Niagara diocese approves blessings for gay couples; bishop assents

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Hamilton, Ont.The southern Ontario diocese of Niagara, meeting at its annual synod, on Nov. 17 voted to allow civilly-married gay couples, “where at least one party is baptized,” to receive a church blessing. Bishop Ralph Spence, who had refused to implement a similar vote three years ago, this time gave his assent, making Niagara the third diocese since the June General Synod convention to accept same-sex blessings. Of the 294 clergy and lay delegates, 239 voted yes, 53 said no and two abstained. In 2003, out of 319 delegates, 213 voted yes and 106 said no. “The question has been asked, ‘Where do we go from here?’ Much consultation will take place … When and how this will be implemented will be dealt with in the days that lie ahead. We are aware of the vote’s ramifications,” said Bishop Spence, who also said he has been in consultation in the past week with Lambeth Palace (residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury), the Canadian primate (Archbishop Fred Hiltz) and his successor, Bishop Michael Bird, who takes office on March 1. Bishop Spence declined to say whom he had spoken with at Lambeth Palace.The dioceses of Ottawa and Montreal recently passed similar motions and their bishops have said they will consult widely before deciding whether to implement the decisions. (The Vancouver-based diocese of New Westminster has offered blessings since 2002.) Civil marriage has been legal for homosexual couples since 2003.Clergy and lay representatives from conservative parishes who view homosexuality as contrary to Scripture and traditional Christian teaching said they were not surprised at the decision, but greeted it with dismay. “Our diocese has taken a momentous step away from the (worldwide) Anglican Communion and the request of the primates (national archbishops). I grieve this as a member of this diocese and someone who is standing with other biblically-faithful members of the diocese,” said Canon Charles Masters.”Jesus blessed sinners; he never blessed the sin,” said Larry Dunlop. “Christ called us to go into the world, but not become part of the world … the blessing of same-sex unions is not of God,” said Rick Minion.The Anglican Network in Canada, a group of conservative parishes, issued a statement saying it was “hurt and distressed” by Niagara’s move. Mr. Masters said the decision points up the need for a conference scheduled by the network for Nov. 22 and 23 that, according to its Web site, will provide “a substantive option for biblically-faithful Canadian Anglicans.” Proponents of the measure said it was a matter of justice and Christian love. “I am very proud that Niagara is taking a leadership role in asking the Canadian church to move forward on this issue, mindful that we are doing it in a respectful way,” said Bishop Spence in an interview. The motion said that clergy “whose conscience permits” may offer the blessings.”All are welcome at the table of the Lord,” said Karin Davidson-Taylor. “We are talking about the people who sit beside us on Sunday morning. Don’t force me to go back our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and say, ‘No, not this time,'” said Anne Cornish. “Let’s look beyond what happens in the bedroom. It’s about love,” said Rev. Tim Morgan.Some delegates questioned whether Niagara could legally make the decision, since General Synod “declined to affirm” the authority of dioceses to approve same-sex blessings. “General Synod has said, ‘no.’ I don’t see how we can do it. It’s underhanded and would undermine General Synod,” said Canon Mark McDermott.Canon Margaret Murray, in introducing the motion, noted that General Synod also said that the blessing of same-sex unions is “not in conflict with core doctrine.” Bishop Spence, in the interview, said that “in the interpretation we have been given by chancellors (church legal officials), General Synod did not say we could not do this.”Bishop Bird, in an interview, said, “I feel incredibly excited that we are going to move beyond (preoccupation with) this issue and continue to work on other aspects of our church’s mission.”The synod decision seems to contradict a “pastoral statement” reaffirmed by Canadian Anglican bishops at their October meeting that says clergy may celebrate a eucharist and intercessory prayers with a homosexual couple, but not pronounce a nuptial blessing. Bishop Spence was a co-author of the statement, but he commented that “the ground shifted underneath us when Ottawa and Montreal took the stances they did. The spirit of that pastoral letter is very much present. We strive for a generous response.” In practical terms, however, he agreed that synod’s decision and the pastoral statement now co-exist. “That’s where it stands,” he said. Asked if his action would jeopardize work he will take up in March in London and at the Lambeth Conference meeting of bishops next July in England, Bishop Spence said he did not think it would. “My role at Lambeth is not constitutional. I will be chaplain to all the workers and make sure all the safe church practices are followed,” said Bishop Spence. More than 50 speakers came to the microphones during the 90-minute debate. After the blessings vote, synod approved a motion that said bishops from other diocese may not exercise ministry in Niagara without the bishop’s permission and that parishes and clergy seeking oversight from another bishop may only do so with the Niagara bishop’s approval.In recent months, bishops outside North America have consecrated bishops and clergy to minister to disaffected churches in the U.S. and Canada. On Nov. 16, Bishop Don Harvey, formerly bishop of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, citing “unabated theological decay,” said he had left the Canadian church and was a bishop in the South American province of the Southern Cone. In its statement, the Anglican Network thanked the Southern Cone and its primate, Archbishop Gregory Venables for “their willingness to provide a safe haven and Communion connection for … biblically faithful people.”The Niagara delegates also spent half a day in Bible study around issues of ecology and social justice and passed a motion urging parishes to reduce energy consumption. They also considered preventative measures churches could take in the event of a flu or other disease pandemic. Synod also approved a $3.24 million budget for 2008 and the transfer of Niagara’s excess payment of $216,000 concerning the native residential schools settlement fund to the national church’s healing and reconciliation fund.

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

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