Bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada met June 26 – the morning after General Synod ended – to discuss the ramifications of their slim vote against allowing dioceses to offer church blessing rites to gay couples.
“It will be perceived that the house of bishops scuttled the deal and there will be wide expectation that we have to work it out. ‘You break it, you pay for it,'” said Bishop Patrick Yu, suffragan (assistant) in the diocese of Toronto. Bishop David Ashdown, of Keewatin, said he has heard people express “a deep sense of betrayal by the house of bishops.” Bishop Gordon Light of the Anglican Parishes of the Central Interior (of British Columbia) said he heard “anger” and “disdained laughter.”
Bishop Anthony Burton of Saskatchewan, referring to differing conservative and liberal attitudes toward the decision, said, “bishops are feeling as though they are trying to hold opposites together.”
On June 24, synod lay delegates voted yes, 78 to 59, and clergy also said yes, 63 to 53, but the bishops voted no, 21 to 19. The bishops concurred, though, also by a 21 to 19 vote, with a motion that said same-sex blessings are not in conflict with the church’s core doctrine. Until the next General Synod in 2010, the issue is now in the hands of dioceses, where bishops have the power to set policy and discipline clergy.
In talking about his “no” vote, Bishop Percy Coffin of Western Newfoundland said that “on a personal level, I have no problem with this issue, but I had to take other things under consideration.” In Western Newfoundland, “a relatively shy culture, most of our gay people have moved to urban centres. The first-ever discussion in the diocese was in 2005. It is a bit tough to get a wholesome dialogue going where Western Newfoundlanders are,” he said.
More than one bishop noted that in the vastness of Canada, dioceses have widely varying degrees of comfort with the issue of homosexuality. On the last day of synod, clergy and lay delegates voted, 129 to 99 and bishops voted, 19 to 17, to study the issue further.
“We are all going to go back with different scenarios and we will need the wisdom of Solomon to move forward,” said Bishop Claude Miller of the diocese of Fredericton.
Archbishop Caleb Lawrence of Moosonee wondered aloud, “What will the reaction be at parishes, among the clergy? We are going into clergy conferences, diocesan synods, will they be bringing this to their own vote?”
The situation in the diocese of Niagara was also discussed. “We will go back to our synod in the fall and our perception is that 70 per cent are in favour (of same-sex blessings). (Bishop) Ralph (Spence) is faced with not allowing it to come to the floor or not giving his assent. It really is an impossible situation,” said Bishop-elect Michael Bird of Niagara. (Bishop Spence will retire next February. In 2004, the Niagara synod voted to allow same-sex blessings, but Bishop Spence withheld his consent until General Synod 2007.)
Several bishops asked about the status of a statement they passed in April, 2005 that they would “commit ourselves neither to encourage nor to initiate the use of such rites until General Synod has made a decision on the matter.” (At the time, the diocese of New Westminster, which had allowed blessings since 2002, said it would limit the number of churches that may offer such rites to the existing eight. At the post-Synod meeting, Bishop Michael Ingham said he would be holding diocesan consultations when he returned home to Vancouver.) However, the bishops reached no decision on the 2005 statement.
They also reviewed their statement from their most recent meeting last April, which said that the bishops “hope” that the sacraments of baptism, communion and confirmation would not be denied due to sexual orientation. Several bishops said they received criticism over the use of the word “hope” and the word should be stronger. However, they decided not to begin editing their statement and agreed each bishop could issue statements to their clergy that are more strongly-worded. Some bishops have already done so.
The statement also urged bishops “to develop the most generous pastoral response possible (to same-sex couples) within the current teaching of the church” then cited such examples as celebrating a eucharist with a civilly-married gay couple; they may not perform a nuptial blessing.
“I have no problem with a ‘generous pastoral response’ but I don’t and cannot accept homosexual behavior,” said suffragan bishop Larry Robertson of the Arctic. “What got missed is people who are same-sex attracted but choose not to pursue it. They feel totally left out and misunderstood,” said Archbishop Terrence Buckle of the Yukon.
However, Bishop Burton said that “part of what bishops do” is “respond pastorally to different situations.”
Archbishop Fred Hiltz, the new primate, noted that the consensus of the group was “take it (the pastoral statement) and use it around our context.” At the regular fall meeting of the bishops, in October, they will share their experiences, he said.