Bishops continue moratorium on same-gender blessings

Published November 5, 2007

London, Ont.

Canada’s Anglican bishops, at their regular fall meeting, decided to leave in place a set of pastoral guidelines concerning church services for gay couples that stops short of blessings or marriage. They also expressed serious concern about Canadian participation in activities widening the schism in the Anglican Communion.

During an extended meeting held Oct. 25-30, about 40 bishops and their spouses attended a huge church service at the John Labatt Centre arena celebrating the host diocese of Huron’s 150th anniversary. Archbishop Fred Hiltz, the primate, on Oct. 28 told the 8,000 attendees that the service theme of “Light and Life” is “grounded in the way we pray at every eucharist … We who drink (Christ’s) cup bring life to others. We whom the spirit lights bring light to the world.”

About 60 descendants of Huron’s first bishop, Benjamin Cronyn, attended the service, including actor Tandy Cronyn, daughter of actors Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. “This was very moving to me, very special,” she commented in a brief interview.

The episcopal couples enjoyed time together, visiting the Stratford Festival and engaging in a moderated discussion of “wellness in the episcopal household.” They were joined by their six Evangelical Lutheran counterparts for the service and for business meetings held Oct. 28-30.

Discussions on communications and on sexuality proved to be the thorniest of the shortened business meeting (the bishops meet in spring and fall, usually for four days) and two sessions were closed to the public.

The longest (90 minutes) concerned several aspects of the controversies surrounding homosexuality. Archbishop Hiltz, chairing the meeting, said before it was closed that bishops would discuss their pastoral statement from last spring that included the instruction that clergy may celebrate a eucharist and intercessory prayers with a gay couple but not a wedding or nuptial blessing.

“We need to open a conversation to see where we are,” he said. The bishops of Ottawa and Montreal, whose synods recently voted to approve same-sex blessings, also “would appreciate some input from us,” said Archbishop Hiltz.

Bishop Patrick Yu, suffragan (assistant) bishop of Toronto, said he could respond “on several levels,” but “not in front of the press,” and the meeting was closed. Afterwards, he commented that he felt “freed to be somewhat personal” concerning his thoughts in a closed session and that some bishops felt that “brainstorming” and considering “a range of responses” could take place more freely.

After the session, several bishops said serious concerns were raised about the activities of retired bishop Don Harvey, of the diocese of eastern Newfoundland and Labrador. He has participated in irregular consecrations of bishops who intend to minister to conservatives in the U.S. and, in a recent letter posted on the Anglican Essentials Web site, he said, “If you have been following events in the Anglican world, you have likely sensed that the years of talking and waiting are nearly over. Change is in the wind. Many primates are now convinced there is no solution for orthodox Canadian Anglicans within the established structures.” He has also visited conservative parishes that have broken away from the Vancouver-based diocese of New Westminster, the only Canadian diocese so far to permit same-sex blessings. Diocesan bishop Michael Ingham has criticized Bishop Harvey for not following church rules and asking permission to minister in the diocese.

Bishop Ralph Spence of Niagara said after the closed session that, “I am very frustrated over Don Harvey. When you start to talk schism, this house needs to deal with it.”

Bishop Mark MacDonald, the national indigenous bishop, agreed. “We are very concerned but there is not much clarity about (what the house of bishops can do about) it,” he said.

Bishop Ingham said he felt that “it is one thing to have traditional views; that’s all right, but not to undermine lawful authority put in place by synodical action. There was a consensus in the house to ask the primate and metropolitans (regional archbishops) to deal with the situation.” He added that, “It’s my opinion the canons (church laws) are fairly toothless when it comes to a retired person,” but also said other bishops felt the canons, or church laws – including one prohibiting bishops from exercising jurisdiction in another diocese without the diocesan bishop’s permission – may be brought to bear on retired bishops, also.

Archbishop Hiltz had no comment.

