Proposed ‘retrospective’ moratorium means New Westminster will be asked to withdraw all same-sex blessings, says Windsor Continu

Published August 1, 2008

(L to R): Bishop Victoria Matthews, diocese of Christchurch, New Zealand, and a member of the Windsor Continuation Group, walks with Archbishop Bruce Stavert, diocesan bishop of Quebec and Metropolitan of Canada.

Canterbury, England

A member of the Windsor Continuation Group (WCG) has stated that the body’s proposal for a “retrospective” moratorium on same-sex blessings means that dioceses such as Vancouver-based New Westminster “will be asked to reconsider and withdraw that right.”

The words “retrospective moratorium”, which has the potential to affect a number of Canadian dioceses, has caused confusion among Canadian bishops attending the decennial Lambeth Conference here. Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, said this, along with other proposals put forward by the WCG, was a matter that the house of bishops and the Council of General Synod – the church’s governing body between General Synods – would have to discuss.

Bishop Victoria Matthews, a member of the WCG and bishop of the diocese of Christchurch, New Zealand, said with the retrospective moratorium, “it isn’t just from here on there will be no new ones…”

She also said that the conference was merely being asked to “engage” with the proposals, which would then be taken to the Anglican Consultative Council which will meet in Jamaica in 2009.

In an interview with the Anglican Journal, Bishop Matthews, who is a former bishop of the diocese of Edmonton, said the same “retrospective” moratorium applies to cross-border interventions, but not the ordination of Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop of The Episcopal Church in the U.S.

“No, we would never go back and ask for his (Bishop Robinson’s) resignation. That’s not part of it,” she said. “The word ‘retrospective’ has never been used in the consecration and election of a non-celibate gay bishop. It’s never been part of our thinking, ever. We may talk about them generally and it seems to affect all three general moratoria.”

Asked why a “retrospective application” was being recommended by the WCG in the case of dioceses, such as Vancouver-based New Westminster, which followed its canonical process when it authorized the blessing of same-sex unions in 2002, Bishop Matthews said, “My own opinion is that the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada never said it refuses to rule. I think due process in Canada would be to allow the decision being made at General Synod as it was in 2007.” She added: “Other people would disagree and say there was nothing wrong. I’ve always said that it is a doctrinal decision requiring the voice of General Synod.”

In 2002, the New Westminster synod approved a motion asking its bishop, Michael Ingham, to allow same-sex blessings. Bishop Ingham later established a conscience clause to ensure that no clergy or parish was forced to perform blessings and offered a Canadian bishop to provide alternative episcopal care to those who request it.

In 2005, in response to the recommendations made by the Windsor Report, the house of bishops agreed “neither to encourage nor initiate” same-sex blessings until General Synod decided on the matter. In response, Bishop Ingham imposed a moratorium on allowing new parishes to permit same-sex blessings but to continue ceremonies in those that have received his approval.

In 2007, General Synod agreed that blessing rites for gay couples are “not in conflict” with core church doctrine, but refused to affirm the authority of dioceses to offer them. Months later, the dioceses of Ottawa, Montreal, Niagara and Huron approved similar motions requesting their bishops to allow same-sex blessings.

Bishop Ingham and other Canadian bishops have reacted strongly to the “retrospective moratorium” calling it “punitive,” “unfair” and “a step backwards.”

Toronto suffragan bishop George Elliott said, “I don’t think there’s a going back. I think there are ways in which we can perhaps slow down or continue to consider what a moratorium might be. But I don’t think it’s possible to go back. I don’t think it’s fair to go back.” He said that dioceses that have moved ahead “and done it faithfully,” have done it in the context of our polity.” He added that “it would be absolutely devastating to even think about moving back to where we were before.”

Archbishop Terrence Buckle, bishop of the diocese of Yukon and metropolitan (senior bishop) of the ecclesiastical province of British Columbia, said that while he agreed to a the moratoria it was going to be “very difficult to hold” because of developments that have taken place. (Not only have some dioceses requested their bishops to allow same-sex blessings; some churches have left their dioceses and placed themselves under the jurisdiction of another province and primate.)

