A Statement by Bishop Michael Ingham
Let me begin by thanking all those who have sent messages of encouragement over the last few weeks. I have received cards, letters and phone calls from people across the diocese and all across Canada assuring me of support and prayer at this important time. To each of you I am very grateful.
I must also express my thanks to the members of the Council of Advice. We spent many hours listening to each other and to the different voices of the church. We did so in a spirit of mutual respect. We did so with concern for homosexual men and women who are members of our church, a concern we shared across our divergent theologies. Our meetings were centred around the celebration of the Eucharist. And I believe the Holy Spirit was with us as we listened for God’s direction.
In the last few weeks, many people have told me they would support the decision whatever it is. This has been deeply encouraging to me. It shows there is a strong constituency among Anglicans which can rise above partisan spirit and defensiveness. I commend this selfless generosity to every member of our church. If we are to move forward together on this issue, we will need a deep loyalty to our Lord, and a willingness to put private opinion aside for the sake of each other.
The Context of the Synod Vote
The blessing of same-sex unions is a complex issue, and it is a disputed issue. It is something on which Christians can in good conscience disagree. People of differing convictions, acting in good faith, justify their position on the basis of the Gospel and church tradition as they understand it. Each† feels they are acting on the basis of love for homosexual people themselves. Those who oppose the blessing of unions believe they must do so in obedience to the Bible and the history of Christian teaching. Those who favour change in this area believe it is time to accept modern understandings of human sexuality, and of the Bible, and that it is time to bring an end to discrimination in the church based on sexual orientation.
Homosexuality and same-sex unions have been under discussion in the Anglican Church of Canada for more than twenty years. The first House of Bishops Guidelines were published in 1979. The “Report On Human Sexuality” was authorized by the National Executive Council in 1986. It was widely read and provoked intense discussion across this country. The General Synod held its first open Forum on Homosexuality in Toronto in 1992, and the second one was televised live back here to Vancouver from Ottawa in 1995. Every parish in our diocese was given the opportunity to participate in a national study on homosexuality called “Hearing Diverse Voices” from 1994 to 1995, and many parishes did so.
Homosexuality has been under discussion within the diocese for more than ten years. Our diocesan Synods have had motions on the subject of one sort or another since 1989. In 1995 Synod asked me to establish a Task Force on Human Sexuality which worked for two years to produce resources for parish discussion. Two public forums were held in different parts of the diocese to discuss scriptural, doctrinal and ethical questions. In 1997 we had an open Day of Dialogue on Homosexuality to which several hundred people came.
Our debate last May took place against this considerable background. Members of Synod had been elected in the normal way by their parishes. They were chosen for their wisdom and ability, and not for their position on any single issue. The Synod was probably as representative a body as we could assemble in New Westminster. Our debate was characterized by a deep attentiveness to one another, by passionate commitment to the Gospel differently understood, and by a spirit of charity and mutual respect. You remember that we took the vote after a time of prayer, and by secret ballot. There was no coercion. It was a free vote, and the outcome was a narrow margin of support.
In the months afterwards it became clear that many in the diocese welcomed the decision, and many did not. For some it was the fulfilling of years of prayer that the church might one day fully accept gay and lesbian relationships. For others the Synod vote prompted preparations to leave the Anglican Church altogether. There were threats to plunge the diocese into litigation. Some felt pushed to the edge because of their commitment to tradition. There were angry comments, sometimes unfair and personal in nature, as people vented their feelings of loss.
At the same time, a number people came back to church after hearing of our decision in the media. There was new interest and enthusiasm in some of our parishes. Members of other dioceses looked to New Westminster with a sense of hope, glad that there had been a breakthrough in the discussion in Canada. All these reactions are normal and understandable. Changes in tradition always provoke divergent responses.
Following our Synod, the national House of Bishops took up the subject again, and so did the Lambeth Conference. The House of Bishops in November restated its opposition to the blessing of same-sex unions and said it would be inappropriate for a bishop and a diocese to authorize them. The Lambeth Conference, after a heated and rather sordid debate last summer, said it “cannot advise” the blessing of same-sex unions. It found homosexuality to be “incompatible with Scripture”, though at the same time it called for the church to listen to the voices of gay and lesbian Christians.
We are not alone, therefore, in trying to discern the will of God in this matter. Homosexuality is under debate throughout the world in almost every part of the church. There have been equally difficult and controversial issues in Christian history before now. No generation is spared the struggle of interpreting the Gospel in each new era. This always involves making decisions about whether to maintain the tradition unchanged, or whether to adapt to new insights and learning. Anglicanism has proven itself to be very skilled in finding the right balance between conservation and progress. I have no doubt we will do so on this question too.
