When Michael Ingham, bishop of the diocese of New Westminster, begins his retirement at the end of August this year, it will be the denouement of the 20-year career of one of the Anglican Church of Canada’s longest-serving and most controversial bishops.
Ingham became a lightning rod for the storm that followed his consent in 2002 to a diocesan synod resolution to bless same-sex unions. But as he announced his upcoming retirement, he described the experience as part of the kind of progress that made it his “privilege to serve a diocese living and growing at some of the leading edges of the Anglican Church of Canada.”
Ingham, 63, told the Anglican Journal that August seemed like the “Kairos moment” to make this significant change in his life. “We’ve got some very good clergy in the diocese and in the Anglican Church of Canada,” he said, “who can take up the mantle.”
On a personal level, he added, “The last few years have been very demanding, so whilst I have my health and vigor and some new ideas, I need to be free to pursue them.” His immediate plan, however, is to take some time to rest from those demands.
Guiding the diocese of New Westminster through making the decision to bless same-sex unions was a long process in itself. It was first debated in 1998 and the diocesan synod passed a resolution in favour of the blessings, but it was by such a slim majority, about 51 per cent, that Ingham withheld his consent.
His next steps were to twin parishes for dialogues on the issue, request theological papers and create a commission to allow both gay and lesbian people, as well as those who identified themselves as ex-gay, to tell their stories in the diocese. “We tried to be as comprehensive as possible, to give people a chance to think and pray their way through this,” he said.
In a 2001 vote, there was an increased majority, but it was only after another increase in 2002 that Ingham gave his consent to the blessings and began to create a rite.
Dealing with the reaction to that decision was an even longer process. Some conservative parishes and clergy-including the prominent St. John’s Shaughnessy and two ethnic Chinese parishes in New Westminster-decided to leave the Anglican Church of Canada and begin a legal battle to take ownership of the church properties. That case only recently concluded, with the diocese maintaining ownership of the churches.
“What’s not widely understood is that the great majority of conservative Anglicans remained part of the diocese of New Westminster,” said Ingham. In fact, moderate conservatives and moderate progressives in the diocese worked to create provisions that no one should be compelled against their conscience to bless same-sex unions and to offer a visiting bishop to oversee parishes that were opposed to the decision. “I’m proud of the fact that a lot of people of goodwill on all sides came together and helped to make it work,” he said.
But the reaction was not confined to the diocese or even Canada. Same-sex blessings remain controversial in various parts of the worldwide Anglican Communion, but Ingham says New Westminster’s process of dialogue serves as an example for the Communion. Indaba conversations-an African model of respectful listening and dialogue-are now being used to help heal divisions in the Communion.
“If I have a word of advice, and I did actually say this to Rowan Willliams when he was the Archbishop of Canterbury,” said Ingham, “it is that these things do pass and you do someday find yourself on the other side of these passionate differences. And the way we deal with each other in the midst of them determines the quality of life of the community afterwards.”
Before he retires, Ingham will attend the Canadian-African Bishops International Dialogue in Cape Town, South Africa, which follows the Indaba model. He remains hopeful about the unity of the Communion. “There is a lot of diversity and a lot of mutual respect. People everywhere are saddened by the, shall we say, extreme reactions of some, but by far the greater Anglican instinct, I have found, is to stay together because we want to be together, and where there are different cultural and theological understandings, we don’t let these impair our communion.”
Leading the diocese through difficulties did take a personal toll, but “I never felt alone,” Ingham said. “I had support from the great majority of people in the diocese…I had terrific support from the metropolitans, and every primate I served under has given me enormous personal support, for which I am very grateful. And many friends and colleagues, both in and outside the church, realized that we were struggling for an important principle of compassion and love, and that it was important for us to stand there. And many people came and stood with us.”
In his 20 years as bishop, Ingham has seen a lot of other changes in the church, including dealing with the abuse of aboriginal children in church-run Indian residential schools. Attitudes toward aboriginal people have changed dramatically, he said. “Now I think we’re at a point where First Nations and non-indigenous Anglicans are really willing to begin to trust each other again. And there’s such a great respect shown mutually. I think it’s very promising.”
Ingham has also worked to promote interfaith dialogues, including writing the book Mansions of the Spirit. “I’ve seen the whole church move from the attitude, ‘We don’t need to talk to people in other religions; we need to convert them,’ all the way to what I see as a predominant sentiment throughout the churches that we need to understand our neighbours of other faiths much better, because religion needs to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.” That has been increasingly relevant as awareness grows of how religion in its extremist and fundamentalist forms is a destabilizing and violent factor in so many parts of the world, he added.
One important challenge for the church moving into the future is Canada’s increasingly secular society, Ingham said. “Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus are not our competition. All of us, of all faiths, are seriously challenged by secularism, and we need to find a language that can address people whose understanding of the world is highly secularized, where there is no sense of God or the message of Jesus in their cosmology.”