Ottawa Citizen
May 20, 2006

Front page article:

Conservative Anglicans livid over lesbian priest in Ottawa
by Jennifer Green

Anglican Bishop Peter Coffin has allowed a married lesbian to work as a priest in Ottawa, incurring the wrath of a small but vociferous group of conservatives within the Anglican diocese. One church has withheld about $36,000 of its dues to the the diocese in protest and several clergy signed an open letter denouncing their bishop.

The letter said Bishop Coffin reneged on the spirit of the Anglican church's national moratorium on same-sex unions by allowing Rev. Linda Privitera to work as a priest at St. John the Evangelist on Elgin Street. Rev. Privitera is an American citizen, ordained and married in Massachusetts, who came to Canada with her partner in November.

Bishop Coffin has honoured the moratorium that suspended any church blessing of same-sex unions, but he says: "I cannot see (homosexuality) as a sin.... We have swept this under the carpet and made people live in fear and in silence. I may be called a liberal and unorthodox," Bishop Coffin said in an e-mail to the Citizen. "But I firmly believe that people need to be treated with respect and dignity and that loving someone faithfully and in total commitment until death do them part is a blessing regardless of sexual orientation."

With that statement, Bishop Coffin has placed himself firmly on one side of a debate, which is dividing Anglicans worldwide, over what it means to be Christian. The struggle could crack the church apart as liberals and conservatives increasingly see each other as veering into sin, and raise the alarms against each other accordingly.

Trouble has been percolating for years as churches in North America and Europe welcomed same-sex couples and gay clergy, sometimes with open arms, sometimes by simply looking the other way.

But Canada has only 700,000 Anglicans, and the U.S. about 2.2 million, of the world's 77 million Anglicans, most of whom live in the southern hemisphere, where many bishops argue homosexuality is an abomination and forbidden by the Bible.

These same bishops are no longer prepared to be ignored at international synods, and have aligned with the Christian right in North America to create a formidable force here.

Orthodox Anglicans maintain the church is wandering away from scripture by condoning sexuality outside heterosexual marriage. To them, the question is not so much whether homosexuality is a sin, but whether the Anglican church sees scripture as the ultimate authority.

Some conservative churches have broken with their diocese, aligning instead with southern bishops. Eight B.C. churches and three in Saskatchewan are now affiliated with the church in Rwanda, which is also firmly opposed to homosexuality. Some of the Canadian churches have tried to take ownership of their church property and buildings with them.

Most of this storm was blowing over Ottawa until Rev. Privitera arrived in November and Bishop Coffin gave her a temporary licence to practise as a priest. One of the signatories to the open letter was Rev. George Sinclair, a leader of Anglican Essentials Canada, a group trying to bring the Anglican Church back to its original orthodoxy.

His church, St. Alban the Martyr on King Edward Avenue, withheld part of its dues to the diocese after the bishop supported a motion at the last national synod recognizing the integrity and sanctity of committed same-sex relationships. Rev. Sinclair acknowledges he and his supporters are in the minority in the diocese. The question now is whether the bishop will act fairly toward a dissenting minority, he says. Canada's Anglican bishops decided last year on a two-year moratorium on the issue to give their U.S. counterparts a chance to debate the issue at their meeting next month in Columbus, Ohio. Canadian bishops will take a final stand on the issue at their meeting in Winnipeg in 2007. Anglican bishops worldwide are to meet in 2008.

Same-sex ceasefire ends for Anglican Church

Ottawa at centre of possible international schism

Jennifer Green, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Saturday, May 20, 2006

It was not supposed to be like this, not for anyone.

Linda Privitera had been looking forward to practising her calling as an Anglican priest and living in peace with her spouse, Melissa Haussman.

Desiree Stedman had been looking forward to a peaceful retirement, recalling with contentment 19 years of service to the nurturing church she had grown up in.

Instead, both women have found themselves embroiled in a churchwide dispute over same-sex unions, and, more to the point, what it means to be Christian.

"This is one of the hardest things I've ever done," says Rev. Privitera, her eyes clouded and mouth creased down.

The 59-year-old grandmother was an ordained minister for 19 years in Massachusetts before she married Ms. Haussman in 2004, and then followed her here in November.

Like most newlyweds, they saw nothing but sunshine on the horizon. Canada seemed so welcoming to gays; after all, the federal government had just made same-sex marriage legal.

Ms. Haussman had landed her dream job, a tenure-track teaching position in Carleton University's political science department, and Rev. Privitera was confident of finding a position in Ottawa's Anglican diocese. She had studied at Yale, was just finishing her doctorate in pastoral ministry, and had glowing recommendations from the U.S. Episcopal Church. Since Episcopalians are widely regarded as the American equivalent of Anglicans, what could go wrong?