Questions Raised by Motion 9
In the large volume of correspondence which has come in over the last eight months, a number of questions were raised about Motion 9 and its meaning. Some of them were put forward during the debate itself in May, and were sent in again because they were not answered in the debate. The questions can be classified roughly into three groups.
One had to do with doctrinal, scriptural and ethical issues. What is meant by ‘blessing’? What is meant by ‘unions’? Is it clear what we are talking about? Is the blessing of same-sex unions the same thing as marriage? Some wanted to see how same-sex unions could be justified on the basis of Scripture, and asked if modern biblical scholarship could provide a rationale for this. Others wanted to see a more comprehensive statement of human sexuality as a whole and how homosexual relationships are to be understood within Christian sexual ethics.
A second group of questions was about pastoral and liturgical issues. What would a ceremony in church look like? What would be required of its participants? What preparation should be necessary, and who should be accepted, whom refused? Some people were uncertain whether or not they could agree to the blessing of unions without an actual text before them of what is being proposed. Others wondered what long-term support the church is prepared to offer people who enter into these vows and commitments.
A third group of questions had to do with legal and canonical issues. It was argued that the diocese lacks the authority to proceed by itself in such a matter. A case was made that we would be in violation of the Solemn Declaration of 1893, the Thirty Nine Articles, and the Canons of General Synod. It was also said that, since Motion 9 involves doctrine, the vote in May should have been taken by orders, clergy and laity voting separately.
All these questions and concerns were taken very seriously. I have done my best to listen to the voices of the church, both within the diocese and beyond. Many of these voices represent an honest search for clarification and understanding of what the Synod had done or intended would be done. It is clear from the correspondence and from other reactions that not everyone in the diocese has had an opportunity to think through the issues entailed in Motion 9. Although there has been dialogue on this subject for years within the church, dialogue in many of our parishes only began after Motion 9 was passed.
Factors Leading To My Decision
In trying to determine how I should respond to Motion 9 I have struggled with a number of factors.
One is the presence in our church of gay and lesbian persons. They are baptized and communicant members within the Body of Christ and deserve the same respect, the same pastoral and sacramental care, as everyone else. It is a constant wonder to me that gay and lesbian Christians have kept faith with the church these many years, despite the church’s unwillingness to affirm their relationships, their commitments, their love. They have suffered rejection in both church and society. I think our Synod in 1998 took the decision it did from a desire to end discrimination against our fellow members in the Body of Christ, and that it did so believing this to be the will of God.
A second factor, however, is the position of the House of Bishops and the Lambeth Conference. These two bodies are clearly asking us to wait. There is a strong instinct among Anglicans to balance the sometimes conflicting imperatives of unity and diversity. We wish to be faithful to God and also to the church to which we belong. And it is clear that any action we take will have an impact on other members of the church, at least in Canada.
Canadian bishops have in the past been quite tolerant of diversity in a number of controversial areas, and often supportive of what is today called the local option. This has been true even in matters involving doctrine. But there is strong resistance among the present House to any local option with respect to homosexuality.
Nevertheless, neither the House of Bishops nor the Lambeth Conference is legislative. Neither has the power to compel compliance by this or any other diocese. In fact, since the Lambeth Conference it has become clear that compliance on this issue is far from uniform. 185 bishops from around the world, including nine Primates, have signed a statement pledging to work for the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church. Several dioceses in the Episcopal Church of the United States have voted to continue ordinations and blessings contrary to the Lambeth position. In this country more and more parishes are choosing to become “affirming” congregations, meaning open and welcoming to gay and lesbian people as singles, couples or families. But the fact remains that the majority of bishops, in Canada and throughout the world, are opposed to partnerships between people of the same sex.
A third factor in my decision is that our whole church is in a process of change on this subject. Change happens slowly, and it happens step by step. Canadian Roman Catholic scholar Gregory Baum has said that the church first begins to change its mind when it senses that some doctrine or tradition violates the primacy of love. When beliefs which were formerly accepted no longer meet the test of justice or compassion, the church begins a re-examination of its Scripture and doctrine. This is a slow process, but a necessary one, because Christians must be convinced that any change to tradition is a development of faith and not a repudiation of it.
Many Anglicans, and many others, appear to be changing their minds on this matter, but they need to know that in doing so they will remain faithful to the high ideals and truths of our heritage, and not engaging in mere imitation of the secular culture in which we live. As I have come to my decision, therefore, I have tried to find a way of proceeding by evolution rather than by revolution.
Related to this is a fourth factor. As a bishop I am conscious of my responsibility to guard the unity of the church. Change is achieved when the “mind of the faithful” – the ‘sensus fidelium’ – is ready to accept a new practice or belief. The consensus of the faithful does not have to be universal or unanimous for change to happen locally. That is, we don’t need to have the agreement of everyone everywhere. But it would need to have the strong support of the local church, that is, the diocese. If the Diocese of New Westminster wishes to move in the direction of change on same-sex unions a substantial consensus would be necessary to proceed.
