Same-sex issue again threatens to divide diocese

The diocese of New Westminster faces deep division as it prepares for a third vote this weekend on whether or not to ask its bishop to approve the blessing of same-sex unions.

Twice already in previous diocesan synods, motions approving same-sex blessings have been passed, and twice Bishop Michael Ingham has declined consent because he felt the vote was won too narrowly.

Anticipating a move toward fuller inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church, a clergy-led group is asking for the appointment for a “flying bishop” to minister to parishes and clergy who cannot abide a decision to bless same-sex relationships.

A second motion calls for a new “non-geographical diocese” within the boundaries of New Westminster for those who are unable to remain in full communion with their bishop and with the diocese.

The diocesan synod takes place June 13-15, 2002, at Capilano College, Vancouver.

In both 1998 and 2001, the votes on same-sex unions passed narrowly: 179 delegates (51 per cent) in favour, 170 against in 1998; 56.5 per cent in favour in 2001.

Although one motion before the June synod uses 60 per cent as an acceptable majority, Bishop Ingham has been reluctant to put a number to what he would consider an acceptable margin, saying that he would know it when he saw it; it would be as obvious as a “beautiful sunset”.

While the previous two motions asked the bishop to authorize clergy in the diocese to bless covenanted same-sex unions, the motion before synod delegates — Motion 4 — this year encourages the bishop to:

  • prepare a rite for the blessing of committed same-sex unions;
  • provide a conscience clause to protect clergy and parishes who cannot support same-sex blessings;
  • develop a process of consent for parishes wishing to offer same-sex unions.

Anticipating a vote in favour of that motion, other synod delegates have drafted a reactive motion (Motion 5) asking that, if the bishop consents to the advent of same-sex unions in the diocese, he also provide alternative episcopal oversight for parishes that “find themselves unable to remain in full communion with the bishop and the diocese of New Westminster.”

Another motion, Motion 6, asks diocesan synod to work with the ecclesiastical province to establish a diocese within the boundaries of New Westminster to provide for parishes “who because of conscience find themselves unable to remain in full communion with the bishop and diocese of New Westminster.”

Any such parish would have to vote at least 60 per cent in favour of moving its allegiance to a new non-geographical diocese.

It is uncertain whether any of the three contentious motions will make it to the floor of synod. Various groups and individuals on both sides of the issue have been in discussion in an attempt to avoid a bitter fight at synod.

Those behind motions 5 and 6 are generally represented by the Essentials coalition. A network of traditional, conservative-minded Anglicans, Essentials held its last conference in 2001 in the diocese of New Westminster, just two weeks after the last diocesan synod.

Rev. Ed Hird, a spokesperson for Essentials and one of about 40 Essentials clergy in the diocese, says the coalition is praying that Motion 4 is defeated and that the bishop will not give his approval for same-sex blessings.

If same-sex blessings are approved, the coalition sees three avenues:

  • that the house of bishops offer alternative episcopal oversight (the group has met with Archbishop David Crawley, the metropolitan of the province, but no decision has yet been made);
  • that there be an appeal to the primates of the Anglican Communion and the Archbishop of Canterbury for intervention;
  • that ties be forged with the breakaway Anglican Mission in America group, formed in 2000.

Steve Schuh, president of Integrity Vancouver, the Anglican church’s gay and lesbian ministry, said in an interview that he is ambivalent about the issue of alternative episcopal oversight.

While he concedes the concept would be “canonically messy”, he empathises with Anglicans who cannot receive pastoral care from a bishop from whom they differ so dramatically. A member of St. John’s, Shaughnessy, a conservative evangelical parish which he says has not been supportive of any dialogue with gays and lesbians, he continues as a parishioner because its theology is a good fit and he considers it his ministry to be a gay Anglican in a traditional parish. Still, he says, he would find it difficult to go to his parish priest for pastoral care.
But, Mr. Schuh said, if alternative episcopal oversight were permitted for conservatives in a liberal diocese, an argument could be made that gays and lesbians in a diocese with a conservative bishop could request a flying bishop as well.

(The Church of England provides flying bishops, or episcopal visitors, for clergy and parishes that do not agree with the ordination of women.)

Apart from having a literature table in a display area, Integrity has no standing at synod. Integrity members and supporters may only vote if they are delegates.

Mr. Schuh does object to motions 5 and 6 being tied to same-sex blessings.

“I’m afraid that gay and lesbian Anglicans are being made the scapegoat for the Essentials agenda,” said Mr. Schuh, who believes that Essentials would like to see alternative episcopal oversight in any case, even if the bishop did not give his consent to same-sex blessings; many Essentials members, he said, disagree with the bishop and diocese on other matters, including the use of the Book of Alternative Services and the new hymnbook. “I think the two motions that came forward were contingent on Bishop Ingham approving same-sex unions. I’d argue they should be separate.

“Our inclusion in the church does not require the exclusion of anybody else.”

Several congregations and dioceses in the Episcopal Church in the United States either already perform same-sex blessings, have drafted a rite or have issued standards for blessing same-gender relationships.

The dioceses of Delaware, El Camino Real and Newark, for instance, are all on record as having a rite or standards for blessing for same-gender relationships. The diocese of Rochester in New York state has blessed same-gender relationships since the early 1970s. The issue is expected to loom large at next summer’s General Convention which is likely to ask for a liturgy to bless same-gender relationships.


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