Sexuality questions leave church at odds

Published June 1, 2004

Bishop Donald Harvey of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador reads a statement from nine bishops that said synod actions on sexuality ignore the opinions of Anglicans in the “global south.”

St. Catharines, Ont.

Deeply divided over liberalizing church attitudes toward homosexuals, Canadian Anglicans meeting at their triennial governing convention here voted to defer a decision on whether gay relationships should be blessed in church.

One day later, however, members of the General Synod approved a statement that “affirms the integrity and sanctity of committed adult same-sex relationships.” Later that day, nine conservative Canadian bishops disassociated themselves from the statement, bringing criticism from fellow bishops.

In what had been scheduled as the third and final session of debate on the issue on June 2, members of General Synod approved a revised version of a resolution that originally would have acknowledged that dioceses may allow same-sex blessing ceremonies.

The new version asks the Primate’s Theological Commission to “review, consider and report … by spring 2006 … whether the blessing of committed, same-sex unions is a matter of doctrine.” Established in 1995, the Primate’s Theological Commission has studied questions of biblical interpretation and produced several books on Anglican expressions of the Christian faith.

In earlier sessions of debate, several delegates and table groups noted that if the issue is a matter of doctrine, or faith interpretation, then General Synod, not the dioceses, should deal with it. They also asked whether it is merely a matter of practice, or pastoral care, that could be left to individual dioceses. The decision would have given dioceses a so-called “local option.”

The resolution passed also requests “that the issue of the blessing of committed same-sex unions be considered at the meeting of General Synod in 2007.” The original motion would have approved “the authority and jurisdiction of any diocesan synod, with the concurrence of its bishop, to authorize the blessing of committed same-sex unions.”

Robert Falby, chancellor (legal expert) of the diocese of Toronto, introduced the revision. “We perceived that the house wished to have the question of doctrine clarified,” he said. Members of General Synod agreed, but not overwhelmingly. Clergy and laity voted 142-118 and bishops voted 22-12 in favor of deferral.

Those supporting deferring the local option vote included Rev. Gene Packwood of Calgary, who said “we get to stay in communion with the worldwide Anglican Communion, work toward consensus, protect Anglican minorities worldwide and, personally, I won’t have to do pastoral damage control when I get home.” Archdeacon Larry Beardy of Keewatin, who is Cree, said some of the concepts in the text “are foreign to us” adding, “if you approve it we will once again be left behind.”

Those who spoke in favour of immediate action on the local option included Archdeacon Pat Johnston of Ottawa, who asked, “What is it we are afraid of and how long shall we wait?” Archbishop Terence Finlay of Toronto said that delay “dissipates energy and leaves some of my priests and lay people in a wilderness of secrecy and hypocrisy.” Rev. James Pratt, of Western Newfoundland, noting that “Cow Head is not Vancouver,” said 90 per cent of the people in his parish have never met an openly gay or lesbian person and will not be any further in favour of blessing same-sex unions three years hence. He urged action now.

Integrity, an organization of gay Anglicans and supporters, said in a statement that postponing a decision on blessings means the church “is refusing to respond to an increasingly urgent pastoral need in our community and hindering any evangelistic work or witness among the lesbian and gay community.”

Rev. James Wagner, a spokesman for Essentials, a coalition of conservative Anglicans, said he was “pleased with the motion to defer because it represents the theology of this matter and the unity of the church.”

Since the motion does not address the question of diocesan authority, Bishop Michael Ingham of New Westminster, the only Canadian diocese officially offering blessings to gay couples, said his diocese would continue on its course. “It’s a reasonable compromise,” he said of the revised motion, and “reflects where we (New Westminster) were in 1998,” when his diocesan synod first considered the question. At that time, he withheld his consent, only giving it in 2002 when a wider margin of the synod approved.

Bishop Ingham also said the motion does not prevent another diocese from offering blessings. Toronto is scheduled to consider the question of same-sex blessings in November at a special meeting of synod and Ottawa and Niagara dioceses are expected to do so in the near future.

Archbishop Finlay said, “It is up to the (diocesan) synod to decide. A number of us have supported a local option … some congregations would like to seek permission from the bishop (to offer same-sex blessings).”

Debate reopened the next morning on a motion brought by Canon Garth Bulmer of Ottawa to “affirm the integrity and sanctity of committed adult same-sex relationships.” He said that the church can say to gay couples, “yes, we care.” Rev. Michael Li of Central Newfoundland argued against the addition, saying, “it is a mistake to pass this motion; to me it is not much different from a same-sex blessing.”

Young members of synod expressed frustration with the earlier motion to defer. “I feel shame that we neglected our duty,” said Erik Miller of Ottawa. “Our church has always had gay couples and they have been welcome. This would affirm we recognize them as children of God,” said delegate Cassandra McCollum of the Yukon, who identified herself as bisexual.

Passage of the statement assuaged gay Anglicans who were disappointed by the motion to defer. “It is the first time gay relationships have been affirmed,” said Steve Schuh, synod member and chair of the Vancouver chapter of Integrity, a group of gay Anglicans and supporters.

However, on the evening of June 3, a group of bishops stood before the synod after night prayer to present a letter stating that “General Synod’s opinion (on same-sex relationships) is in error and contrary to the teaching of Scripture.” It also said synod’s action ignores the opinions of Anglicans in the “global south,” who are generally opposed to liberalizing attitudes toward homosexuality. Nine bishops signed the letter, including Ronald Ferris of Algoma, one of the candidates for primate. Archbishop John Clarke of Athabasca later said in an interview with Anglican Journal that he was asked to sign and declined. “It’s overreacting,” he said.

The letter brought criticism the next morning from Bishop Jim Njegovan of Brandon, who said it caused him “real grief.” He added, “Can any of the bishops show me a passage in the Holy Scripture where committed, loving same-sex relationships are condemned? I can’t think of one.” He also said he was distressed that several of his fellow bishops “felt it important to gather as a separate caucus.”

At the opening of synod, Canon Gregory Cameron, director of ecumenical affairs and studies at the Anglican Communion office in London, acknowledged the Canadian church’s right to decide the matter but warned that a “yes” vote to same-sex blessings means “the Anglican Church of Canada refuses to hear the voice and to heed the concerns of your fellow Anglicans in the … global south.”

Other parts of the motion – which were passed – affirmed that “through our baptism we are members one of another in Christ Jesus” and promised to strive for communion, noted the value of “continued respectful dialogue and study” of the issue, affirmed respect for the pace of dialogue in indigenous communities over the issue and requested the house of bishops to continue its work on alternate episcopal oversight for those who are disaffected by church decisions. (The full text of the motion is available on the church’s Web site,

Two days after General Synod ended, Anglican chaplains to the Canadian Forces, meeting in Cornwall, Ont., voted to defer a motion requesting the bishop to the forces approve “a rite of blessing of permanent and faithful commitments between persons of the same gender.”

Andrew Hutchison, the current Bishop Ordinary and recently-elected primate, said the deferral “came in view of the decision of General Synod.” The chaplains deferred the issue until their next annual meeting. Under current rules, an Anglican chaplain must refer a gay couple to a chaplain who can perform a blessing ceremony under the rules of his or her denomination. The United Church offers such rites.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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