Large majority’ of bishops agree to moratoria

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Niagara Falls, Ont. The Canadian house of bishops on Oct. 31 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 also recognized that this would pose difficulty for some dioceses “that in conscience have made decisions on these matters.” Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, acknowledged that this stance allows dioceses such as Montreal and Ottawa some wiggle room to continue what their bishops have recently described as “incremental” and “experiential” steps toward same-sex blessings. “This is a very honest statement from the point of view that it clearly reflects the reality of the Canadian church … that there are some within the house who would not stand within that majority,” said Archbishop Hiltz in an interview at the end of the meeting Oct. 27 to 31. “At the same time it seems to me that all that stand within that majority worked hard to be as gracious and as generous as they could in recognizing that some dioceses have been in discernment for a long time” on the matter of same-sex blessings. Last weekend the diocesan bishop of Montreal, Barry Clarke, announced his intention to establish a commission that would draft an appropriate rite for same-sex blessings and guidelines for its implementation. That same weekend, the diocesan bishop of Ottawa, John Chapman, said that he would inform the house of bishops about his plan to take steps to develop a rite for same-sex blessings in his diocese and to allow one parish to offer it. (Two other diocesan synods – Niagara and Huron – and one assembly – the Anglican Parishes of the Central Interior — have also asked their bishops to allow clergy to bless same-sex unions. One diocese, New Westminster, has allowed the blessing of same-sex unions in eight parishes since 2002.) Archbishop Hiltz said, however, that, “it’s my sense from what these bishops have told the house that the floodgates haven’t opened for Ottawa and Montreal to immediately proceed to blessings.” He said that “the bishops have clearly indicated they need time to think about what’s been said here … I think that in the primates’ meeting (in February 2009) and the Anglican Consultative Committee meeting (in May 2009), we’ll probably be in a position to say that these dioceses are in the process of continuing discernment, but they’ve taken some incremental steps forward.” Bishops Clarke and Chapman underscored that they have not yet given clergy permission to bless same-sex unions. “I think that tends to be forgotten. There’s nowhere that anyone is permitted to bless same-sex marriages. We may be talking about it, my desire is to put the process moving in that direction but nothing has happened,” said Bishop Clarke in an interview.Bishop Clarke acknowledged, however, that he is “not sure” if he can manage to hold the moratorium, as affirmed by the other bishops, until the 2010 meeting of General Synod, the church’s governing body. The “large majority” of Canadian bishops also said they would accept the request made at the recent Lambeth Conference of bishops for moratoriums on the ordination of gay bishops in same-sex relationships and on cross-border interventions. Asked whether he thought the bishops’ statement would satisfy the request for moratoria, Archbishop Hiltz said he was aware that it would be met with mixed reactions. “There will be those who will be pleased that we devoted so much time to this matter. There will be those who will see this statement as an honest reflection of where we are as a house of bishops, where we are as a Canadian church,” he said. “There will be some who will say, ‘you’ve created space for some dioceses and we’re not comfortable with that; moratorium is moratorium.’ But I think in terms of the communion, most reasonable people will look at this statement and say, ‘they wrestled with it.'”Archbishop Hiltz said that, “irrespective of my own position,” he had encouraged the bishops in their closed-door discussions to “exercise gracious restraint” as had been requested by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who had also warned that the Anglican Communion would be in “grave peril” if the requests for the three moratoria were ignored. In a reflection he gave to bishops at the start of their discussions, Archbishop Hiltz asked bishops to support his call “for respect for due process through the General Synod” on the matter of same-sex blessings, saying that while he was aware of the “Canadian context,” he was also “mindful of the place of the Anglican Church of Canada in our worldwide communion.” Archbishop Hiltz said that in 2007, General Synod had affirmed the Primate Theological Commission’s conclusion in its report that the blessing of same-sex unions is a matter of doctrine. “It is not creedal in nature but nonetheless it is doctrine,” he said, adding that the same General Synod had asked the commission to determine if the matter of blessings “is a Spirit-led development of doctrine.” Archbishop Hiltz said he believes that “these deliberations across the church will have a significant impact on discussions at General Synod in 2010 and on the subsequent authority of dioceses through due synodical process to proceed with blessings.” But, despite his plea, Archbishop Hiltz said it was clear that, as the bishops’ discussions on the moratoria progressed, “we were not going to arrive at a statement that every single person could put their signature to,” unless the differences in positions were recognized. Archbishop Hiltz noted that even Archbishop Williams, in his letter to bishops after the Lambeth Conference, recognized “the fact that the call for moratoria would pose a huge challenge for many parts of the communion.” Archbishop Hiltz characterized the discussions as “very intense” but also “very gracious and respectful.” He said “there were no outbursts; people tried to accommodate one another.” He said it was reflected in the bishops’ statement that they were committed to “continue walking together and to hold each other in prayer.” The diocesan bishop of Saskatoon, Rodney Andrews, whose synod last April voted against same-sex blessings, said he was “comfortable” with the statement. “I think it’s the reality that exists in Canada,” he said. “We have to be very responsible to the experience that we had at the Lambeth Conference.” He acknowledged that “there will be some folk who won’t see it as firm enough or strong enough, but for the most part, I feel okay.” The diocesan bishop of New Westminster, Michael Ingham, said, however, that the discussions were “anxious and fearful.” He added: “I’ve been in this house for 15 years and we’ve been in discussion for 15 years. There’s a spirit of fearfulness that grips the bishops when discussions of this matter arise. It’s very sad that we’re completely hung up on this. I’m bone weary, to be honest, of these discussions.” Meanwhile, Bishop Ingham said four more parishes in his diocese have indicated through votes of their vestry meetings that they would like to become places of same-sex blessings. He said it was a matter that would be discussed at New Westminster’s synod scheduled May 22 to 23, 2009. In 2005, Bishop Ingham had imposed a moratorium on allowing new parishes to permit same-sex blessings but to continue rites in parishes that had previously received his approval. “I’m suggesting that we wait and see how things develop,” said Bishop Ingham, noting that the Windsor Continuation Group, which had suggested to bishops the renewed calls for moratoria, was issuing another report this fall. He also noted that the primates were scheduled to meet in February, and the Anglican Consultative Council in May. In their statement, the bishops also affirmed a commitment to establish diocesan commissions to discuss the matter of same-sex blessings in preparation for General Synod in 2010. “That commitment reflects that some dioceses have just begun conversations while others have been at it for years,” said Archbishop Hiltz. The bishops also said they were committed to exercising “the greatest level of pastoral generosity” toward gays and lesbians, provisions of which they approved in 2007. It allows churches to hold a special celebration of the eucharist and prayers for special intentions but not blessings for a same-sex couple. Archbishop Hiltz said there was “consensus” on these two issues. At their meeting, bishops also spent a great deal of time discussing the effects of “growing cross-border interventions” in their dioceses, said Archbishop Hiltz. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking to a conservative bishop or a liberal bishop on this issue. No one is happy with these cross-border interventions.” He said it was “particularly frustrating” for dioceses that haven’t even debated same-sex blessings to have these interventions happen. “It’s a very aggressive strategy that they have right now – calling diocesan meetings without reference to the bishop, church planting, calling people and inviting them personally to consider joining the Network,” he said. Fourteen of the Canadian church’s 2,800 congregations have so far left, joined the breakaway Anglican Network in Canada (ANiC) and placed themselves under the primatial authority of the primate of the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, Gregory Venables. Archbishop Hiltz said he intends to communicate the results of the bishops’ discussions to Archbishop Williams. (This story, first published Oct. 31, has been updated.)

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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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