WINNIPEG - A deeply divided Anglican Church of Canada opted yesterday not to let its priests bless the partnerships of same-sex couples.
At the same time -- in a move described as puzzling by advocates on both sides of the debate -- the church voted that such blessings would be compatible with the "core doctrine" of the church.
That "doctrine" vote, some conservatives say, makes it only a matter of time before the blessings become a reality across the country.
For liberal church leaders, that won't come a moment too soon.
"There's no question there will be considerable disappointment on the part of many, and a lot of pain," said Bishop Fred Hiltz of Nova Scotia and P.E.I., who is the incoming leader of the Anglican Church of Canada. "And there will be some people who will be saying, 'How long oh Lord, how long must this conversation continue?' The bishops will certainly be challenged to think about the kind of leadership they are providing."
After a weekend of tortuous, emotional debate at the church's national meeting in Winnipeg, a majority of the 300 Anglican delegates actually agreed to approve same-sex blessing ceremonies.
For the decision to stand, however, church law requires not a simple majority, but separate majorities among priests and laity, and also among the church's
40 Canadian bishops. And while the priests and laity approved the move, it was voted down by a narrow margin of two bishops.
Yesterday's decision is complicated by the fact that earlier in the day, a majority of delegates, including bishops, approved a historic motion declaring same-sex blessings to be compatible with the 500-year-old "core doctrine" of the church.
"On the one hand, we said it is a matter of doctrine, on the other hand, the church is not prepared to proceed immediately with the blessing of these same-sex unions," said Bishop Hiltz, who also said he was not sure how he would lead a church that had taken such an ambiguous stand.
"It gives one pause, to think how it is we actually make decisions."
Yesterday's vote follows years of squabbling and theological study within the church. Currently, the United Church of Canada is the only large mainstream denomination in this country to bless and marry same-sex couples.
Michael Ingham, the Anglican bishop of Vancouver, announced in 2002 that priests under his supervision could bless same-sex unions. Yesterday, a disappointed Bishop Ingham said he would respect the decision of the wider church. "It's a bitter pill to swallow for many of us who hoped the church would move forward," he said. "I think the church expects leadership from the bishops, but what we've got is anxiety."
The main source of anxiety, many say, is fear that allowing same-sex blessings might contribute to a schism in the 77-million member worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Canadian church and its 650,000 members are considered an independent "province."
Conservative bishops in many parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America have denounced moves by their Anglican cousins in the United States and Canada to bless or marry same-sex couples, or to ordain openly gay bishops.
There have also been threats to expel the two North American provinces from the Anglican Communion should they continue to defy hundreds of years of traditional church doctrine on the matter.
"From my point of view, the Rubicon has been crossed, so to speak," said Rev. George Sinclair, the Ottawa priest who chairs Anglican Essentials Canada, a group dedicated to a biblically based orthodox theology.
He said now that the church has decided that blessing the unions is theologically sound, it's just a matter of time before it is endorsed outright.
"It's a sad day for the Anglican Church because they made a decision which flies in the face of Christian teaching," Rev. Sinclair said.
But what happens now in Canada is not clear. Many gay and lesbian worshippers could leave the church. In cities such as Vancouver and Toronto, there could also be court battles as breakaway liberal parishes try to take their treasured buildings and church assets with them.
More likely is that some liberal congregations will defy the will of the national church and move ahead with same-sex blessings, and even marriage ceremonies, anyway. "I will not be surprised if individual congregations move ahead on their own," said Chris Ambidge, a gay Anglican from Toronto.
Gillian Wallace, the founder of the Ottawa chapter of Integrity, an organization committed to the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in church life, said the vote against performing the blessings is a serious setback.
"It means another kick in the teeth, it means more pain and more rejection," she said.
Ms. Wallace, who is a straight woman committed to the cause, said she wanted to weep when she heard the results.
The weekend debate inside a Winnipeg conference hall was passionate and raw. Many parish priests warned that any move to sanctify same-sex unions would alienate orthodox Anglicans across the country. Several said they would face difficulties "holding their congregations together."
There were also pleas by Anglican immigrants from Africa and Latin America -- where in many countries homosexuals are violently persecuted -- for the Canadian church to send a signal of solidarity.
Others expressed dismay that after so many years of debate, the church remained divided.
"I believe we should have had a consensus years ago," said Donald Phillips, the bishop of the Diocese of Rupert's Land (Winnipeg). "It's an embarrassment and it's scandalous. But it's where we are."
Should the church allow priests to bless same-sex partnerships?
Laity: For, 78; against, 59.
Clergy: For, 63;
against , 53.
Bishops: For, 19;