The Rev. Canon Dr. George Sumner
Principal, Wycliffe College
University of Toronto

The genesis of the present volume may be found in the effort, stemming from a mandate of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, to consider whether or not the blessing of same-sex unions is a development of doctrine. A new approach is a welcome one for several reasons. Church people on both sides of the issue often sense that they are speaking past one another. The synod itself in its debate and aftermath swirled around terms like “core doctrine” and “adiaphoron” the vagueness of whose use did not conduce to logical precision, to say the least.[1] But the claim of this article is stronger: this particular new approach holds out special promise. First of all, addressing the question in this way allows us to bring this vexed question into relation with a serious tradition of theological reflection related to Anglicanism and cognizant of the problems of modern historical criticism. In other words, there has been a theological tool in the shed for this job we have heretofore overlooked. Secondly, the most famous example of the literature on development offers a proposal for criteria to identify a development, and the work for this reason deserves our consideration. For after the squabbling over the possibility of a development is finished, we are left precisely with the question of criteria: is the case before us a development, and how would we know? Thirdly, posing the same-sex-union question in terms of development by its very nature will imagine in a broader way who the proper jury, and what the relevant evidence, for such a verdict would be. To the demonstration of these three points we now move.

To be sure, these reasons for encouragement may not coincide with the hopes some may harbor for the development-tack. It may be that the word itself summons up for some an optimistic view of the evolution of our own culture toward greater spiritual enlightenment, a hoped-for coincidence between cultural trend and movement of Spirit which is a distinguishing trait of liberal theology. One may on this score think of the fondness Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold of the Episcopal Church had for the verses in John 16 about the truths the Holy Spirit had not yet led us into. It may even be, at some level conscious or unconscious, that a certain coincidence between developed doctrine and the “developed” world, at least on the issue of sexuality, is imagined. But as we shall see, this warm feeling for “development” is hardly borne out by a closer consideration of its intellectual requirements.

Before we set to work, however, a bit more clearing of the brush of common misunderstandings of the idea of “development” itself is in order. Consider the following quotation from a theologian of the Anglican Church of Canada on the contemporary question of development: “the Nicene Creed uses a new (non-Biblical!) word to speak of the relation between the Father and the Son, because the Bible is not an adequate resource to solve the problem. It does not quite say what the Church wants to say.”[2] We are left with the impression that Athanasius knows more than Paul, and we know rather more still. To be sure, thehomoousios, “of one being,” is the prime example of a development of doctrine. But it is classic not because the Bible was “not an adequate resource,” but precisely because, in a new circumstance, this neologism borrowed from Greek philosophical parlance allowed the Church to sum up in one word the Bible’s central insight, namely that Jesus was Lord.[3] In other words, homoousios is the classic example of a legitimate development of doctrine because it uses new language to answer a new question, namely the metaphysical nature of the relation of the first two persons of the Trinity, but this “new” thought grows out of, and gives concise expression to what we find Paul and John saying about the relation of Father and Son. Development in this case can be captured neither by “say the same thing” nor “say something new and unknown.”

From this example, properly understood, we learn several key things about development. First of all, the consideration of doctrine must not be seen as an end run around Scripture. On the contrary, here as elsewhere, doctrine, growing from Scripture, serves to guide our reading of Scripture.[4] Secondly, a development is not simply some new fact we did not know before, a “z,” to be added to claims w, x, and y which we were already making. Rather, z, if it is to be a development, must be an insight which, in a new circumstance, allows w,x,y, and z to say what w, x, and y said before. In this way, the doctrine under consideration as a development cannot be studied in isolation, but needs to be thought about in relation to the larger doctrinal claim made to date by the tradition.

As the example of the homoousios clearly shows, the question of development has endured throughout Christian history; it is endemic to a faith in the One who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever,”[5] yet whose people journey through eras and cultures. But the question as it is found in the tradition of thought we are interested in derives from the modern period in particular. For it is born of the anxiety of historical consciousness which is a trademark of modernity.[6] And as such it is well equipped to address our present debate, behind which lurks a kind of unbridled contextualism, for which teachings would be made specific to settings in order to serve the purposes of each. By contrast, to espouse a development of doctrine is precisely to discern amidst historical change an enduring claim, continuity amidst changes.