“The whole question of moratorium is a big issue because the implications of that are broad and, to be quite honest, the likelihood of being able to have a full and complete moratorium are in my opinion slight because of where we’ve come to at the present time and seeing people back up from where they’re at is going to be very difficult for some people,” said Archbishop Buckle in an interview. “It’s going to be very difficult to hold it.”

Archbishop Hiltz said that he wasn’t surprised with the call for a moratoria on all fronts but felt that conference needed to be “honest” that this has been “a huge, huge challenge” to implement. Canadian churches have proceeded with actions around same-sex blessings “only after a long, considered period of discussion from a whole pile of points of view – theological, liturgical, canonical and pastoral,” he said. “There’s a certain sense that emerges from that kind of conversation and some dioceses in our country are saying that they’re discerning that there’s some kind of gospel imperative to act. To say to those people, ‘You have to put a moratorium’, it’s going to be a huge challenge.”

He said that it would be “equally a huge challenge for primates and bishops who have engaged in interventions for them to stop because they’re so convinced that they’re doing the right thing in terms of saving people who no longer have or want any association with their own church but want to remain Anglican,” he said. “For them to say, ‘Now stop it’, it’s more than obvious to me that primates have been asked to do that for the last two years and they haven’t. In fact, their interventions are increasing even as we’re here in this conference.”

Bishop Matthews, however, said a retrospective moratorium was not something that can’t be undone. “I don’t think they actually mean ‘can’t’, I think they actually mean ‘won’t’,” she said. “They have every freedom to say that. I’m not being critical, but I don’t think mean they ‘can’t’. It’s not physically impossible to change that. I don’t think it is impossible. I can understand if they say they don’t want to.”

She said that she would say the same thing to bishops and primates who are being asked not to accept breakaway churches under their wings but who say they are fulfilling a gospel imperative when they commit cross-border interventions. “They certainly can. It may not be something they don’t want to do and I’ll be very disappointed and I’ll say that out front. They can say to their congregations — ‘We were wrong’. It will take great humility to do this but you need to go back to the Anglican Church of Canada.”

Asked what would happen if the proposals are not accepted, she said, “That’s fine; we do the very best we can to give a way forward given that there’s not a lot of wiggle room to move in that but we’re doing our best. If the communion doesn’t accept it, we will respect the decision.”

Bishop Jim Cowan, diocese of British Columbia, said he was not in favour of setting up more groups “when the groups that we have aren’t being listened to.” He added that he did not think that the pastoral forum being proposed by the WCG to minister to churches that have left their dioceses “will have any more sway” than other groups that have been created by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Earlier, Bishop Ingham said that if the WCG proposals are accepted by the Communion, “it will put the Anglican Church of Canada in the position of having to support and defend irrational prejudice and bigotry in the eyes of our nation.” (Canada legalized same-sex marriage in 2005. )

He also questioned why the Windsor Report was being seen “as an agreed benchmark from which it is assumed we can move forward. It is not so.” (The Windsor Report, published in 2004 by an international commission, outlined ways of healing divisions within the nearly 80-million-member Anglican Communion over human sexuality. The WCG, which produced the preliminary observations at the conference here, was created last February by the Archbishop of Canterbury to “address outstanding questions arising from the Windsor Report and the various formal responses from provinces and instruments of the Anglican Communion.” )

Meanwhile, Rev. Neil Fernyhough, priest-in-charge of St. Hilda’s in Sechelt, B.C., one of the New Westminster parishes authorized to perform same-sex blessings, said that a “retrospective” moratorium would be “a huge step backwards and would have a huge effect on our diocese.” He added that the recommendation for the creation of a pastoral forum would mean that the diocese “would have to choose between its current inclusive stance or risk diminishment of its status in the communion.”

He added that while there is no international juridical authority in the Anglican Communion, “the trouble is once the seeds are planted it’s often seen as gospel. You’ve seen that with the Windsor Report recommendations. There’s no uniform opinion with regards to the Windsor Report in the provinces, but it’s already being accepted as the 39 articles.”


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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