Conservative Anglicans in Vancouver, British Columbia, declared a "state of pastoral emergency" on June 15 after their diocese voted at its annual synod to permit the blessing of same-sex unions.
The Diocese of New Westminster is the first in the global Anglican Communion to officially endorse such blessings. The vote could lead to deeper division among the world's 67 million Anglicans.
After delegates voted 215-129 in favor of Bishop Michael Ingham's plan to prepare a rite for blessing "covenanted same-sex unions," representatives from nine parishes walked out of the synod. Later, they declared they were no longer in communion with their synod or their bishop.
The bishop's plan included a "conscience clause" that would allow traditional clergy to refrain from performing such a rite and that provided for an "episcopal visitor," a conservative bishop who would provide pastoral care to conservative priests and parishes.
Traditionalists said the conscience clause offered them little protection. Before the vote, Ingham said he expected conservative clergy to assist gay couples in finding parishes that would perform the rite.
Conservatives said an episcopal visitor would be a poor substitute for their request for an alternative bishop with full authority.
"All the visitor could do is come and drink tea with you and console you over the tragedy of the diocese," said Ed Hird, rector of St. Simon's Anglican Church in North Vancouver. Hird is a prominent member of Anglican Essentials, a coalition of conservatives.
Hird said the bishop and the synod are endorsing homosexual activity, which was judged incompatible with Scripture by the 1998 Lambeth Conference, the global gathering of Anglican bishops held every ten years.
Ingham said most conservatives in the diocese would not leave the church over the synod's action: "There is a smaller group that feel very strongly that they will have to leave, but the question for them is where they will go to, because there's only one Anglican Church in Canada." Ingham gave the clergy who walked out until July 2 to decide whether they would stay in the diocese.
Conservatives have called on bishops from outside the diocese to intervene in New Westminster. So far the response has been mixed. Thirteen of Canada's 41 bishops, representing primarily rural, Arctic, or maritime areas, asked the diocese not to implement the rite for blessing same-sex unions.
George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Communion, wrote an open letter to the conservatives. He said he had no doubt the synod's decision threatened the unity of the Anglican Church, but he also was alarmed by their request for alternative episcopal oversight.
"I believe firmly that we should 'speak the truth in love' to each other," Carey wrote. "I believe that we do so most effectively by standing our ground in continuing dialogue and ongoing fellowship with each other, not by walking away."
Archbishop Michael Peers, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada's 700,000 members, asked his fellow primates not to interfere in the New Westminster diocese. Peers said the Canadian House of Bishops would address the matter at its regular meeting in October.
Peers told CHRISTIANITY TODAY he supported Ingham's proposal because it tried to meet the concerns of conservative parishes while keeping the diocesan structure intact. "You don't build dioceses within dioceses," he said.
The blessing of same-sex unions would not have any effect on Canadian law. Ingham has yet to approve any specific liturgical rite for blessing a same-sex couple.
"We are deeply grieved that the diocese is following this reckless path," said the Washington-based American Anglican Council, "and we strongly urge it not to implement its decision."
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A statement signed by the parishes who declare they are no longer in communion with the synod is available online. Anglican Journal ran a statement from Michael Ingham, Bishop Of New Westminster, on Saturday.
Other news coverage includes:
Same-sex blessings a reality after vote: Members of nine parishes walk out in protest—Anglican Journal (June 16, 2002)
Vancouver Anglicans approve same-sex unions—The Canadian Press (June 15, 2002)
Synod members react to vote result—Anglican Journal (June 15, 2002)
Blessing of same sex unions voted for the third time by Synod and assented to by Bishop—Topic Newspaper (June 15, 2002)
B.C. Anglican diocese approves blessing for same-sex unions—CBC News (June 15, 2002)
Anglicans vote on same-sex unions—Vancouver Sun (June 15, 2002)
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