Blessing of same sex unions done openly in the Diocese of New Westminster have received a great deal of condemnation from more conservative provinces of the Anglican Communion, while many similar blessings done as “pastoral exceptions” in England are seldom remarked upon.

Canadian Primate Andrew Hutchison called this a “discrepancy” in his remarks to New Westminster’s Diocesan Synod May 13 and 14 at which he spoke as an episcopal visitor.

Canadian Primate Andrew Hutchison

“What distinguishes you in New Westminster is not that you bless same gendered people,” he told the 300 lay and clerical delegates. He said he was certain that more have been blessed in England “and perhaps even in the diocese of London [England].”

According to a report last December in the London Telegraph, about 300 ceremonies in which a priest blessed a gay or lesbian couple were performed in 2003. The newspaper said that figure had been supplied by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, a British organization.

A priest at Holy Cross Church in Greenford, West London, told the newspaper he had presided over 12 same sex blessings.

The blessing is considered a pastoral office for priests to use in the Diocese of New Westminster (if they in conscience agree with it), and no diocesan statistics are kept, but a check of the eight parishes who have by Vestry vote asked to be places of blessing and been so authorized by the bishop found a total of 14 blessing ceremonies conducted since May 2003, when they were instituted.

Hutchison told the delegates who met May 13 and 14 that what does distinguish the diocese is that the blessing “has been put formally on the agenda of the church” by the synod’s action.

“Hats off to you for putting it on the agenda and dealing with it openly and directly,” said Hutchison.

Pat Dewhirst and Mary Woo Sims received a blessing of their union earlier this year. Behind them is the Ven. Barbara Clay, until recently Archdeacon of Westminster. Theirs is the only same sex blessing held at St. Laurence, Coquitlam, to date.

The Synod of the Diocese of New Westminster’s request that the bishop approve a rite of same sex blessing, and the bishop’s consent in 2002 and issuance of a rite the next year, were singled out in the Anglican Communion’s Windsor Report as one of two actions that had caused serious strains within the Anglican Communion. (The other was the installation of a bishop in New Hampshire, USA, who is a gay man.)

The report asked the diocese to impose a “moratorium” on future rites. In response, the Diocesan Synod did decide to limit the blessing to the eight parishes (out of 78) which had voted to be a place of blessing and received the bishop’s permission.

Bishop Michael Ingham said afterwards that the synod had tried to both show continuing support for gay and lesbian Christians who want the pastoral blessing, but also to respond to the  concerns of the world-wide communion.

No further parishes in the diocese will be allowed to bless gay and lesbian couples, at least until 2007 when the Anglican Church of Canada’s national General Synod takes up the matter.