Divided Anglicans to vote on issue of same-sex union
The religious world will be watching Winnipeg as Canada's oldest Protestant church struggles to avoid a schism in the church, writes Richard Foot.
Richard Foot, The Ottawa CitizenPublished: Monday, June 18, 2007
Trapped for more than a decade inside a wrenching cyclone of doctrinal disputes, the Anglican Church of Canada will try to chart a path through the storm at a historic meeting in Winnipeg.
More than 400 bishops, clergy and members of Canada's oldest Protestant church will convene today for the church's General Synod -- the first such national meeting in three years -- to elect a new Canadian leader and to vote on whether to let priests bless the partnerships of same-sex couples.
However the church decides to treat its gay and lesbian members, the outcome is certain to spark recriminations -- and possibly a schism -- in Canada and abroad.
Canadian Anglican church leaders will discuss Bishop Michael Ingham's 2002 decision to allow blessings of same-sex unions.
Rod MacIvor, The Ottawa CitizenEmail to a friendPrinter friendly
The Vancouver-area diocese, under the leadership of progressive bishop Michael Ingham, will be at the forefront of delegates' minds -- as the entire Canadian Anglican church decides whether to follow the diocese's lead and allow dioceses to approve the blessing of same-sex relationships.
The worldwide Anglican communion will also be watching how Canadian delegates respond to Bishop Ingham's longtime advocacy of gay and lesbian spiritual equality -- since more than one well-placed observer says that what happens in Canada, with up to 800,000 members on the rolls, could well be the harbinger of the future for the entire, fractured Anglican communion.
An influential group of retired Canadian bishops pleaded with the church last week to approve the blessings and then move forward to more critical matters, saying a failure to do so, "will only continue to draw us away from issues which are gradually destroying God's creation," such as poverty and global warming.
Meanwhile, a group of conservative clerics warned Anglicans in a letter at Easter that any tampering with the church's traditional views on homosexuality would fragment the church and lead to "North American Protestant sectarianism."
The Canadian decision is part of a larger political drama unfolding within the 77 million-member global Anglican communion led by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The communion is one of the few Christian denominations, like Roman Catholicism, that spans continents and cultures. It governs itself not by the authority of a pope, but through consensus and courtesy.
But same-sex politics has stretched traditional Anglican tolerance to the breaking point, and bishops across the globe will be watching the Winnipeg meeting, eager to know the outcome of next weekend's vote.
Many Anglican leaders in Africa and Latin America, where the church is growing, are opposed to any loosening of Anglican doctrine on homosexuality, and have grown irritated at their colleagues.
In 2002, Bishop Ingham allowed same-sex blessings in his Vancouver diocese. More recently, other Canadian dioceses have announced similar plans. And in 2003, the Episcopal Church, the Anglican branch in the United States, appointed an openly gay man as bishop of New Hampshire.
The following year, in a bid to preserve international unity, an international panel of Anglican theologians called for a moratorium on the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of gay clergy, and asked the Canadian and U.S. churches to apologize for their actions.
Their calls were largely ignored by the American church, which in 2006 elected its first female national leader, a bishop with well-known liberal views.
This year, a worldwide meeting of Anglican bishops gave the U.S. church an ultimatum: recant support for gay clergy and same-sex unions by September, or face expulsion from the communion.
No similar threat has yet been issued to the Canadians, but that may change, depending on the outcome of the Winnipeg vote.
While sexual ethics fuel this dispute, many believe the struggle is actually a deeper debate about core Anglican doctrine: a tug-of-war over the way Scripture should be interpreted in the 21st century.
Many Anglican traditionalists and evangelicals, for example, hold to the view that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a real, historical event, just as the Bible says it was. Liberal attitudes are murkier; many say biblical accounts of Christ's "virgin birth" and resurrection should be interpreted symbolically, not literally.
So sensitive are these questions that none of the four bishops now seeking election to the leadership of the Canadian church agreed to answer questions about personal beliefs for this article.
"The debate around the blessing of same-sex unions really is a discussion on whether the Bible is the word of God still today or not," says Rev. Charlie Masters, director of Anglican Essentials, a group of conservative Anglicans. "This is why the (global leaders) of the Anglican Communion have been so strong in their dealing with both the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church of the United States."
For gay and lesbian Anglicans, however, the same-sex issue is itself a core question, and some say if the church rejects the idea, significant numbers of clerics in Canada will perform blessings anyway, creating the conditions for a schism.
That, in turn, could lead to debilitating rounds of litigation over Anglican properties and financial assets.
Chris Ambidge, who leads the Toronto chapter of Integrity, a group of gay and lesbian Anglicans, acknowledges that same-sex couples could simply get married outside the church, or transfer their worship, as many already have, to more welcoming denominations such as the United Church.
But Mr. Ambidge says many couples have personal allegiances to Anglican churches, and have a real need for public recognition of their relationships in their parishes.
But Stephen Andrews, a conservative priest, predicts much harm will also be done on a personal level if the church votes to change the status quo.
"We've already seen a number of lay people seep away from the church, and I think there will be clerics who will feel obliged to leave, and the church's ministry in many places will be diminished," he said.
© The Ottawa Citizen 2007