The decision to marry two women in Hamilton ‘s Christ’s Church Cathedral last August was “either a moment of grace or a moment of error,” said Rev. Peter Wall, dean of the diocese of Niagara and rector of the cathedral. Dean Wall confirmed in an interview that he was the priest disciplined by Bishop Ralph Spence after performing a same-sex wedding in a Niagara parish.
The wedding took place Aug. 25 in the cathedral with about 90 people in attendance.
Gay couples have been able legally to marry in Ontario since June, when the provincial court of appeal ruled that limiting civil marriage to heterosexuals was discriminatory and unconstitutional. However, the canons, or church laws, of the Anglican Church of Canada restrict marriage to male-female couples and the church is wrestling with the issue of whether gay relationships should be blessed.
Bishop Spence announced in early September that a priest in the diocese had presided over the wedding of a gay couple, that he was suspending the priest’s licence to marry for an unspecified time and that the priest would continue in parish ministry. Bishop Spence did not identify the priest at the time. The marriage licence was restored Nov. 1.
“This was a mind of heart over a mind of reason. Though I disagreed with him, I understood that,” said Bishop Spence.
Noting that British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario have legalized gay marriage, Dean Wall said, “I need to trust that God’s grace may be extended to same-sex couples. Here were two people who demonstrated to me that the spirit worked within them, that the light shined through.” The couple has been together 14 years.
He had met with the couple earlier in the summer and learned that they had been turned away from another church. “I was showing them around the cathedral. I always thought of the cathedral as a welcoming place and I had either a moment of grace or a moment of error and I said, ‘It is your choice if you wish to get married here,'” he recalled. Dean Wall said he modified the marriage service in the Book of Alternative Services to fit the female couple.
“Breaking the rules is a dangerous thing to do,” he acknowledged, “but sometimes the rules need to be bent.” He considered, he said, “the higher purpose of living what we say we believe against the rules by which we manage ourselves.”
Bishop Spence said he learned of the wedding a day later, when Dean Wall came to his office to info rm him. Complicating matters was the fact that Bishop Spence had sent an e-mail to all clergy in the diocese a few days prior to the wedding, responding to a newspaper story citing rumours that an unidentified Anglican priest was planning to bless a gay couple in a garden ceremony. (The rumours proved to be inaccurate and were not referring to the planned wedding at the cathedral.) Bishop Spence’s e-mail reminded clergy that the blessing of same-sex couples was not permitted in Niagara and that such action would be a matter for discipline.
After receiving Bishop Spence’s e-mail, Dean Wall met with the couple in his office, then prayed alone. “I prayed that I could be someone who could welcome all people into the church. I believe very strongly that God loves us all with all of who we are. I hope I can be part of a church that doesn’t sanction so unkindly the way we live out who we are,” he said.
The status of gay people in the church strikes close to home, said Dean Wall, who is married with two children. “Significant people in my life have been gay. I had a brother who died of AIDS. They have taught me a lot about what it is to be a real person, a whole person. I consider myself enormously blessed to have lots of good examples of same-sex couples who are deeply committed to each other, deeply cherishing,” he said.
Both Bishop Spence and Dean Wall said their meeting after the wedding was very emotional. “I felt blindsided,” said Bishop Spence, who subsequently told the fall meeting of the house of bishops that he has tried to honour the bishops’ resolution not to move on the same-sex blessing issue until General Synod 2004 discusses the question.
Dean Wall said his intent was not to defy his bishop. “I have the greatest respect and affection for my bishop and I understand and accept his disciplining of me,” he said.
Bishop Spence said he has received criticism that his discipline of Dean Wall was too light. “I respected his ministry and did not want it to end,” said the bishop. “He is a creative, dynamic individual; that is what makes his ministry successful. He’s been disciplined and told not to do it again. He’s made a promise to me he would not do it again. Peter’s ministry is going on.”
A cathedral dean is considered the second-highest position in the diocese, after bishop. Dean Wall, 52, is a member of the national church’s faith, worship and ministry committee and chair of the worship committee for General Synod 2004. He also holds the position of diocesan liturgical officer and is on the board of the Anglican Foundation and serves on the team leading national consultations on how the question of same-sex blessings will come before General Synod. He is also the chair of Liturgy Canada , a national organization that researches and publishes material concerning liturgy.