For us as Anglicans the classic text on the subject, though in some ways an ironic one, is John Henry Newman’s An Essay in Aid of a Doctrine of the Development of Doctrine. Newman was of course one of the sparks of the Oxford Movement, the great Anglican defender of the Via Media, “the middle way,” between Rome and Geneva. Doctrinally, this position entailed a defense of the unchanging deposit of the first five centuries. Yet by the 1840’s Newman had come to see that new questions had arisen, and old questions asked in new ways, and that, as thehomoousios question itself shows, immobility might come to entail error as well as truth. This questioning led eventually to his conversion to Roman Catholicism, and to the writing of his book about development. The irony is of course that it was as a Catholic that he wrote the book, and that the doctrine of development appealed in part because he was convinced that without the strong magisterium implied therein Protestantism would, under cultural pressures, drift afield!

Newman would surely not have claimed that he could offer a proof that a particular proposal was in fact a true development of doctrine. But he offers a series of “tests,” of criteria, which cumulatively could give a sense of the plausibility of a claim of development. I want to highlight three criteria, which are representative of the whole list and decisive in the case before us. First of all, Newman talked about “preservation of type:” across different settings, expressed in different terms, does the idea maintain its shape and meaning across a variety of what we would call “contexts?” It is at just this point that the missiological implications, the cash-out for the conduct of the Christian mission, are clearest. For one of the gifts of a worldwide, i.e. catholic, understanding of mission, is that one corner of the global church can correct or advise another: is the tack you are taking true to the faith once delivered, and what will be the implications of its pursuit?[7] Is a proposal a valid adaptation of a Biblical insight to a local setting, or is it an example of local factors overtaking and obscuring the Gospel? We all may say we want to be a missional church, or to “move from maintenance to mission,” but what if this were to involve a willingness to listen to voices that tell us things we are not accustomed to hearing?

Paired with this may be found “chronic endurance,” which denotes the idea’s sheer power to persist as a cogent proposal across time. Taken together they bespeak the kind of patience that is required for the discernment of a development. They also show us the breadth and scope of vision that is needed for such a judgment. One must look at a wider cross-section of churches and eras than we might suppose. The question must be recast as one for the Church catholic, one involving generations before and after, involving a wider ecumenical consultation.

The third test that is particularly pertinent to the case before us was named by Newman “early anticipation.” It touches directly on the question of the relationship between doctrine and Scripture, for it states that a true development must have some germ to be found already in the witness of Scripture. There must be something in the Biblical witness that in time grows into the doctrine itself, in contrast to a sheer novum with no preceding expression. One must be able to show a trajectory of thought, what Newman calls in another test “logical sequence,” from those Scriptural beginnings to the doctrine itself.

Our task is now to apply these criteria for development to the doctrine at hand: but what precisely is that doctrine? Well, the blessing of same-sex unions, of course. But one may swiftly note that traditional marriage has been understood as the blessing of a union. In other words, traditional marriage and same-sex unions are in this respect described in the same way. We can see that this proposal cannot be set apart as something other than a new kind of marriage, a new definition of marriage. Furthermore, the very heart of a marriage is the making of vows of lifelong fidelity before God, in the wake of which the blessing is pronounced. The vows are “performative,” in the parlance of the philosophy of language, since their utterance changes the status of those involved. Unless the same-sex unions are not envisioned to be lifelong (which would present problems of its own), the very same heart of the rite would be found in the blessing of same-sex unions. In other words, as secular brothers and sisters are quick to recognize, the distinction between a union and a marriage lacks a difference.

