New Westminster synod and bishop approve same-sex blessings

The diocese of New Westminster will have same-sex blessings, but likely also fewer parishioners after its synod voted 63 per cent in favour of blessing the unions of gay and lesbian couples.

Following the early morning announcement of the results of a vote taken a day earlier, Rev. Trevor Walters (St. Matthew’s, Abbotsford) rose to withdraw his own motion which asked for the creation of a non-geographical diocese within New Westminster for traditional Anglicans. He then declared a state of “pastoral emergency” and walked out of synod, along with some members from nine congregations.

The dramatic step in 25 years of discussion on greater inclusion of gays and lesbians in the Anglican Church of Canada brought some synod members to tears — both out of jubilation for gay and lesbian members and sadness at the departure of fellow Anglicans.

“My reaction is shock,” said Rev. Trevor Fisher (St. Francis in-the-Wood), who said his parish will not be asking for permission to perform same-sex blessings. “If you were going to write the worst possible outcome, this would be it.”

Lynn Burch, one of Mr. Fisher’s parishioners, said she, on the other hand, was not shocked, though she thought synod voted for something without knowing what the consequences will be.

“It’s hard to be pleased with something which will ultimately be so divisive,” she said.

Before walking out of synod, Mr. Walters called the vote schismatic, “a tragic moment in history”, and described New Westminster as a “rebel diocese.” Outside synod moments later, he said the nine parishes that walked out and “members of at least six other parishes” are in touch with primates of Anglican provinces worldwide and will decide their future soon.

The nine churches, he said, are some of the largest in the diocese and contribute 24 per cent of its budget.

The churches whose members walked out were: Christ Church, Hope; St. Andrew’s, Pender Harbour; St. John’s, Shaughnessy; St. Martin’s, North Vancouver; St. Matthew’s, Abbotsford, St. Simon’s, North Vancouver; Church of Emmanuel, Richmond; Church of the Good Shepherd, Vancouver and St. Matthias and St. Luke, Vancouver. The last three are Chinese congregations.

Those walking out are generally represented by the Essentials group, a network of traditional, conservative-minded Anglicans, which held its last conference here last year just two weeks after the last diocesan synod.

Neale Adams, communications officer of the diocese, said that while members of congregations are free to leave the church, parishes cannot. “If members leave, then the remaining members are the parish and they maintain the facilities. This is not a congregational church.”

Following the vote and its fallout, New Westminster Bishop Michael 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. — In this we ask for the support of the wider church, not condemnation, and patience from those who live in very different social contexts from our own.”

The primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, meanwhile, said he was not surprised by synod’s vote to move ahead with the blessings.
“The clergy and laity have made this choice before. Michael (Ingham) had said before that next time, he would not withhold consent,” said Archbishop Michael Peers.

While the Primate said he believed the bishop and the diocese had acted responsibly in reaching a decision on same-sex blessings, he fully expected the matter would be on the agenda of the next meeting of the Canadian House of Bishops and quite possibly at the meeting of General Synod in 2004.

“Michael hasn’t been anything but candid with the House,” about his plans to give consent to a rite for same-sex blessings, said Archbishop Peers. Because the House of Bishops is not a constitutional body, he added, it would not be in a position to overrule Bishop Ingham. As for General Synod, he said, “There will certainly be people who will want to test the authority of a diocesan synod to make that kind of decision.”

The head of the Vancouver chapter of the gay and lesbian Anglican group Integrity, meanwhile, said he was saddened at the departure of so many synod members, including the clergy from his own parish.

Steve Schuh, a member of St. John’s, Shaughnessy, said he was joyful that the church was now saying “welcome”, yet the walkout “says to me that they have a great deal of contempt for gay and lesbian people. It says to me they can’t be in a church which accepts me.”

Still, said Mr. Schuh, he planned to worship at St. John’s the following day, Sunday. “It is my parish,” said the self-described evangelical Anglican.

When synod began, members were originally to vote on Motion 4, which asked Bishop Ingham to move ahead with a rite for the blessing of same-sex unions, based on the two previous synod votes on the matter.

In both 1998 and 2001, Bishop Ingham withheld his consent to similar motions that passed, saying that the margin was too slim. This year’s motion also asked the bishop to provide a conscience clause to protect clergy and parishes which could not support such blessings and to develop a process for parishes wishing to perform same-sex unions.