She and Ms. Haussman even had a contact through Garth Bulmer, pastor at St. John the Evangelist on Elgin Street. The three had become friends while he was on a fellowship at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachussetts.

At first, it looked promising. Ottawa Bishop Peter Coffin granted Rev. Privitera temporary permission to work as a priest in the diocese and suggested to church officials she might make a good pastor at St. Mary the Virgin in Blackburn Hamlet.

But within days, seven local clergy posted an open letter on the diocese listserv denouncing their bishop.

"We are distressed that our diocese has taken actions that deepen the crisis in the Anglican Communion," the letter read.

"We regret that we must publicly disagree with our bishop. In December, The Bishop of Ottawa ... granted permission to a priest in an open same-gendered relationship to officiate in this diocese. This action ... puts our relationship with the world-wide Anglican Communion in jeopardy."

Since then, Rev. Privitera has worked at Saint John the Evangelist, filling in for her friend, Rev. Bulmer, while he was on vacation, but that work has wrapped up with his return.

Nothing much is available elsewhere in the diocese, and her financial future here looks bleak.

She has sent out resumes, but not to anywhere in Ottawa, not even anywhere in Canada. She is aiming for positions in the United States, meaning she and Ms. Haussman may have to plunge into the long loneliness of working and living apart.

"We thought we could live in this city, but it's been difficult," she says.

"It's not the dream we had. I still get up in the morning. I am still glad to be here, and glad for my partner. I still say thanks to God. But it's a hard way to live. I underestimated what it would be like here."

She describes it as a kind of cultural whiplash, lurching her back to a dark time for gay people.

Just two years ago, she had a joyous wedding day in Boston, in a church overflowing with supportive parishioners.

Now, when Rev. Privitera walks into a room -- even a room full of other clergy -- people look away.

It is no help that other gay clergy are likely flying under the radar of the church's long-time non-policy of "don't ask, don't tell."

Had she been dishonest about her sexuality, and lived with Ms. Haussman without benefit of a legal marriage, everything might have been fine.

Ms. Haussman, for her part, finds life at Carleton very convivial. "It's so paradoxical how many different realities are out there."

It's hard for Ms. Haussman to see what the big deal is.

"We're Americans and we're allowed to be married in both the state of Massachusetts and the Episcopal church, so much of this a false issue."

Rev. Privitera says: "I was hired as an out, honest, person, a priest who happened to be gay. I am not the poster girl for gay clergy, I am not a symbol of gay rights."

Or at least she had not intended to be.

- - -

It isn't about gay rights in any event, say Ottawa clergy on the other side of the debate. It is about whether Anglicans believe the Bible is a human document open to interpretation, or the word of God, and non-negotiable.

The Bible has nothing good to say anywhere about same-sex relationships, and, if it is the word of God, that makes it the final word, regardless of what anyone on Earth may say.

Desiree Stedman, minister at St. Matthew's on First Avenue, is one of the clergy who signed the letter criticizing the bishop.

She is having trouble getting liberals to see that she is speaking out of religious conviction, not sexual bigotry.

She says she would also refuse to bless an unmarried heterosexual couple living together.

Yet "we are considered simple-minded, fundamentalist and bigoted. These are the labels thrown at us.

"It's a very sad time. It is impossibly difficult to describe the betrayal of us as a group by the liberal hierarchy across Canada.

"The rhetoric is miserable. The two sides are fundamentally opposed. There is enormous unhappiness and grief. I don't think any priest being ordained could have predicted we would be here now."

Rev. Stedman predicts the Anglican church will have to divide forever on the issue.

"Where is the middle ground? There really isn't one. It's a bowl of soggy porridge, and you can't stand on it."

She is adamant that she and other orthodox Anglicans have nothing against gays per se.

"Any human being who comes before God is doing something wrong, including the priest."

George Sinclair is another of the seven signatories to the open letter that brought Rev. Privitera's career here to a halt.

He is also pastor of St. Alban the Martyr on King Edward Avenue, a congregation so opposed to the diocese's wishy-washy stance on same-sex marriage that it has withheld about $36,000 in annual dues in protest. Rev. Sinclair is also one of the leaders of Anglican Essentials Canada, a network of Anglicans trying to bring the church back to its traditional orthodoxy.

So when the national Anglican Church last year passed a motion "affirming the integrity and sanctity of committed and same-sex relationships," Rev. Sinclair found it "deeply wrong. Even if they had said 'heterosexual sex,' it would still have been wrong because it implies sexuality itself is divine rather than it becomes holy through matrimony. It is teaching a pagan notion of sexuality being inherently divine."

