God is calling us to move in this direction’

Published September 1, 2009

Bishop Michael Bird, Diocese of Niagara

The decision by the diocese of Niagara to offer same-sex blessings as of Sept. 1 has drawn mixed reactions from Anglicans in Canada.

Niagara is now the second diocese in the Anglican Church of Canada, after the Vancouver-based diocese of New Westminster, to offer a sacrament for same-sex blessings. The “Niagara Rite” may also be used for the blessing or renewal of vows for heterosexual couples celebrating a significant moment in their married life together.

“I believe that we’ve done our work of discernment,” said the diocesan bishop of Niagara, Michael Bird, when asked what made him decide to go ahead despite repeated calls for a moratorium on same-sex blessings. He noted that the votes on the matter had both resulted in an “overwhelming” majority at two successive diocesan synods – 2004 and 2008 – and had not been acted upon until now.

Bishop Bird said he also felt compelled to move forward after the diocese developed a new vision for its ministry that included a commitment to prophetic social justice-making. “What’s become clear as we have worked through that discernment process…is that for that work of justice-making to have integrity, we needed to bring this piece around same-sex blessings to a conclusion.”

Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, acknowledged that the decision is bound to create some tension among bishops. But he said that Bishop Bird had informed the Canadian house of bishops of his plan when it met last October.

Subsequently, the house released a statement affirming a continued commitment to the moratorium on same-sex blessings – as requested by various bodies of the worldwide Anglican Communion – while recognizing that it would be difficult for some dioceses to implement it.

Archbishop Hiltz said his hope is that “in the spirit of that statement, we would remain in relationship with one another.” Two other dioceses – Montreal and Ottawa – have also informed the house of bishops about their intention to move ahead with same-sex blessings. Also, the bishop of Huron, Robert Bennett, has asked a diocesan committee to develop liturgies for a celebratory eucharist and prayers for same-gender couples, which will not provide a nuptial blessing.

Bishop Bill Anderson of the diocese of Caledonia said the move by Niagara will serve to widen “the rift within the Anglican Church of Canada that began when the diocese of New Westminster authorized the blessings. I cannot recognize the legitimacy of what Niagara is doing. I sadly conclude that Niagara has chosen to walk apart, and is therefore in a state of impaired communion.”

The bishop of New Westminster, Michael Ingham, whose diocese authorized same-sex blessings in 2002, defended Niagara’s decision saying, “I think the bishop and the diocese have followed a very careful process to ensure that the steps they’re taking are the wishes of their synod and people, and are cognizant of the situation in the Anglican Church of Canada and the worldwide Anglican Communion.”

Prior to giving his approval for same-sex blessings to be offered, Bishop Bird said he had commissioned the writing of theological papers to help the diocese “reflect further.” These papers were also shared with two dioceses of the Anglican province of Tanzania to explain how the diocese believes “God is calling us to move in this direction.”

Bishop Bird added: “We have reached out to those who are not in favour of this action. We have done everything we can possibly do to make sure that we honour and respect those voices, both in our diocese and throughout the Anglican Communion.”

Executive Archdeacon Charlie Masters, a former priest in the diocese of Niagara and now, national director of the Anglican Network in Canada (ANiC), said he was not surprised by the decision. “It’s something that I think most people have been expecting since then. Having said that,” he added, “it’s still a shock.” The ANiC is composed of congregations and individuals that have left the Anglican Church of Canada largely because of their opposition to same-sex blessings.

Bishop Donald Harvey, a former bishop of the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, who is now moderator of ANiC, wondered whether Bishop Bird and the Niagara diocese would be censured or disciplined for their action.

Archbishop Caleb Lawrence, metropolitan (senior bishop) of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario (to which the diocese of Niagara belongs), said the provincial house of bishops has acknowledged that “we live in a church in which the presence and active involvement of those of gay and lesbian orientation is a reality.”

Archbishop Hiltz acknowledged that Niagara’s decision would have an impact on the next General Synod meeting in Halifax in June 2010. But he said, “…I can step back 10 years…and think about…the real impact when New Westminster went ahead. The life of the church went on, not without some tension and some fracture, I will grant you that. But the Gospel is still being proclaimed and embodied.”


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