The southern Ontario diocese of Niagara, meeting at its annual synod, on Nov. 17 voted to allow civilly-married gay couples, “where at least one party is baptized,” to receive a church blessing.
Bishop Ralph Spence, who had refused to implement a similar vote three years ago, this time approved the motion, making Niagara the third diocese since the June General Synod convention to accept same-sex blessings. He said he would reserve the right to determine when he will allow the blessings of same sex unions to move forward.
Of the 294 clergy and lay delegates, 239 voted yes, 53 said no and two abstained. In 2003, out of 319 delegates, 213 voted yes and 106 said no.
“The question has been asked, ‘Where do we go from here?’ Much consultation will take place … When and how this will be implemented will be dealt with in the days that lie ahead. We are aware of the vote’s ramifications,” said Bishop Spence, who also said he has been in consultation with Lambeth Palace (residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury), the Canadian primate (Archbishop Fred Hiltz) and his successor, Bishop Michael Bird, who takes office on March 1. Bishop Spence declined to say whom he had spoken with at Lambeth Palace.
The dioceses of Ottawa and Montreal recently passed similar motions and their bishops have said they will consult widely before deciding whether to implement the decisions. (The Vancouver-based diocese of New Westminster has offered blessings since 2002.) Civil marriage has been legal for homosexual couples since 2003.
Clergy and lay representatives from conservative parishes who view homosexuality as contrary to Scripture and traditional Christian teaching said they were not surprised at the decision, but greeted it with dismay. “Our diocese has taken a momentous step away from the (worldwide) Anglican Communion and the request of the primates (national archbishops). I grieve this as a member of this diocese and someone who is standing with other biblically-faithful members of the diocese,” said Canon Charles Masters.
“Christ called us to go into the world, but not become part of the world … the blessing of same-sex unions is not of God,” said Rick Minion.
The Anglican Network in Canada, a group of conservative parishes, issued a statement saying it was “hurt and distressed” by Niagara’s move. A week after the Niagara vote, the Network held a meeting in the diocese where it announced that the Anglican province of the Southern Cone would receive any disaffected Canadian churches and clergy (please see related story, p. 1).
Proponents of the blessings vote said it was a matter of justice and Christian love. “I am very proud that Niagara is taking a leadership role in asking the Canadian church to move forward on this issue, mindful that we are doing it in a respectful way,” said Bishop Spence in an interview. The motion said that clergy “whose conscience permits” may offer the blessings.
“We are talking about the people who sit beside us on Sunday morning. Don’t force me to go back our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and say, ‘No, not this time,'” said Anne Cornish. “Let’s look beyond what happens in the bedroom. It’s about love,” said Rev. Tim Morgan.
The synod decision seems to contradict a “pastoral statement” reaffirmed by Canadian Anglican bishops at their October meeting that says clergy may celebrate a eucharist and intercessory prayers with a homosexual couple, but not pronounce a nuptial blessing. Bishop Spence was a co-author of the statement, but he commented that “the ground shifted underneath us when Ottawa and Montreal took the stances they did. The spirit of that pastoral letter is very much present. We strive for a generous response.” In practical terms, however, he agreed that synod’s decision and the pastoral statement now co-exist.