The blessing on Wednesday evening of a same-sex union in the diocese of New Westminster has been met with both joy and dismay. Less than a week after the rite of blessing of same-sex unions was issued by the bishop of the diocese of New Westminster to six parishes which had requested it, Rev. Margaret Marquardt blessed the 21-year same-sex relationship of Anglicans Michael Kalmuk, 49, and Kelly Montfort, 62, at St. Margaret’s, Cedar Cottage, church in east Vancouver.
Bishop Michael Ingham had authorized the controversial and contested rite – or format of the blessing ceremony – on Friday, May 23, just days before an international primates meeting declared itself unable as a body to support same-sex blessings, and one week in advance of his own diocesan synod May 30-31.
The blessing came one year after the New Westminster diocesan synod voted to allow same-sex blessings in parishes requesting them. It was the third time that synod had voted on the issue; the bishop had previously withheld his consent to the decisions in 1998 and 2001, but agreed to go ahead last year when presented with a clear majority vote of 63 per cent in favour. That decision led to eight parishes walking out of the synod meeting, declaring themselves in impaired communion with the diocese.
In a media release the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, expressed his "sadness and disquiet at the move" by the diocese. Archbishop Williams had said previously that there was no theological consensus in support of same-sex unions.
"In taking this action and ignoring the considerable reservations of the church, repeatedly expressed and most recently by the primates, the diocese has gone significantly further than the teaching of the church or pastoral concern can justify and I very much regret the inevitable tension and division that will result from this development," the archbishop said.
Archbishop Williams was referring to the statement from the international primates’ meeting, held just days earlier in Brazil and attended by the Canadian primate, Archbishop Michael Peers.
Chris Ambidge, spokesperson for Integrity, a lobby group for gay and lesbian Anglicans, said his group has been working for 28 years "for more full membership of gays and lesbians in the body of their church.
"This is a very significant step along that path and I praise God that this has happened," he said. "In retrospect, I’m glad that Bishop Ingham has been as careful as he has been. But there comes a time when you need to move."
Tension, in-fighting and recrimination over the same-sex issue spread beyond the boundaries of the diocese to the international forum and saw Bishop Ingham publicly chastised last fall by the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey. (In his last presidential address at the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Hong Kong in September, 2002, Archbishop Carey singled out Bishop Ingham for his diocese’s decision to allow the blessing of same-sex unions "without regard for the rest of us and against the clear statement of Lambeth ’98.")
The Canadian primate gave a different interpretation of the international primates’ recent statement in a media release issued within hours of Archbishop Williams’ reaction.
"I share their (the primates’) assessment that the absence of consensus makes it impossible to speak with one mind in support of the actions of the synod and bishop of the diocese of New Westminster," said Archbishop Peers.
"At the same time, reports that characterize the primates’ letter as a direct and unanimous repudiation of those actions are wrong. The primates do not, at our meetings, either move resolutions or take votes. We seek the deepest possible expression of unity in whatever terms are available to us.
"In this case, our common mind accurately reflects the potential for division and the absence of theological consensus among us and within the churches that make up the Anglican Communion."
Meanwhile, the group of parishes which walked out of synod last year in protest of the same-sex vote expressed its displeasure with the release of a blessing rite.
"This unilateral action," said the group in a statement, "isolates the diocese and seeks to pre-empt the issue scheduled to be addressed at General Synod 2004. Never before has a single diocese so abruptly and brazenly repudiated the church’s 38 primates and their desire for Anglican unity."
Rev. Trevor Walters of St. Matthews, Abbotsford, a spokesperson for the group, which calls itself the Anglican Communion in New Westminster (ACiNW), said he felt "grief, great sadness and a great sense of having lost the church as we have known it" when he heard of the blessing.
He predicted that the blessings in New Westminster would make the ACiNW coalition grow rapidly.
The ACiNW had campaigned the church for months for an alternate bishop and recently received an offer from Bishop Terrence Buckle of the diocese of the Yukon to be their bishop until General Synod 2004. Bishop Ingham called the offer interference and asked that Bishop Buckle be disciplined.
Instead, Bishop Ingham asked Bishop William Hockin of the diocese of Fredericton to act as "episcopal visitor" to clergy and parishes which do not support same-sex blessings. An episcopal visitor may provide pastoral support but has no jurisdiction in the diocese.
Mr. Walters said, "We have had at least 10 churches tell us that as soon as a blessing went ahead they would join us in asking for Bishop Buckle to be bishop."
Bishop Ingham said upon releasing the rite that it was not a marriage ceremony but, rather, "a blessing of permanent and faithful commitments between persons of the same sex in order that they may have the support and encouragement of the church in their lives together under God."
In an interview, Bishop Ingham said the St. Margaret’s blessing caught him by surprise. "I found out about it when a reporter called me for a comment," he said. He noted that the parish had been one of the original movers of the motion in favor of same-sex blessings.
The timing of the rite had nothing to do with the primates’ meeting but was done to complete his commitment to synod made a year earlier, Bishop Ingham said.
"I agreed a year ago to complete this process. It’s been a long process of trying to be reconciled with those who find this difficult," he said. Earlier this year facilitated talks aimed at reconciliation between the ACiNW on one side and the bishop and diocesan representatives on the other, broke down.
Parishes authorized to use the rite are St. Margaret’s, St. Mark’s, St. Paul’s and Christ Church Cathedral, all in Vancouver, St. Agnes, North Vancouver, and St. Laurence, Coquitlam.