Bishop Michael Ingham told the BC Supreme Court on Monday, June 1, that he knew of several Anglican dioceses where same sex unions were being blessed, long before the Diocesan Synod of New Westminster asked him to issue a rite of blessing in 2002.

It was happening informally, he said, in several Dioceses of the Episcopal Church in the US (a member of the Anglican Communion). He named Rochester, NY, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Delaware, and Boston, as places where same sex blessings took place, as well as in England.

But the bishop was opposed to these blessings, he told Mr. Justice Stephen Kelleher, “I wasn’t in favour of unofficial blessings taking place.” He told his priests not to conduct them, although some conservative priests would not oppose blessings done informally—and one even suggested to him this was a way to resolve the blessing issue.

“I felt the blessing should be public if it is right. If it is not the right thing to do, it should not be done at all.”

Judge Kelleher questioned the bishop: were the American blessings official or unofficial? Were they done with the knowledge and permission of bishops?

Bishop Michael Ingham (TOPIC files)

“It’s unclear, to be honest,” Bishop Ingham said. He said he has talked with some of the bishops involved, and they said they had given permission.

In any case, the Diocese of New Westminster was not the first diocese in which blessings of homosexual couples took place, but it was the first place where a Diocesan Synod had formally voted to ask for the blessings, and a bishop had then consented.

The diocese’s blessing of committed same sex unions was first used in 2003, and was very strongly opposed by a minority of clergy and congregations. After unsuccessfully attempting to come under the authority of a more conservative and traditional Canadian bishop, they last year left the Anglican Church of Canada and joined the Anglican Network in Canada, which claims ties to an Anglican Church in South America.

The bishop was the first defence witness on Monday, June 1, in the lawsuit brought by 22 leaders in four Vancouver area congregations, including three former diocesan priests. They all have left the Anglican Church of Canada, but want to keep the parish buildings. They have sued the Diocese of New Westminster and Bishop Ingham, and are asking the court to rule they can take the properties with them.

Bishop Ingham took the stand Monday afternoon after the diocese’s opening statement to be questioned by the diocese’s lawyer, George Macintosh, QC. The lawyer led the bishop through the history of the blessings issue.

The bishop said discussion about homosexuality—whether it was a “natural or a disordered form of sexuality”—began shortly after the federal parliament removed homosexuality from the Criminal Code in May of 1969.

In 1979, Canadian bishops issued “guidelines” that said as a group they could advise neither the blessing of same sex unions nor the ordination of homosexual priests. Instead they called for a “deep dialogue,” the bishop said. Study guides were issued; forums were held; a program called “Hearing Diverse Voices” took place.

Bishop Ingham said several attempts were made by conservative members of Diocesan Synod to affirm the 1979 guidelines. “These attempts failed. The diocese was not prepared to move forward, but could not affirm what the bishops had said.”

In 1997, he said, the Canadian bishops revisited the guidelines. Though they came to the same conclusion—they could not advise that the blessings or ordinations take place—the language was much “more generous,” the bishop testified. He said the bishops also wanted the Church to determine how to provide pastoral care for committed gay and lesbian couples.

The bishop said his own view of homosexuality had been changing at this time. While he had originally been quite conservative on the issue, after 25 years in ministry, having met and counseled homosexual people, “I had come to regard them as normal human beings...and I was moved by the suffering of gay and lesbian people in the Church.”

The bishop insisted however what he did as a bishop to facilitate discussion was not “agenda driven.” He said he saw his job to hold people together in the diocese, enabling them “to speak to each other safely, to stay together whilst perhaps holding irreconcilable views.”

Led by questions from the defense counsel, the bishop recounted the votes of Diocesan Synod and what he did in response. The first vote, 179 to 170, he felt was too close for him to act on, although he said he could have. Instead he consulted with the Canadian House of Bishops, went to a Lambeth Conference, and sought ideas from a “Council of Advice.”

This led to setting up a “dialogue process.” Members of paired parishes were to meet and to consider a number of study materials about the blessing, and to hear from gay and lesbian couples and an ex-gay person.

Asked why the elaborate process, the bishop said he wanted the entire diocese, not just diocesan leaders and those who had been to synods, to study the issue. “Many parishioners had never discussed these matters. I was anxious that no decision be made that didn’t have the broad support of the diocese.”

The bishop’s story ended for the day at the point before the second vote in 2001. Questioning by the diocese’s lawyer is to continue on Tuesday, followed by cross examination from the Network’s lawyer, Geoff Cowper, QC. Later in the week the diocese’s witnesses will include the Rev. Kevin Dixon, Douglas MacAdams, and the Rev. Christine Rowe.

Earlier, the morning session was taken up with the diocese’s opening statement presented by Macintosh. The diocese’s lawyer read much of it to the court, choosing what the diocese wished emphasized,

The brief set out the legal principles involved, the structure of the Anglican Church, and the history of the approval of a rite of Same Sex Blessings in the Diocese of New Westminster.

“There can be no serious question that the Anglican Church of Canada is in the Anglican Communion,” said Macintosh, responding to the Network’s charge that the diocese is not considered in Communion by national or regional Anglican Churches which contain a majority of the world’s Anglicans, mostly in Africa and other parts of the Anglican South.

Membership in the Anglican Communion, a fellowship of autonomous Churches, is through Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in England, who has declared that the Anglican Church of Canada is the only body with membership.

The brief set out a very different interpretation of the Solemn Declaration of 1893, which is called an “historical document.” The Network’s interpretation of the document that it requires the Canadian Church to maintain “historic, orthodox Anglican doctrine and practice” is a very static understanding of the Anglican tradition.

Rather, the brief says, Anglican tradition is “dynamic” and the interpretation of doctrine is shaped by the history, society, and culture of the day. “Doctrine cannot be frozen in a single historical form.”

When presented to the court the diocese’s opening statement became a public document, and is available for download here.