In June 2002 the Diocese of New Westminster in the Anglican Church of Canada voted by a substantial majority to authorize the blessing of same-gender relationships, launching an international firestorm that is still smoldering.
Eight parishes out of 80 walked out of the synod meeting in protest and formed what they called the Anglican Communion in New Westminster (ACiNW), drawing substantial support from conservatives around the world.
Priests in those parishes directly challenged the authority of Bishop Michael Ingham who in turn filed disciplinary charges against them for disobeying the bishop. Ingham appointed a Commission of Enquiry to consider charges under canon law for "disobedient and disrespectful conduct" by the clergy.
"I think it's a last resort really after we've exhausted every avenue of reconciliation," said Ingham in October. "What has happened is the clergy have broken away from the diocese and the bishop. They've illegally asserted the powers of another bishop and that fundamentally attacks the structures of the church which actually have protected them."
That bishop was Terry Buckle of the Yukon who last March offered his episcopal oversight of the New Westminster parishes. At a September 7 service held in Delta, British Columbia, eight Canadian bishops and two primates from abroad "commissioned" him to provide oversight for the parishes. As a result, he was also threatened with disciplinary action by Archbishop David Crawley, the metropolitan for British Columbia and was formally inhibited from functioning in the diocese by Ingham.
Crawley said that "parishes cannot remove themselves from the authority of their diocesan bishop and place themselves under the authority of another bishop" and any parishes that accept that kind of oversight "are acting unlawfully and contrary to the canons of the Anglican Church of Canada." Any bishop claiming that authority "can be suspended, deprived of his or her position as bishop, or be deposed from the order of bishops."
At its November meeting, the Canadian bishops asked the primate, Archbishop Michael Peers, to establish a task force to draw up terms and conditions for "adequate provision for episcopal oversight of dissenting minorities," as strongly urged by the meeting of Anglican Primates in mid-October. The bishops also called on Buckle to "refrain from exercising episcopal ministry" in New Westminster and for Crawley not to proceed with action against Buckle.
At the same time it asked Ingham not to proceed with disciplinary action against the dissenting priests in his diocese and said a mediator appointed by the task force should "negotiate an interim role for the person exercising episcopal oversight mutually acceptable to the diocesan and the dissenting parishes." The mid-October Primates' Meeting at Lambeth Palace in London had asked the Canadians and the Episcopal Church for such a provision.
In response, Buckle withdrew his offer to provide episcopal oversight in New Westminster. "After much prayerful thought and reflection I have reached the conclusion that it necessary at this point in time for me to withdraw my offer of Alternate Episcopal Oversight to the parishes of the ACiNW," he said.
In a November 11 statement, Ingham said, "Since March this year the illegal interference of the Bishop of Yukon in the Diocese of New Westminster has been the principal obstacle to reconciliation between the large majority of Anglicans here and those in parishes disaffected with the Diocese's decision to offer pastoral support to people in same-sex committed relationships."
He said that the withdrawal was "a step forward in restoring the order of the church," adding that he would "now seek a stay of proceedings against those clergy in this diocese who have placed themselves under his leadership."
Ingham added, "Let me repeat that no priest or lay person in this diocese has been compelled to act against their beliefs in the matter of same-sex unions. From the beginning, we have asked only that those on all sides of this question respect each other's integrity and beliefs. The failure by some clergy and parishes to do this has created the unhappy situation that has attracted the attention of people around the world."
Bishop William Hockin of Fredricton, a conservative appointed by Ingham last May as an "episcopal visitor" for the dissenting parishes was not acceptable to them. In a November 12 statement he pointed out that the issue at stake had become "a national and international debate with serious consequences for the unity of the church. New Westminster, because of its unilateral action without the consent of the national church, is a test-case, a demonstration of what can happen to a church that moves quickly to implement this kind of 'blessing" when a sizable minority is in clear opposition."
Hockin said that in his visit to the diocese he found "deep currents of anger, distrust and sadness, all of which are seriously damaging the unity and community of that diocese." And he concluded by expressing his fears that the example set by New Westminster led to "serious fears for the unity and peace of our church." Even though the New Westminster synod vote was 60 percent, that "is not sufficient to change church policy on such an important and passionate issue. It only leaves a sizable and significant minority feeling marginalized, abandoned and without a place."