For five years, a table has sat empty at the synod of the diocese of New Westminster. It is set aside for dissenting parishes that walked out of the synod in 2002 and disassociated themselves from the diocese due to its support for the blessing of same-sex couples.
For five years, an empty table has sat among the bustling hall full of tables occupied by 300 delegates and mounds of paperwork in the diocese of New Westminster’s annual synod, or governing meeting.
The table has always been “set aside for the dissenting parishes” that walked out of synod in 2002 when the Vancouver-based diocese voted to allow local congregations to offer blessing ceremonies to gay couples, said diocesan communications officer Neale Adams. They are always welcome to return, he added.
It is a poignant symbol that a minority (eight out of 80 parishes) considered the decision an outrage that contradicted the Bible and historic church teaching that homosexuality is sinful. A majority viewed it as a positive breakthrough in favor of justice, inclusion and a less-literal interpretation of Scripture.
New Westminster’s action, along with the American Episcopal Church’s election of a gay bishop, continues to reverberate around a world in which the Anglican Communion and other denominations are emotionally debating the role of homosexuals in the church.
For the diocese, “things are going very well,” said Bishop Michael Ingham, who has been in office since 1994. “There was a lot of negative energy five years ago and that’s behind us now. Energy has returned to mission, ministry, outreach and evangelism. Clergy morale is good. We no longer have clergy conferences with groups of clergy praying for us over in a corner, which was a regular occurrence. We are not consumed any longer with discussions about human sexuality. We made our decision and moved on,” he said in an interview.
Of the eight parishes that departed four remain dissenters, nominally Canadian Anglican churches, but non-participants in the life of the diocese. Among the four other parishes, one was closed by the diocese, one returned and a number of members in the remaining two left to set up their own congregations, but did not attempt to keep the church buildings, which remain with the diocese and the continuing members, said Mr. Adams.
The rector of the largest church to walk out, St. John’s, Shaughnessy, in Vancouver, hopes the diocese will see the error of its ways. “We desire true reconciliation with the diocese,” said Rev. David Short; this could only happen, he added, if the diocese enacted “a complete moratorium” on same-sex blessings.
“When we walked out of synod in 2002, we said we regard this as an impairment of the (worldwide Anglican) Communion. We respect the decision of the diocese, but we stand with the global teaching of the church on this,” he said.
At the time, the withdrawal of the eight parishes cut the diocesan budget of $1.5 million by 18 per cent, according to the treasurer, and St. John’s was a major factor in that cut. But St. John’s also suffered, said Mr. Short. “We lost people in ’02 and ’03. Some people left us because they felt we were too out of step with the diocese. Other people left because they felt we weren’t out of step enough, but the congregation is back to where we were,” he said.
The diocese has also recovered, with the 2006 budget set at $2.12 million, said Mr. Adams. “We had to borrow money for awhile from various funds that we had, but we stopped that. We’ve had good revenues from investments and trust funds,” he said. However, some positions remain unfilled, such as a diocesan hospital chaplain and a Christian education post, he said.
While Mr. Short’s observations of the diocese’s last five years are bleak, those of another priest in Vancouver could not be more different. Rev. Margaret Marquardt of Vancouver’s St. Margaret, Cedar Cottage, has performed four blessing services and said in an interview that several gay couples have been integral members of her church for years. Michael Kalmuk and Kelly Montfort, who were the first same-sex couple to request a service, have been involved in music and ushering, she said. Another couple, who have been together 35 years, participate in the altar guild, church school and in running coffee hour.
The diocese’s action “said to those people and to the whole church that we value who people are and we understand them to be full children of God. It brought home the care we can have for the humanity of others,” she said.
For Bishop Ingham, the decision meant “gay and lesbian people feel safe and respected, although we’ve had to restrict the number of parishes (offering blessings) to eight (due to a house of bishops’ resolution asking for a moratorium until the 2007 General Synod). Their relationships are honoured, recognized and celebrated in front of their families, church community and professional colleagues.”
Meanwhile, among the laity, two parishioners at St. John’s, Shaughnessy, have diametrically opposing viewpoints. George Egerton, a historian, believes the same-sex issue is “a nightmare for our church. It is the presenting issue, but the deeper issue is how one follows our faith, if we receive it or we make it up as we go along. All I can hope for is a reformation of Anglicanism, a global transformation defying the theories of modernism and secularization,” he said.
The major change that he sees at St. John’s is “an awareness and deep concern about the divisions in Anglicanism and a greater awareness of the linkages of the Anglican Communion.”
Mr. Egerton’s fellow parishioner Steve Schuh, leads the Vancouver chapter of Integrity, a national support group for gay Anglicans. Why does he attend St. John’s? “It has been my parish since 1991, off and on. The parish needs to have diversity if it’s going to move forward on this issue. I’m particularly concerned about youth. Evangelical parents have just as many gay kids as anybody else. Gay folks can be dedicated Christians – and I often enjoy the music. I share much of their theology,” he said.
He acknowledged a “certain awkwardness,” in his situation. “Most of my friends have left and there have been some odd comments, such as the lady who said she was surprised I was still there and said I was a spy for Bishop Ingham,” he said.
He attended the recent diocesan synod as an observer (St. John’s doesn’t send delegates). “At diocesan synod, (Integrity) used to distribute rainbow stickers or lobby to be included, but we don’t do that anymore. We assume people are with us. It is the majority view,” he noted.
The two-day synod spent about a half hour on a sexuality discussion, affirming a statement of the national house of bishops that the sacraments should not be denied to adults based on their sexual orientation or to children of gay couples.