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BY RALINDA B. GREGOR, EXECUTIVE EDITOR
|Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori (left) with Archbishop of Southern Africa, Cecil Makoba. Photo courtesy George Conger|
|Archbishop Alan Harper and the Anglican Church of Ireland have scheduled a conference in the spring of 2012 to, in part,”explore wider issues related to human sexuality.” Photo courtesy George Conger.|
Like a fast spreading virus, the recognition of same-sex unions is spanning the Anglican Communion. Events over the past three months suggest that the lack of consequences for violating the Communion's moratorium on same-sex blessings have emboldened dioceses and provinces to expand or begin the practice.
In North America, some dioceses have approved and expanded same-sex blessings. In July, Canadian Bishop John Chapman began allowing parishes in the Diocese of Ottawa to perform same-sex blessings contingent on a written request to him and written permission for each instance. Previously, only one parish had permission "to bless permanent, intimate and loving couples of the same gender, civilly married" as a way to "test the Spirit."
Eight Canadian dioceses permit the blessing of same-sex unions: New Westminster, Montreal, Niagara, Huron, Ottawa, British Columbia, Toronto, and Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. The Anglican Church of Canada's General Synod did not legislatively approve the blessing of same-sex unions at their last meeting in 2010. Instead, it published a report on sexual discernment that summarized the various discussions that took place at synod. The report acknowledged that blessings do occur as part of "the continuing commitment to develop generous pastoral responses" to gays and lesbians. Canadian Archbishop Fred Hiltz offered these actions as proof that the province was still exercising "gracious restraint." The official word from the Anglican Communion Office was that "Canada has not formally breached the moratoria," according to spokesperson Jan Butter.
This month in the U.S., Bishop Shannon Johnston gave seven congregations in the TEC Diocese of Virginia permission to conduct same-sex blessings. Citing his personal hope that the next "General Convention will authorize the formal blessing of same-gender unions for those clergy in places that want to celebrate them," Johnston promised that he would honor the decisions of those parishes that do not want to perform same-sex blessings. He has scheduled two separate forums in November-one to hear the experiences of parishes that will not request blessings and one for parishes that want to learn how to proceed in offering blessings. The separate-but-equal meetings will keep the two factions apart and perhaps keep outward peace in this diocese that has seen several parishes depart for the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).
In the Church of Ireland, facts on the ground have forced the House of Bishops to address same-sex unions. On July 29, the dean of Leighlin Cathedral in the Diocese of Cashel and Ossory, the Very Rev. Tom Gordon, became the first Irish cleric to enter into a civil union. Not only did his bishop, the Rt. Rev. Michael Burrows, give permission, but the province's Archbishop, Alan Harper, knew about the union days prior to it happening and did nothing to stop it. Although details have not been released about any ceremony, guests were invited to a garden party reception at the rectory to celebrate the union.
Neither Harper nor Burrows have made any statements critical of the civil union. Harper told the Belfast News Letter that, "There are different views within the Church as to whether or not a committed same-sex relationship is sinful." He gathered the House of Bishops for three days in early October "to reflect on current disquiet in the Church caused by disagreements on the matter of human sexuality." In their statement, the Bishops said they "envisage that further study and research on biblical, theological and legal issues will be required." The church will hold a conference in the spring, inviting members of General Synod and others for more "learning and listening." More listening will not likely appease conservative groups such as Reform Ireland which have called for the resignation of Burrows and Gordon. Reform called the Bishops' statement "disappointing and completely inadequate," and said, "This failure to address the action of the Dean and the bishop effectively prejudices any proposed future conference, for it sends out the signal that such civil partnerships are acceptable and gives the green light for other clergy civil partnerships."
The legality of civil unions in South Africa has also provided the opportunity for revisionists in that province to push for "Pastoral Guidelines for Civil Unions" which were published in draft form in June. The draft report, which is still under consideration by the Synod of Bishops, claims that the controversy over same-sex unions is not a first order issue: "... human sexuality is not, and cannot be allowed to be, for us a church dividing issue." The guidelines confirm that church canons do not permit clergy or those with "spiritual authority" over others in the church to enter into civil unions. However, issues surrounding pastoral care to gays and lesbians are not outlined in the report and will presumably be determined by the bishops. Because the report addresses civil unions as something to be dealt with, rather than addressing marriage and sexuality from a theological perspective, the bishops have sidestepped debate and ensured that some type of local option will be approved. Port Elizabeth has been the most vocal diocese to refute the increasingly revisionist stance of the Anglican Church in Southern Africa (ACSA) and there are other dioceses that are quietly orthodox, but they are in the minority.
Even more disturbing than the increasing number of dioceses permitting same-sex blessings openly or by default, is the concerted effort by TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada to convince others to approve them. TEC Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was invited to the South African Synod of Bishops in September where a key item of discussion was the pastoral guidelines. The bishops' statement said they were "encouraged and energized" by her presentation, noting that, "While we acknowledge some differences between TEC and ACSA (for example, with respect to human sexuality), nevertheless we affirm the value of ongoing dialogues, exercised through truthfulness and sensitivity towards one another."
In addition to the presiding bishop's visit, TEC will also be attempting to promote acceptance of same-sex blessings in South Africa through an Indaba-style conference on human sexuality and justice issues to be held this month in Durban. The gathering is being convened by the Chicago Consultation, a coalition of TEC GLBT rights and social justice groups, and the Ujamaa Centre, a theological and ideological advocacy group based on liberation theology.
TEC also presented their case for same-sex blessings during the Inter Anglican Liturgical Consultation (IALC) meeting on marriage, held Aug. 1-6 in Canterbury, England. The consultation was to examine the "theology of marriage," the "cultural contexts of marriage," and the "shape and elements of the ritual," but the agenda also included a presentation on same-sex blessings by the U.S. delegation led by Prof. Ruth Meyers of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and Bishop Thomas Ely of Vermont. The TEC representatives staged a mock blessing of the union of two women and invited conference attendees to take part in the liturgy and prayers. The new chair of the IALC, the Rev. Dr. Eileen Scully from the Anglican Church of Canada, was supportive of TEC's presentation. However, a report in the Church of England Newspaper claimed one participant said the majority of the IALC members did not support it. While some believed it was unbiblical, others objected to TEC's "aggressive" push to insert their agenda into a meeting that was supposed to focus on traditional marriage.
"What we're seeing here is a spiritual sickness that is spreading from North America around the world. The longer the Communion's leadership fails to effectively address the sickness, the further it spreads," said American Anglican Council CEO, Bishop David Anderson.
Ralinda Gregor is a communications consultant for the American Anglican Council. email@example.com