Deep divide over sexuality continues

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Bishop Michael Bird, diocese of Niagara.

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

Similarly, backlash over the recent decision by the Episcopal Church (TEC) to affirm the openness of “any ordained ministry” to gay and lesbian people and to develop more liturgical resources for same-sex blessings reflects the continuing deep divide over sexuality in the Anglican Communion.

“As a bishop, I cannot recognize the legitimacy of what Niagara is doing,” said Bishop Bill Anderson of the diocese of Caledonia. “I sadly conclude that Niagara has chosen to walk apart, and is therefore in a state of impaired communion.”

In an interview, Bishop Anderson said “bishops simply do not have the spiritual, theological or canonical authority to change the teaching of the church at the local level, however much their diocesan synods may do so.” He added that this point was “clearly articulated” by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, at the 2008 Lambeth Conference, the decennial gathering the world’s Anglican bishops.

The diocesan bishop of Niagara, Michael Bird, has responded by saying, “I understand that it’s a difficult situation for other bishops and I respect those sentiments. I will do everything in my power to reach out to anyone.” Bishop Bird said his diocese’s decision does not contravene the 2007 General Synod resolution that declared blessing rites for gay couples are “not in conflict” with core church doctrine, but still did not affirm the dioceses’ authority to offer them. The authorization of the blessing was “not done out of any lack of respect or sense of importance that we hold for General Synod,” said Bishop Bird.

He noted that a majority of the chancellors (legal advisors) of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario, to which Niagara belongs, are of the opinion that General synod “failed to act in terms of the motions that were passed and that then opened up the ability for dioceses to make their own decisions in terms of how they would act on this matter.”

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.”

Archdeacon Charlie Masters, a former priest in the diocese of Niagara and now, executive 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,” said Masters, whose group is composed of congregations and individuals that have left the Anglican Church of Canada largely because of their opposition to same-sex blessings. “Having said that, it’s still a shock and it’s disappointing…,” he added.

The decisions in Canada and the U.S. confirm that there is a profound rift in the Anglican Communion, said Mr. Masters. “The fabric has been torn at its deepest level.” Mr. Masters, is also general secretary of Common Cause Partnership, a group that created the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). ACNA wants to be recognized as a separate Anglican province in North America.

Bishop Donald Harvey, a former bishop of the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland who has since left the Canadian church and is now moderator of ANiC, wondered whether Bishop Bird and the Niagara diocese would be censured or disciplined for their action. “I would be very interested to see how the primate reacts to this,” he said in an interview. “When Malcolm Harding (a former bishop in the diocese of Brandon) and I decided that we could no longer stay, the primate and the four metropolitans (senior bishops) wrote a stinging letter…saying that our ministry was invalid…I’m just wondering if the primate and the four metropolitans would be as quick to act now and send out a similar pastoral letter to the church lamenting what Niagara has done. I’m just thinking, ‘what sauce is for the goose is sauce for the gander.'”

(Editor’s Note: Comments from Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, to follow.)

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 “given strong attention to maintain and develop a space where the bishops, who represent a diversity as wide as is found across the national house, can be open and transparently honest with one another.”

He added that the provincial house has also acknowledged that “we now live in a church in which the presence and active involvement of those of gay and lesbian orientation is a reality.” At its last meeting in October, the Canadian house of bishops said a “large majority” of its members could affirm “a continued commitment to the greatest extent possible” to a moratorium on the blessing of same-sex unions. But it acknowledged that this would pose difficulty for some dioceses “that in conscience have made decisions on these matters.”

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has withheld comment on recent developments in the North American churches. However, at the start of the Episcopal Church (TEC) General Convention, Archbishop Williams said in a homily, “I hope and pray that there won’t be decisions in the coming days that could push us further apart.”

Mr. Masters said the decision by TEC “underlines the legitimacy and … the need” for Common Cause Partnership since TEC has taken matters into its own hands.

Bishop Anderson concurred, saying “Niagara has widened the rift within the Anglican Church of Canada that began when the diocese of New Westminster authorized the blessings.” He also referred to a statement made by the Church of England’s Durham bishop, Nicholas Thomas Wright, that declared that by its recent actions, TEC was “rejecting the two things the Archbishop of Canterbury has named as the pathways to the future,” namely, the Windsor Report and proposed Anglican Covenant. (The Windsor Report, published in 2004 by the Lambeth Commission, offers prescriptions for arresting the possible disintegration of the Communion.)

Bishop Ingham, who has represented the Anglican Church of Canada at The Episcopal Church’s governing bodies, disagreed. “There’s hardly a church in our communion that is more sensitive to Anglican Communion feelings [than TEC],” he said. “The decisions that they have taken are a real effort to balance both their autonomy and their interdependence with the rest of the world.”

He also disagreed that TEC’s recent decision meant that it had lifted its moratorium on the consecration of bishops in same-sex partnerships. “It does not mean that consent will immediately be given to any candidate in an episcopal election who is in a same-sex relationship,” he said. “I think it would be truer to say that they will look at each situation on a case-by-case basis and they will neither be an automatic agreement with the diocesan decision, nor will there be an automatic rejection of a diocesan decision based on sexual orientation or agenda.”

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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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