The two movers of Motion 4, however, withdrew their motion and urged synod members to vote for the bishop’s alternative proposal.
Bishop Ingham’s plan provides for:

  • An episcopal visitor, a bishop who will offer pastoral care to those parishes and clergy who desire it. The visiting bishop would hold no other authority in the diocese;
  • A conscience clause guaranteeing no discrimination against any member of synod based on their feelings on same-sex unions;
  • An approved rite of blessing. Parishes would first need to vote on whether to perform blessings and then ask permission of the bishop.

In introducing his proposal, which he had presented to conservative clergy, synod members and diocesan council the week before synod, Bishop Ingham gave a background to the dialogue on the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church and in the diocese in recent decades.

He said churches of different denominations in Holland, Germany, the United States and Canada have been blessing same-sex relationships for several years. In the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A, he said, many dioceses openly accept gay unions — for more than 20 years, in the diocese of Rochester.

Even the Anglican bishop ordinary of the Canadian armed forces, Montreal Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, has “not withheld consent” on same-sex unions, said Bishop Ingham.

Throughout the first day of synod, most members carried on the business of the church while a few fielded repeated media inquiries.

Maureen Ashfield, who together with her partner, Laura-Lynn McBain, hopes to have one of the first sanctioned same-sex blessings at their parish, St. Margaret’s, Cedar Cottage, said in an interview that she hoped the vote would go through so that synod could move along with the work of the church. Ms. Ashfield, the mother of an 8-year-old daughter and a health care worker, seconded two motions at synod: Motion 4, asking the bishop to move ahead with same-sex blessings (later withdrawn), and a motion urging support for public education.

In synod debates about education and health care, she predicted, “I can well imagine that I will be on the same side as those against same-sex blessings. There is not one issue that will divide us. Our faith is what informs us and pulls us together.”

Following the vote, Ms. Ashfield said she was disappointed that even though the result was in her favour, “we haven’t actually resolved it.” Now, she said, there will be messy legal issues around diocesan and parish properties. “We’re into another era of ongoing battle.”

The debate on Motion 7, which endorsed Bishop Ingham’s proposal, was long, made even more so by the heat of a warm June afternoon.

At any one time, up to 15 members were queued up at each of the three microphones. On either side of the college gymnasium which was the synod floor, a microphone represented the “for” and “against” factions speaking to the issue. A third microphone, in the centre of the floor, was for those who simply had questions. One member approached that microphone, upset by the sight of members “visibly taking sides” by lining up on opposite sides of the gym. “It’s great for the media,” complained the woman, adding that it was bad for synod and troubling for her personally.

Rev. Ed Hird, rector of St. Simon’s and a spokesperson for many of the Essentials clergy, read from a letter signed by five current primates and two retired archbishops of the Anglican Communion. They said a positive vote by New Westminster “would be viewed not only as a grave affront but will also set in motion deliberations on breaking communion” with their dioceses.

The letter was signed by David Gitari, Archbishop of Kenya, Bernard Malango, Archbishop of Central Africa, K.J. Samuel, Moderator and Primate of South India, Yong Ping Chung, Archbishop of South East Asia, Rev. Drexel Wellington Gomez, Archbishop of the West Indies, Harry Goodhew, former Archbishop of Sydney and retired primate Maurice Sinclair, former presiding bishop of the Southern Cone.

Bishop Ingham, however, assured synod that the bishops in U.S. dioceses which have allowed same-sex blessings — many of them for years — have continued to receive invitations from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Lambeth meeting of bishops every 10. That, he said, is the true test of whether a diocese and a bishop are still in communion with the Anglican church worldwide.

“The Anglican Communion consists of those in communion with Canterbury and with its bishop,” said Bishop Ingham. “There is an episcopal link which binds them together.”

Furthermore, he said, “many of the primates who wrote come from very different contexts” from the diocese of New Westminster.

But the 254 lay members and 109 clergy did not only talk about sex. They heard reports about the diocese’s stewardship program, Stewardship in Action, and from the Vancouver School of Theology. They also debated and voted on a handful of social justice motions.

Just before forging ahead with the debate, Bishop Ingham made a dig at the local and national media sprinkled around the meeting floor who were waiting for the debate and vote on same-sex blessings.

“I find it interesting that, in the last hour, we have been talking about the poor, the marginalized, about public education, but all the television cameras have all been turned off,” he said.

Synod passed motions which reflected the province’s recent struggles with cutbacks to health care, social services and public education. One motion encouraged parishes to speak out as Christians to the provincial government on behalf of vulnerable people in the province.

Members also passed a second motion affirming their commitment to public education in the province being equal opportunity for all children.

A third successful motion asked the provincial government to honour its agreement to maintain quality care at health care facilities operated in conjunction with faith groups.


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