Canadian Anglicans sort out implications of same-gender blessing decision

June 22, 2002

Canadian Anglicans are sorting out the implications of a decision by the Diocese of New Westminster at its meeting in Vancouver June 15 to bless committed same-gender relationships. The diocese had voted in favor of the motion at two previous meetings, in 1998 and 2001, but Bishop Michael Ingham withheld his consent until the vote was more decisive. The measure passed by a vote of 215 in favor and 129 against.

Reaction immediately following the vote was swift and visceral. A group of delegates and visitors walked out of the meeting after Ingham announced the results. 'This is a tragic moment in history,' fumed the Rev. Trevor Walters. 'We must declare a state of pastoral emergency.' He called the vote schismatic and said that parishes opposed to the action were consulting with the primates of other churches in the Anglican Communion.

Dismissing a provision intended to protect dissidents by providing an 'episcopal visitor' from outside the diocese, Walters said that the motion was illegal under church law, contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture against homosexuality, and defies a resolution of the 1998 Lambeth Conference of the world's Anglican bishops warning against such blessings.

On the other hand, Steve Schuh, president of the Vancouver chapter of Integrity, said, 'At long last the church has found a way to give us a space to recognize God's blessing in our life. It's been a long time coming.' His home parish, however, one of the largest in the diocese, was among those that walked out of the meeting.

The task of reconciliation

Addressing the meeting after the walkout, Ingham said, 'No one is being excluded from our fellowship today. We have not taken sides with one group in our church against another. We have chosen to live together in mutual respect. We are deeply aware that there is much more work to do to build up mutual understanding and reconciliation.'

Archbishop Michael Peers, primate of the Anglican Church in Canada, said that Ingham had acted responsibly and that the diocese had not acted contrary to church law. Refusing to answer questions about his personal opinions, he did point out that the House of Bishops was on record that it was 'not prepared to endorse' such blessings. Peers explained that 'what I supported was the way the bishop proposed to deal with people who would be unhappy with the decision.'

Responding to a proposal by opponents calling for a jurisdiction with its own bishop, Peers said that is 'not possible.' In a June 16 letter to other primates of the Anglican Communion, he said that he recognized that the decision would create tension, but he asked them 'to recognize and to respect the authority of the bishop and synod within the Diocese of New Westminster.' He reminded them that one of the major principles common within Anglicanism is 'the understanding that a bishop has no authority to intervene in the life of a diocese other than his or her own, unless the bishop of that diocese has given permission to do so.'

In the meantime, a group of 23 bishops in the Episcopal Church USA signed a statement in which they 'express our gravest sorrow and alarm over the decision' as a violation of Scripture, the 'virtually unanimous witness of the Christian tradition,' the Lambeth Conference and the Canadian House of Bishops. In the statement released by Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, the bishops also 'declare our solidarity with those faithful clergy and congregations who have dissociated themselves from the bishop and Diocese of New Westminster for conscience and the gospel.'

A source of confusion

A group of 13 Canadian bishops issued a statement expressing 'regret' over the decision which they said is 'in conflict with the moral teaching of Holy Scripture and the tradition of the universal Church.' They said that 'matters of moral teaching and Church order and discipline are beyond the jurisdiction of a single diocese acting alone...It can only cause confusion for a local expression of the Church to purport to bless that which Anglicans globally and nationally have decided they cannot bless.' They called on the diocese to 'withhold implementation' of the motion.

And a letter signed by five current and two retired primates from the Anglican Communion, sent before the vote, warned, 'It is important that you understand that the adoption of blessing of same-sex unions by your diocesan synod would be viewed not only as a grave affront but will also set in motion deliberations on breaking communion' with other dioceses around the world. Ingham told the synod that bishops in the Episcopal Church in the USA have allowed blessings but that they were still in communion with the archbishop of Canterbury and other churches in the Anglican Communion. 'The Anglican Communion consists of those in communion with Canterbury and with its bishop. There is an episcopal link which binds them together,' he said, adding that many of the primates who signed the letter come from 'very different contexts' than the Diocese of New Westminster.

Departure from tradition

Archbishop of Canterbury George L. Carey, appealed to Canadian Anglicans to continue to work together over the dispute. Responding to an appeal from Walters following the decision, Carey said that he still stands firmly behind the Lambeth resolution and that, despite criticism, 'I do not accept that homosexual relationships can be treated as being on a par with the man-woman ideal portrayed in Holy Scripture.'

He said that he was saddened and could 'fully understand the dismay this causes to those in the diocese who disapprove of this departure from the Anglican moral tradition and the views of the majority of their fellow believers throughout the Anglican Communion.' Yet Carey added that he was sorry to learn of the walk-out and was 'alarmed by the statements of those who appear to be determined to look elsewhere for episcopal oversight in place of the extended episcopal support which Bishop Ingham has offered.'

His letter concluded, 'Let us make no mistake, these are difficult and painful issues--both for those who hold strong views on each side of the argument, and for those who remain undecided.' While the dialogue continues, he said that it was wrong to walk away.

Peers welcomed the letter, saying that while Carey's 'views on same-sex relationships are well-known, what is not so often acknowledged is his deep commitment to the unity of the church. Peers praised the archbishop as a model who 'even in the face of strong disagreements, including his own convictions on the issue of homosexuality, has acted to uphold the church's order.' On the other hand, Peers questioned Carey's proposal to refer the issue to this summer's meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in Hong Kong because that meeting would come before the House of Bishop and the Council of the General Synod of the Canadian church. 'External advice that precedes our process of consultation within the Anglican Church of Canada could be perceived as not appropriate,' he said.