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Open letter concerning definition of marriage


August 7, 2003

Denominational Minister Sven Eriksson offers the following in response to questions from MC Canada membership regarding the government of Canada’s proposed legislation on same sex unions. This letter was sent to all pastors just prior to the St. Catharines 2003 assembly, and was also available at the Ministers’ Conference there on July 9.

Open letter to pastors and church leaders in Mennonite Church Canada:

Dear colleagues and friends in Christ;

Last week the Prime Minister of Canada announced that the Federal government will take steps to ratify same-sex covenant relationships as “marriages.” Subsequently, the provinces have declared their intention to follow Ottawa’s lead and to take steps to register same-sex unions as marriages (with the exception of Alberta, and it is doubtful that Alberta can refuse to do so). These changes appear imminent in the foreseeable future. Without doubt, as Canadians, we are entering a new phase of uncertainty and debate around the nature and meaning of marriage and family.

Extending the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples will significantly change the understanding and practice of marriage that have been held in Canadian society and in societies around the world from ancient times. At the same time, we acknowledge that civil and religious understandings of marriage have been undergoing a lot of change for quite a few years.

As pastors and leaders of Mennonite Church Canada, we will have many opportunities to respond to questions and concerns that will arise out of these unfolding developments. Some of us may be approached to conduct same–sex marriages. Some have already been contacted by media personnel soliciting their responses to the breaking announcements. Such initiatives will not only give opportunities to confess our beliefs and convictions, but also provide openings for us to provide gracious ministry to people for whom these concerns have deeply personal resonance.

What is the common frame of reference that we hold as we respond to these challenging and sensitive concerns?

As churches belonging to Mennonite Church Canada, we together hold a definition of marriage that is found in our “Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.” Article 19 states:

“We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life. Christian marriage is a mutual relationship in Christ, a covenant made in the context of the church. According to Scripture, right sexual union takes place only within the marriage relationship.”

This position affirms the teaching of Scripture and up-holds the understanding of marriage that the church has held since its beginning. Therefore, it is clear that the conducting or blessing same-sex marriages is outside of our understanding and practice of marriage as taught in Scripture, and held in our Confession. ...

This position, which we share with almost every other Christian denomination, may be increasingly challenged both by people within the church and also those outside the church as our government distances itself from traditional definitions and practices.

As Anabaptist Christians, it is our understanding of God’s intentions, and not the politics and regulations of the state, that determines our convictions and practice. In this “post-Christendom era,” in which the support of the church by the state is receding, our response needs to reflect that our authority is found in the Scriptures, in the Spirit and in one another as we discern the Way of Jesus.

So how should we as members of the Mennonite community of faith respond to the challenges of this situation?

First, we need to pray. We need to pray: for our government; for those who seek to offer leadership in this important concern; for those personally affected by the changing definitions; for those who feel threatened by the directions society is taking; and for wisdom in our own actions and reactions.

Then we need to discuss and discern together how we can be faithful to our confession, and wise and compassionate in our responses, especially to those who are anxious and vulnerable as these developments unfold.

We will also continue to find opportunities to voice our concerns and offer our counsel concerning the proposed changes. Mennonite Church Canada has participated in the government-initiated process of public hearings by the Justice Committee, including common presentations made by the Canadian Council of Churches and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. We continue to speak to our concerns for how these changes affect our society and to seek protection for the rights of churches and of pastors.

We can contact our Members of Parliament to express our concerns and to seek assurance that our church and other churches and religions will continue to have the freedom to exercise our beliefs, as the Prime Minister has assured in his statement.

I encourage you to be in touch with your area conference minister or with me about any concerns about your own ministry or our collective witness. As denominational leaders, we will continue to monitor this situation and will share further counsel as the situation unfolds.

Your counsel or concerns are welcome. My toll-free telephone number is 1-866-888-6785) or write (address on letterhead).

My prayers are with you, that God will give you wisdom and great blessing as you serve Christ in challenging times.

In the service of Christ,

Sven Eriksson
Denominational Minister