Meanwhile, there was a general consensus that the bishops’ pastoral statement, issued last April, was useful, said Bishop Spence. Some liberals find it attractive as it permits them to celebrate a church service with a civilly-married gay couple; some conservatives appreciate the fact that it does not allow same-sex weddings or blessings and, in essence, continues a moratorium on blessing ceremonies first imposed by the bishops in 2005. (New Westminster responded to the moratorium by limiting blessings to eight parishes that had requested permission earlier.)

Integrity, a support group for gay Anglicans, wrote to Archbishop Hiltz asking that the house of bishops lift the moratorium. He said after the closed session that his response to Integrity will be that “the position of the house as outlined in the pastoral statement remains.” The bishops did not “entertain any changes” in it, he said.

In terms of consultation, bishops Barry Clarke of Montreal and John Chapman of Ottawa each said they have not yet reached a decision on how they will act upon the votes of their synods. “It was useful to have a conversation with dioceses in the same position,” said Bishop Chapman, who added he wanted to see the decisions of the diocese of Niagara, whose Nov. 16-17 synod was scheduled to vote on the blessings issue. “I don’t want to act alone, but I don’t think I’ll need to. There is movement in the church (toward further acceptance of gay people); there is no going back.”

In open session, bishops discussed the reactions in several dioceses to the General Synod votes last June that said same-sex blessings do not contravene core church doctrine but declined to affirm dioceses’ authority to offer them. Reaction was fairly quiet in Western Newfoundland, Brandon (Manitoba) and Calgary, said their respective bishops, Percy Coffin, Jim Njegovan and Derek Hoskin.

Bishop Jim Cowan said seven priests in his diocese of British Columbia, angered that they may not offer same-sex blessings, signed a petition asking to have their permission to officiate at weddings withdrawn from the diocese and will make other provisions for marriages to take place at their churches.

Bishop Spence said the reaction in Hamilton, Ont.-based diocese of Niagara was a “firestorm” after General Synod. “There is frustration that Niagara, which has held the line, is not allowed to go forward (with same-sex blessings),” he said. If the matter arises again at synod, “my expectation is that I will not be able not to give my assent,” he said. (Niagara’s 2004 synod voted in favor of blessings, but Bishop Spence withheld his consent in favour of church unity.) On the other hand, the diocese contains clergy who lead the conservative Anglican Essentials group and was to be the location of a major meeting of that group in late November, after the synod. “If we are faced with parishes that decide to leave the diocese, we will need legal responses to that,” said Bishop Spence.

On the international level, the bishops discussed a statement from the joint standing committee of the international Anglican Consultative Council, which commented upon a meeting of the Episcopal Church’s house of bishops in late September in New Orleans. As previously reported, the committee felt the American bishops met the concerns of the wider communion by agreeing not to authorize public rites of same-sex blessings and agreeing to “exercise restraint” if called upon to approve the election of a gay candidate to the episcopate. However, the report also referred to a “growing pattern of alienation and competing jurisdictions.”

The Canadian bishops reported back from table discussions. Bishop George Bruce of Ontario said his group “affirmed the view that the Episcopal Church has gone a substantial way” but was “alarmed that the schism seems to be getting wider.”

Bishop Ron Ferris of Algoma said his group sensed “double-speak in the American responses,” saw “no one really backing away from the brink” and was “looking for hope but it is hard to find.

Archbishop Hiltz said he would bring the issue to the Council of General Synod, which was scheduled to meet Nov. 16-18, and formulate a response for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

In other news, the bishops:

n heard an update from church officials about the settlement agreement with the federal government limiting church liability for Indian residential schools. Most dioceses will receive refunds under the agreement and the government is in the process of setting up a “truth and reconciliation” commission to hear stories of former students;

n agreed that Evangelical Lutheran worship texts will be included in authorized worship for the Anglican Church of Canada;

n considered drafting a series of letters on the theology and importance of stewardship to the Canadian church.













  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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