely to oppose potential ordi­nation of homosexually active people, while those who view sexual orientation as un­changeable tend to accept the possibility of such ordinations. That emerged as a sig­nificant factor upon which people's atti­tudes could be predicted—whether or not they viewed sexual orientation as some­thing that could be changed.

A larger majority (75%) say that a con­gregation has the right to know about a potential clergy's sexual orientation. When asked how they would react if a homosexu­ally active person were assigned as clergy in their parish, 43.3% said they would consider leaving the parish and 19.7% were unsure. A similar number (40.2%) would consider withdrawing from the denomina­tion, with another 17.4% unsure.

With regard to setting church policy in this area, 66.7% did not want responsibil­ity left in the hands of individual bishops. Instead, a binding denominational policy should be set and followed (67.4%). Who should decide upon such policy was un­clear. This could indicate some lack of confidence by rank-and-file Anglicans in their denominational leaders.

There was no clear agreement about the basis on which such decisions should be made. Those who affirmed the authority of the Bible as the Word of God were most likely to disagree with ordaining homo­sexually active persons. However, bibli­cally authority was recognized in just over half of the responses. Lay people were slightly more likely than clergy to advo­cate biblical authority.

A majority opposed liturgical blessing of same-sex sexual unions (76.5%). However, 80% indicated that gay men and lesbi­ans should be fully accepted into the mem­bership and life of the local church, and 76.5% also believed that they should enjoy equal civil rights with other Canadians.

What do these numbers mean? These statistics indicate a need to address issues of sexual orientation thoroughly and unhurriedly. Given the range of attitudes and the significant numbers who would consider leaving, conditions are right for major storms in the Anglican Church of Canada. Debate cannot and must not be rushed. Great sensitivity is essential in erecting a framework for genuine discern­ment and dialogue rather than polarizing monologues: "Those who have ears, let them hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church."

The Rev. Dr. George Porter was awarded his doctoratefrom Oxford Graduate School for research in behavioral sciences in July 1993. He is rector of St. Matthew's, Boissevain, and St. Andrew's, Deloraine, Manitoba, and contributes frequently to Anglicans for Renewal Canada.

Same-sex blessings