So what then is the doctrine whose development is proposed? The answer is of course Christian marriage. And where are we to find this doctrine? Throughout Christian history, but for us as Anglicans, specifically in Canada, it is to be found in the marriage rite of the Book of Common Prayer and the Book of Alternative Services, which continue to be the doctrinally definitive documents for our Church.[8] The development in question is the revision of the doctrine of marriage as found in the Prayer Book to include same-sex couples. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, it may be pointed out that we are not talking about the introduction of a totally new doctrine, where nothing had existed before, but rather we are proposing the revision of an existing doctrine. And what do we find in our doctrine of marriage, in its unrevised state? Look at the wedding rite in the Prayer Book. The Exhortation cites the creation of the human in Genesis 1, which had the form of “male and female,” who then yearn for their joining. The wedding at Cana in John 2, and Paul’s meditation on the spiritual meaning of the marriage of man and woman in Ephesians 5, add to this relationship rooted in the creative intention of God an additional meaning in the new dispensation having to do with the bond between nothing less than Christ and the Church. This linking of divine intention in the order of creation and in the order of salvation is of great importance.[9] God wills the creation in a particular form, and it is this very creation, in spite of its deformation in sin, which he wills to save through the work of Christ. The New Testament’s specific references to the marriage of male and female, then, stand as a crucial “outward and visible sign” for human being of God’s gracious intention at the very juncture of creation and redemption.[10]

The lections for the nuptial mass go on to cite Mark 10, where Jesus himself says that since God created the human male and female from the foundation of creation (in a citation of Genesis 1), they are to be joined together in marriage (a reference to the “cleaving” in Genesis 2). This theme of the intention of creation is reinforced by procreation as an aim of matrimony, in keeping with the exhortation also in Genesis 1 to be “fruitful and multiply.” The theme of procreation also offers one dimension of the meaning of the imago Dei in Genesis 1:26, since the male and the female, different from and communicating with one another, procreate new life as an expression of their love and stewardship. [11]

Let us pause here for a moment. First of all we must note that the rite itself, through multiple Scriptural citations, defines marriage to be between man and woman.[12] Revisionists at times contend that opposition to same-sex unions stems from literalistic Biblical proof-texting. But this is hardly the case. The definition of marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman is based on a word of Jesus, which is built in turn on the doctrine of creation itself, a major pillar of theology as a whole. It is bolstered by multiple words from Paul. Thus we have a doctrine of marriage of the male and the female on the strongest authority.[13] And so to revisionists who may ask why traditionalists oppose same-sex marriages in and of themselves, the answer is because of what we are for, the marriage of man and woman, and why we are for it, its multiple Scriptural warrant and close relation to central doctrines of the faith.[14]

The doctrine is marriage, and the key criteria are preservation of type, chronic endurance, and early anticipation. Before we move to application, it is important to note that a successful candidate needs to pass all the hurdles, not just one. For this reason the Church intends that success should be hard and slow, in order that the Church might be sure that it does not corrupt the doctrinal inheritance which it is the particular responsibility of bishops to protect. As is so often true in critical testing of any kind, as one finds for example in science, falsification is easier than verification. So it is with the case before us as well: failing even one of the tests should bring a halt to the proposed revision, at least for the present.

And how does this revision fare as a proposed development of the doctrine of marriage? Not well. First of all, let us consider the consultation across cultural lines and ecumenical considerations which are entailed in preservation of type. Anglican theological leaders in most parts of the world do not recognize this as a valid development. The major denominations that make up most of the world’s Christians, the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, the Pentecostals, and various evangelicals, are a united chorus in opposition. In fact pursuing this course will seriously damage those relationships. What could be clearer evidence of a failure to pass the “preservation of type” test? With respect to chronic endurance, we should recall that, while the traditional view has been the consensus for almost twenty centuries, the revised view has only been found among a relatively small number of Christians for two generations. Does this mean that the proposal could never pass these tests? No, but it does mean that it manifestly has not done so yet.

With respect to early anticipation, the evidence is equally discouraging. We are dealing with an issue about which the relevant passages of Scripture are all negative. We cannot point to passages moving in contrary directions, as we can in the case of the ordination of women, for example, about the relation between which we may ask questions. And Scripture’s negative account touches, as we have seen, on many of the great doctrines of the Church. In sum, when we look at the question, with the aid of Newman’s criteria for the development of doctrine, in a broader light, neither the scope of cultures, nor of eras, nor of Scriptures, gives us any encouragement to proceed now with such an innovation.

