From left, Bishop Andrew Atagotaaluk of Inukjuak, Bishop Chris Williams, Bishop Paul Idlout and Bishop Larry Robertson of Inuvik. Bishops Atagotaaluk and Robertson, the two new regional bishops, were elected on May 29.
Should gays and lesbians have full membership rights within the Anglican Church? Officially, though practising gays and lesbians can serve in any role short of ordination, it doesn’t work that way in every diocese, and that is prompting a larger debate: what authority do individual dioceses have to depart from national guidelines?
Those issues came up again as part of the triennial synod of the Diocese of the Arctic in May.
In his charge to synod, Bishop Chris Williams essentially stuck with national guidelines on the matter of homosexuality and ordination – first passed by the House of Bishops in 1979 and reaffirmed with revisions in 1997 and at last year’s Lambeth conference – which allow gays and lesbians to be ordained only if they remain celibate, and forbids bishops from blessing same-sex marriages.
“In our moral life we reach out in love to our brothers and sisters of homosexual or lesbian sexual orientation. As children of God for whom Christ died, they are full members of our church. We do not feel, however, that their marriage or ordination is compatible with the Word of God,” said Bishop Williams in his charge.
The response committee was not so affirming, however. In the official reply to the Bishop’s charge, committee members stated, “We did have considerable difficulty with some of your statements regarding our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. We agree with you that they are, along with us, those for whom Christ died. Some of us have confusion and difficulty accepting that people unrepentantly continuing these biblically sinful practices are full members of the church called into baptismal ministry. However, we do agree with you that their marriage and ordination as priests is incompatible with the Word of God.”
The notion of baptismal ministry is that everyone baptized in the Anglican Church has a ministry to offer, whether that be singing in the choir, say, or welcoming new people into a congregation. The suggestion that practising gays and lesbians be barred from offering even these gifts to the church is more restrictive than national church guidelines.
The suggestion is in keeping, however, with a canon passed by the diocese in 1993, said Rev. Anne Brandly, who wrote the response on behalf of the reply committee. The canon deals with licensing for lay leaders and states, “No person shall be eligible to hold the licence of minister in the Diocese of the Arctic who while licensed or seeking licence willing engages in homosexual, lesbian or bisexual practices.” The canon also lists sex outside of marriage, with a minor, with someone a minister is counselling or with an employee, as well as failure to disclose prior convictions of sexual abuse as grounds to deny a lay licence.
The reference to baptismal ministry was “not intended to restrict baptism or the eucharist to gays and lesbians,” said Ms. Brandly, priest at St. Andrew’s in Kugluktuk. “We welcome them into our fellowship. We’re just not comfortable with them in leadership.”
Bishop Williams acknowledged that the reply committee members would have liked him in his charge to have been “even more restrictive” on the issue of homosexuality. But he hesitates to single out that behaviour for special censure.
“We do not as a diocese subscribe to the gay and lesbian lifestyle so we can’t condone it. But then there are many other things that as Christians we can’t condone, but that does not exclude those who are doing it from the ministry of the church. The church is not a gathering of saints; it’s a family of sinners. All of us in some way fall short of God’s standards. We can get into danger if we allow the sins of the flesh to loom larger than some of the many other sins that exist in the church,” said Bishop Williams.
“I would say that you have to exercise discretion in these matters. We are all equal before God; we all have a ministry which is given to us; we all have a place in God’s family.”
The bigger issue for the diocese, added Williams, is couples living common law.
“They are as much contravening spirit of Lambeth as those who are living in homosexual and lesbian relationships,” he said.
Still, the reply and the canon raise the issue of diocesan authority to set policy outside of national church guidelines.
“What I hear is commentary, and people are free to comment,” said Archdeacon Jim Boyles, general secretary for the Anglican Church of Canada, of the reply. As for the canon, said Archdeacon Boyles, “If someone were to challenge that in relation to the national church motion, there would be a debate. But dioceses order their own life in terms of ministry. The (canon) hasn’t been challenged by the rest of church so that would be the guiding regulation in effect for that diocese.”
The issue of diocesan authority is controversial enough, added Archdeacon Boyles, that the House of Bishops wants the Council of General Synod to address the matter. At its last meeting in May, the bishops passed a motion asking synod to appoint a task force to “propose a definition of the jurisdiction of dioceses and diocesan bishops and ecclesiastical provinces with respect to discipline and doctrine.”
Marianne Meed Ward is a freelance writer, editor and broadcaster in Toronto.