- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2003

VANCOUVER, B.C. — The local Anglican bishop, four days before Christmas, closed a small church 40 miles east of here over its opposition to the church’s approval of homosexual “marriages.”

By the next day, the closing of Holy Cross was one of the top-rated news stories in Canada and the church’s pastor, the Rev. James Wagner, spent the entire day on radio and television. “Anglican parish excommunicated,” one TV station blared.

Nine other churches in the diocese have protested the bishop’s blessing of homosexual unions, but Holy Cross was the only one that the bishop ordered closed. On Christmas, Mr. Wagner defiantly held services in his home for 22 church members.

The situation in far western Canada, both sides in the dispute say, is what the U.S. Episcopal Church - also a member of the 70-million-member Anglican Communion and itself riven over homosexual clergy and same-sex unions - may look like a year from now: dioceses split into liberal and conservative camps with liberal bishops closing conservative churches one by one.

Mr. Wagner is the first Anglican priest in Canada to lose his job over his opposition to his church’s new policy. Not only has he become an outcast in his own church, he says, “but we’re being told we’re not real Anglicans.”

The Diocese of New Westminster in May became the first in 450 years of Anglican history to officially allow same-sex “blessings.” Holy Cross, a fledging congregation in Abbotsford, was the smallest of 10 churches that have parted ways with its bishop, the Most Rev. Michael Ingham, over the policy.

Diocesan officials said Holy Cross had ample warning and knew since October the church could be closed. On Dec. 9, Bishop Ingham announced at a diocesan meeting that the church would close. But his letter notifying Mr. Wagner of this fact was dated Dec. 18.

The next day, the letter reached the parish priest, who notified his parishioners on Sunday, Dec. 21 - four days before Christmas - prompting one Anglican Web site to call the bishop “King Herod meets Ebeneezer Scrooge meets The Grinch.”

Conservatives said the closing was one more shot across the bow to rid the liberal diocese of 30,000 adherents of its 10 conservative parishes.

“We are reluctant dissidents,” says the Rev. David Short, rector of St. John’s Anglican Church, Shaughnessy, a large evangelical congregation in an affluent Vancouver suburb that is one of the conservative churches.

“We have become increasingly convinced the umbrella of the Anglican Church is over two different religions. We put the blessing of same-sex unions in the same category as idolatry. It’s saying that what the Scriptures and the church have condemned for centuries is positive and blessed by God.”

Bishop Ingham, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was castigated in October by 37 Anglican archbishops gathered in London. That conference also criticized the American Episcopal church, which had announced plans to consecrate its first openly homosexual bishop in November. Since Canon V. Gene Robinson was made a bishop Nov. 2, nine Anglican provinces have broken off relations with all or parts of the U.S. church.

The Vancouver situation has gotten less publicity but has lasted longer. In 1999, 2000 and 2002, the diocese voted by increasingly larger margins at its yearly convention to approve same-sex blessings.

“It is not as if we woke up in 1999 to say ‘Let’s cause a stir,’” said the Rev. Richard Leggett, an Anglican priest and professor at the Vancouver School of Theology. “This is the end of a 30-year process of conversation in our church on gays and lesbians. The majority of those in our diocese believe the blessing of same-sex unions does not constitute an assault on marriage; it does not stand counter to the Gospel.”

The New Westminster diocese sits in one of Canada’s most liberal provinces, British Columbia, which along with Ontario and Quebec legalized same-sex unions last year.

In 2002, Bishop Ingham consented to allow same-sex ceremonies in his churches, at which point eight conservative parishes formed a coalition, the Anglican Communion in New Westminster (ACNW), and began casting about for a more theologically orthodox bishop to oversee them.

Bishop Terry Buckle of the Diocese of Yukon offered to do so, but was forced to withdraw his offer this fall by request of the Canadian House of Bishops, which has set up a committee as a mediator.

Also in 2002, the eight churches began withholding a total of $23,918 (U.S. dollars) in monthly contributions to the diocese. By the end of this month, the withholdings will have added up to $375,824, causing severe cutbacks in the diocesan budget.

Despite the reaction from conservatives, the diocese developed a same-sex rite and this past May 28, a blessing ceremony between two men took place in a Vancouver church. Occurring two days after a worldwide meeting of Anglican archbishops in Brazil warned the Canadian diocese against doing so, the event caused a worldwide uproar in Anglican circles.

Seven of the ACNW priests, including Mr. Short, had ecclesiastical charges filed against them in August, accusing them of scandalous conduct and disobedience to Bishop Ingham. In early September, the conservative coalition, which by then was 10 churches, hosted an international meeting of eight Canadian bishops, two American prelates and several overseas archbishops.

On a Saturday afternoon during the September meeting, a diocesan employee attempted to change the locks on one of the 10 churches to keep its conservative leadership off the property. A handful of parishioners of St. Martin’s Anglican Church in North Vancouver hustled the employee off the premises.

The next day, “an archdeacon from the diocese interrupted the service,” says Linda Taunton, a member of St. Martin’s, “right at the end of Communion. He stood there with this letter from the bishop saying there was ‘chaos’ in the church.” All the trustees and wardens of the parish were then fired and replaced with the bishop’s appointees. An interim rector was also brought in by the bishop.

Two weeks later, Holy Cross joined the ACNW, even though such a stance put it at some risk with the diocese, on which it leans for financial support. In October, the diocese zeroed out all the church’s funding, about $48,000 a year.

Still, Mr. Wagner refused to sign a statement affirming his loyalty to the bishop. Diocesan officials say they made moves to reconcile with Holy Cross, but their overtures were rebuffed.

“The mission sort of took itself out of the diocese,” communications officer Neale Adams told the National Post, “and accordingly [Mr. Wagner’s position] disappeared.”

To date, only six parishes in the 80-church New Westminster diocese have asked for same-sex blessings and only two have performed them.

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