The main point of this paper has been that asking the same-sex-union question in relation to development has promise. We have concluded that such an approach offers no evidence of support for such a revision. Over this question we as a church have already gone through a period of protracted conflict and pain, with more surely to come. We are not criticizing the raising and debating of the question. The Anglican tradition at its best has been as open to theological speculation as it has been conservative about doctrinal change. Nor should we be despondent about these struggles vis-à-vis the question of development in particular. It has been precisely through this crisis that the instruments of unity have come into the spotlight, and are haltingly become serviceable. They are potentially just the kind of conciliar forms to provide the testing, the sober spiritual second thoughts, that a sound theory of development requires. Development is not a reason to move ahead on one’s own: it drives us back to the constraints of communion!

“And so we do not lose heart.”[15] For it would be wrong amidst all the questions to lose sight of the great promise held by the steps which the Anglican communion has taken forward as a result of this conflict. As we have seen, John Henry Newman could find in Anglicanism structures sufficient to maintain the integrity of the faith amidst the challenges of proposed novel doctrines. But Newman could not have imagined an Anglicanism that was truly global. It turns out that the communion itself provides for us the means to implement the tests across time and culture which he proposes. We need to pray that the communion’s fabric will remain sufficiently intact for these not-so-new means of testing developments of doctrine to work.


[1] A186 passed due to the reassuring rider that not-inconsistent with core doctrine meant simply that such unions are not “creedal.” In itself this claim of non-inconsistency implies nothing about the claim’s truth. But after the passage of the motion assorted prelates and chancellors have stated that theological impediments to passage are now removed. It is hard to know where the illogical ends and the disingenuous begins.

[2] The Rev. William Harrison in the Anglican Journal, April 2008, pg. 6.

[3] Such is the main point of Rowan Williams; magisterial Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

[4] Here we should add that surely the initial qualifying test for a development is that it not contradict “the Word of God written” in its plain sense. So Hooker would have claimed. On this basis the case for same-sex unions founders at the outset. Still, the debate as it is being conducted is worth consideration.

[5] Hebrews 13:8.

[6] See Chadwick’s From Bousset to Newman (Cambridge, 1987).

[7] A good example of this may be found in Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (SPCK, 1989).

[8] It is sometimes claimed that our Church is distinguished by not having doctrines of our own, but as Stephen Sykes so eloquently argues in The Integrity of Anglicanism (Mowbrays, 1978), our prayer book tradition entails a number of doctrines, of which the present doctrine would be one. Surely the fondness for the Patristic maxim lex orandi lex credendionly reinforces this conclusion.

[9] The severing of creation and redemption was at the heart of the Gnostic heresy, to which moderns, with their own kind of dualisms, are particularly prone.

[10] I was helped on this point by our editor, Catherine Hamilton.

[11] It is mistaken ethical thinking to suppose that relations which are exceptions, such as older or sterile couples, disprove the point about the shape of the relations. The Roman Catholic Church is surely right at least in this much, that the capacity to bear children is normative for marital relations of a man and a woman. Nor should the liturgical revision to elevate other aims along with procreation in the BAS be taken to mean the removal of this aim.

[12] For this reason a mere addition of a canon cannot suffice to change marriage; one would have to change the words of Jesus found in the Gospel and quoted by the rite itself!

[13] By contrast we may note that Romans 1:26’s opposition is based precisely in the form of the relationship, male with male and female with female, which shows the element of disorder indicative of the disruption of sin of which we all partake. So arguments that describe the point of the passage as a rejection of the abusive nature of the particular relations described cannot be correct.

[14] This was precisely the point of the SMR, namely that this is a doctrine, and though not a “core doctrine,” yet it is one that is intimately linked to central doctrines of the faith. To conclude, as Synod did, that as a result one could be free to change the doctrine because it is not “core’ is to stand the report’s point on its head.

[15] 2 Cor. 4:1