The diocesan bishop of Niagara, Michael Bird.
As of Sept. 1, the diocese of Niagara will allow its priests to bless same-gender couples who have been civilly married.
Niagara becomes the second diocese in the Anglican Church of Canada, after the Vancouver-based New Westminster, to offer a sacrament for same-sex blessings. (The diocese of New Westminster, which allowed same-sex blessings in 2002, currently limits the rite to eight parishes.) The issue of same-sex blessings continues to deeply divide Anglicans in Canada as well as worldwide.
“The Niagara Rite is intended for the voluntary use of priests who wish to offer a sacrament of blessing regardless of the gender of the civilly married persons…” the diocese of Niagara said on its Web site, www.niagara.anglican.ca
The rite may also be used for the blessing or renewal of vows for couples “celebrating a significant moment in their married life together,” said an introduction to the Niagara Rite.
The approval of the rite came five years after the diocesan synod of Niagara passed a motion allowing civilly-married gay couples, “where at least one party is baptized,” to receive a church blessing. The diocesan bishop at that time, Ralph Spence, had refused to implement the motion. In January 2008, a similar motion was approved by Niagara’s diocesan synod, and this time, Bishop Spence gave his approval, but said he reserved the right to determine when the same-sex blessings would move forward.
Last fall, Bishop Spence’s successor, Michael Bird, informed a meeting of the Canadian house of bishops that he intended to develop the rite, saying, “I believe we are among those who have been called by God to speak with a prophetic voice on this subject.”
Under a list of protocols outlined by Bishop Bird, a cleric who wishes to offer the Niagara Rite must contact the bishop’s office “so that a conversation can take place between the bishop and the cleric involved.” The cleric is expected to provide details about the couple the cleric intends to bless “and should be prepared to have a conversation about the response of the parish to the blessings,” the list added. “A date for such a blessing should not be confirmed with the couple until after this conversation with the bishop has taken place.”
A parish is not required to get the approval of its vestry before it can offer such blessings.
Two other dioceses – Montreal and Ottawa – have also informed the house of bishops about their intention to move ahead with same-sex blessings. At that meeting, the house of bishops issued a statement saying that 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 the moratorium, which had been sought by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the primates of the Anglican Communion, would be difficult for some dioceses “that in confidence have made decisions on these matters.”
The issue of whether dioceses can offer same-sex blessings is likely to be revisited at the 2010 meeting of General Synod, the governing body of the Anglican Church of Canada. In 2007, General Synod had 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. General Synod delegates had also voted to study revising the marriage canon (church law) to allow priests to marry all legally qualified persons. Marriage for gay people has been legal in Canada since 2005.
Last spring, Council of General Synod (CoGS), the church’s governing body in between General Synod meetings, decided not to ask General Synod 2010 to amend the marriage canon to allow for the marriage of same-sex couples. The decision was made after the faith, worship and ministry committee, which was asked by CoGS to prepare “a theological rationale to allow for the marriage of all legally qualified persons,” said that it found the request problematic. Janet Marshall, committee chair, told CoGS that some members felt uncomfortable about being asked to create a rationale for only one side of the argument.