"It is tragic ... that it looks like it's about Linda (Privitera)," he says.

"But it's not about Linda whatsoever.

"I'm sure she's a really nice person. From my understanding, she dealt with the diocese only with integrity.

"It's the timing of the bishop's permission (to allow her to act as a priest) at a time when the worldwide communion is looking at it."

Therein lies the rub: whatever happens with this issue, the church can never return to its unofficial policy of turning a blind eye.

Bishop Coffin said in an e-mail: "Throughout the church -- if we really want to be honest -- we have had gay clergy who have been wonderful pastors. It was OK (reluctantly) if we didn't ask, didn't tell and didn't pursue.

"This lacks integrity. Accepting the gifts of gay and lesbian persons so long as we kept them in silence and under wraps is wrong."

So homosexuality has to be either wholly accepted or wholly rejected, most likely across the whole church. There are about 700,000 Anglicans in Canada and about 2.2 million in the U.S, a fraction of the world's 77 million, most of whom live in a great swath of Africa and Asia.

In many of those countries, homosexuals are still considered criminals.

Bishops there not only consider gay marriage an abomination, but, perhaps more importantly, they are fed up with their North American and British counterparts ignoring them.

Last year, Archbishop Peter Akinola, primate of Nigeria, made headlines in his efforts to unite the conservative Anglicans against their counterparts in Europe and North America.

He was mentioned in Time magazine recently as one of the world's most influential people, a leader who would reshape the church as the influence of the south rises and the north wanes.

The cultural landscape of the southern hemisphere is very different, after generations of profound suffering and a constant pressure from Muslims who point to Christianity and Western civilization as decadent.

Archbishop Akinola used this enormous influence to back a new Nigerian law that would criminalize same-sex marriage, deny gays the right to free assembly, and make it illegal for newspapers to publicize same-sex associations or religious organizations that permit same-sex unions.

Bishop John Bryson Chane of Washington, D.C., said in the Washington Post: "Were Archbishop Akinola a solitary figure and Nigeria an isolated church, his support for institutionalized bigotry would be significant only within his own country.

"But the archbishop is perhaps the most powerful member of a global alliance of conservative bishops and theologians ... who seek to dominate the Anglican Communion and expel those who oppose them, particularly the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada.

"What we see in Nigeria today may well be on the agenda of the Christian right tomorrow. I am compelled to ask whether the global Christian community has lost not only its backbone but its moral bearings.

"Have we become so cowed by the periodic eruptions about the decadent West that Archbishop Akinola and his allies issue that we are no longer willing to name an injustice when we see one?"

Archbishop Akinola is indeed a frightening figure to some, especially as he has not been content to keep his disapproval in Nigeria.

When New Hampshire elected a gay bishop in 2004, Archbishop Akinola travelled to the U.S. to encourage orthodox congregations to realign themselves under his jurisdiction.

Anglicans worldwide have tried to find some way of compromising, or at least putting off the discussions rather than breaking apart altogether. Last year, Canadian bishops decided on a two-year moratorium on same-sex blessings, but not all fell in line.

In British Columbia, Bishop Michael Ingham went ahead with blessing same-sex couples, and one congregation broke away, linking with the Rwandan Anglican church in protest. The congregation has ended up in a legal squabble over whether it or the diocese owned the church buildings and land.

Eight churches in British Columbia and three in Saskatchewan have effectively left the Anglican Church of Canada and are now affiliated with the church in Rwanda.

In Ottawa, Rev. Sinclair says it is not clear exactly who owns which church property; in any event, his group is committed to staying within the diocese "as long as possible."

In the final crunch, would they try to take ownership of their church buildings? He wouldn't really say.

And where does all this leave Rev. Privitera? Says Rev. Sinclair: "Being a priest is a privilege, not a right."

To Bishop Coffin, Rev. Privitera "has many gifts and would be -- in the minds of many, though not others -- an excellent pastor."

He says: "I cannot see (homosexuality) as a sin ... We have swept this under the carpet and made people live in fear and in silence.

"I may be called a liberal and unorthodox. But I firmly believe that people need to be treated with respect and dignity and that loving someone faithfully and in total commitment until death do them part is a blessing, regardless of sexual orientation."

The U.S. church will next month hold its general convention, at which American priests are expected to set their permanent position on gay clerics and same-sex unions. The Canadians act in 2007, and the following year, the world's Anglican bishops meet.

In the meantime, says Rev. Privitera, "I will always hope. I will still be the priest I am, moving in the direction of justice."

Jennifer Green is the Citizen's senior writer for faith and ethics. You can reach her at

© The Ottawa Citizen 2006