My Decision on Motion 9
The decision I am announcing today is an attempt to balance these factors and to help find a way forward in this complex matter. I am of the view that neither a “yes” nor a “no” would be a satisfactory resolution to our discussions at this time. Even a qualified “yes” or a qualified “no” would be equally unsatisfactory because both would have the same effect, that is, to end the dialogue that has been started by Motion 9.
My decision is in six parts. Each is inter-connected with the others, and it follows now.
1. Diocese To Vote Again
I will ask the diocese to vote again on Motion 9 in two years time, to see if it wishes to confirm the decision of 1998. That will be at the regular Synod in 2001. Until that time, we shall maintain the status quo with respect to same-sex unions, out of consideration for the House of Bishops, Lambeth, and those members of our diocese for whom this is still a matter of conscientious difficulty.
2. Parishes Twinned For Dialogue
I shall request each parish, and every member of the diocese, to engage in a process of intentional dialogue on same-sex unions during these next two years. To this end, I will establish a system of “parish twinning.” Each parish will be linked with another in a process of learning, listening andstudy. The diocese will provide training and support to parish leaders, and study resources for the dialogue.
3. Bishop’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Voices
In response to the Lambeth Conference, I shall establish a Bishop’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Voices. This Commission will consist of representatives of the gay and lesbian community along with others. Its mandate will be to assist the parishes in hearing the voice and experience of gay and lesbian Christians. It will play a vital role in the dialogue process, and I expect every twinned parish to invite them and to hear from them.
4. Commission on Faith and Doctrine
I shall establish a Commission on Faith and Doctrine whose mandate will be to help parishes listen to the voice of Scripture and church teaching, both with the ears of tradition and with the insights of modern biblical and theological scholarship. This Commission will provide short study papers discussing the doctrinal and ethical issues raised by same-sex unions. I shall refer to them a number of specific questions for response. Their work will provide the basic written material for study and dialogue.
5. Canonical and Legal Commission
I shall establish a Commission on Legal and Canonical Matters. Their mandate will be to offer guidance on the question of whether the authority exists for a diocese and a bishop to authorize the blessing same-sex unions upon a resolution of its Synod. I shall be referring a number of specific legal questions to them, and their advice will also be available for study.
These last two new Commissions, on Doctrine and on Canons, will be small in size. I shall appoint people to them with appropriate expertise from across the Anglican Church of Canada, to ensure we have the best national as well as local expertise. In this way we shall demonstrate to the rest of the church that we have no wish to act independently. I shall invite submissions from all interested parties. The work of these Commissions will be available not only to New Westminster but to others who may wish to use it as well.
6. A Rite Of Blessing
I shall ask the Bishop’s Commission on Liturgy (which already exists) to prepare a rite for the blessing of same-sex unions to be authorized for use in the diocese should the decision be taken in due course to proceed. This is not to pre-judge the outcome of a future vote, but to satisfy the desire to know in advance what such blessings would look like if we were to proceed. The Liturgy Commission will be asked to consult with the Faith and Doctrine Commission to develop a theology for the rite. I will also ask them to draw up guidelines for the admission and pastoral preparation of people seeking the church’s blessing on their relationships, and their long-term support afterwards.
These six steps form the basis of my response to Motion 9. I am asking the diocese to continue the study, to continue the dialogue. I am proposing that we move forward slowly, that we move forward together, but that we keep moving. This process will take a full two years. It will require the active participation of every Anglican, of every point of view.
If the Synod of 2001 – or any future Synod – confirms this motion by a clear and substantial majority, and if no substantive legal or canonical impediments are found to exist, I shall be prepared at that time to give my consent to proceed. Until these conditions are met, we shall remain as we are, without prejudice to the fact that either the House of Bishops or the General Synod may wish at some point to take the matter further.
In announcing this decision today, I am deeply conscious that I am asking gay and lesbian Christians, and the many people who stand with them, for continued patience. I am asking you to help us understand more clearly your spiritual vocation within the Body of Christ. I am asking all members of the church to listen to our brothers and sisters in Christ with compassion.
I would ask that no one see this decision as either a victory or a defeat. It is my hope that these measures will further our dialogue rather than end it. I ask each of you to open your hearts to God and to each other. I ask you to enter this period of dialogue cooperatively and not subversively. And I ask your prayers for God’s guidance and peace, for me, for our church, and for all who live out their lives in faithfulness with those they love.
Written on Fri, Jan 15, 1999 at 1:11 pm
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