Jennifer Green, The Ottawa Citizen

Published:Saturday, June 02, 2007

Ottawa Anglicans are growing increasingly tense as their retiring bishop and his successor head to Winnipeg later this month for a countrywide vote on whether the church should bless gay marriages.

The conservative group Anglican Essentials is hosting an online prayer forum in advance of the June 19-25 meeting, or synod, where representatives from Canada's 27 diocese will gather.

On the other side of the debate, a group of gay Anglicans and their supporters are preparing for their first Eucharist at Christ Church Cathedral on Sparks Street where outgoing Bishop Peter Coffin, and his replacement, Bishop John Chapman, will both preside Sunday at 7 p.m. It will be Bishop Chapman's first day on the job.

Shane Parker, dean of the cathedral, cautions that it is simply a service, not a rally, and that both bishops are just serving as pastors.

Still, in the midst of the calming talk, a listserv for local Anglicans has grown so venomous that the diocese office has decided to have nothing further to do with it.

Bishop Coffin's executive secretary Ann Day wrote: "As of Friday, June 8, the Episcopal Office will not be subscribing to the diocesan list.

"With some of the discussions now being carried out, it has become a site that is more unpleasant than is necessary and much too time consuming."

As liberals and conservatives swap barbed remarks, Bishop Coffin told the Citizen in an e-mail: "... it has been hijacked. That is a pity because it could otherwise be useful.... I have heard over and over again about people signing off because of the tenor of the conversation."

The vexing question comes down to how the Anglican church should view homosexuality. As a sexual orientation accepted by most of modern society and protected by the Charter of Rights, it would seem wrong to deny gay couples a simple blessing, if not a full wedding, especially as such marriages are recognized in Ontario. As many gay activists point out, even animals have a day of special blessing in some churches, in recognition of St. Francis of Assisi.

But traditionalists believe homosexuality is a sin, no matter what the current thinking is, and must be condemned, or at least not blessed. If the church disregards the Bible on this, it will slide off its footings altogether and cease to be a truly Christian church.

It doesn't help that the issue has caused bitter divisions worldwide. More than half of the world's Anglicans live in the much more conservative global south, giving African clergy tremendous clout over British and American Anglicans.

Peter Akinola, primate of Nigeria, has pushed the issue to a showdown, refusing to recognize the openly gay U.S. bishop Gene Robinson and consecrating an American bishop of his own instead, as head of Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA).

The archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, invited all the world's bishops to next year's Lambeth Conference -- except Bishop Robinson, citing widespread dissent to his presence.

Bishop Robinson told reporters he was greatly disappointed. "At a time when the Anglican Communion is calling for a 'listening process' on the issue of homosexuality, how does it make sense to exclude gay and lesbian people from the discussion? Isn't it time that the bishops of the church stop talking about us and start talking with us?"

Canadian bishops agreed to a moratorium on same-sex blessings until the issue is resolved. All are invited to Lambeth -- for now.

The Anglican Church of Canada prepared its own report on the issue, that found same-sex blessings are an issue of doctrine, but not of core doctrine. Exactly what that means is to be determined at this month's synod.

In general, though, an issue of simple doctrine can be left to individual dioceses to decide for themselves, after considerable discussion. Core doctrine has to be determined by two general synods, giving the issue much more time and thought. The ordination of women was considered to be a core doctrinal issue.

In the meantime, many Anglicans are taking matters into their own hands. Father Maxym Lysack, of Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church on Somerset Street West, says an increasing number of Anglicans are coming to his denomination and to the Roman Catholics.

In the Anglican church, he says, "the core is in such total confusion that they can't recognize their church as a communion."

It isn't just the big issues of women's ordination and same-sex blessings, but "a slow, gradual departure from what I would call the ethos of the church, all of the points of reference, the presuppositions, the subtle things that seldom make it into the newspaper."

"It's their understanding of God, their vision of the world, the way they pray. In the West, we love to attack moral issues first, but morality comes out of life, not the other way around."

Father Lysack referred to a theologian who said, "the church that marries the age it's in, becomes the widow of the age to come."

"The Anglican church married its age (of modernism), and then its age died and they were stuck. Now they they have to remarry postmodernism."

Shane Parker, dean of Christ Church Cathedral, says the Anglican church couldn't disagree more.

"The genius of the Anglican church is holding diversity together in one community. For people who want sameness and absolute uniformity at all levels, they would be very dissatisfied, but those who want a thoughtful Christianity and want to be challenged by interface of tradition, scripture and reason, the Anglican church is definitely the place."

Bishop Coffin commissioned his own task force in the blessing of same sex unions here in Ottawa, with Michael Fleming, pastor of St. Richard's Anglican Church, as co-chair.

Rev. Fleming said in an interview yesterday he began with a sense of ambivalence or moral hesitancy around homosexuality. "I went into it slightly to the right of centre on the issue and I came out absolutely on the left. I heard stories of such isolation and pain. I reread the Scriptures ... but mostly it was reflecting on the stories of marginalization. I really did surprise myself.

"I was thinking about what was best for the church as an institution rather than what was best for the community."

Nor does he have much faith in the heavyweights of the opposition, sensing that Archbishop Akinola is after a simple power grab. "I have very little patience for Akinola.

"He wants to be the next archbishop of Canterbury."

Whatever happens, Rev. Fleming says he hopes there is no repeat of the vicious rhetoric that infused the debate over ordination for women. Looking back on it now, he says, "we crucified the other side. We were pretty nasty."

Undoubtedly, people will feel they can no longer stay with the Anglican church.

"As a priest who loves this old girl, I have to be able to stand up on Sunday, and say, 'how do we stay as a community, as a family. And how do we say goodbye to those who need to leave?'

"It's a heartbreaking thing."