For five years, an empty table has sat among the bustling hall full of tables occupied by 300 delegates and mounds of paperwork in the diocese of New Westminster's annual synod, or governing meeting.
The table has always been "sex aside for the dissenting parishes" that walked out of synod in 2002 when the Vancouver-based diocese voted to allow local congregations to offer blessing ceremonies to gay couples, said diocesan communications officer Neale Adams. They are always welcome to return, he added.
It is a poignant symbol that a minority (eight out of 80 parishes) considered the decision an outrage that contradicted the Bible and historic church teaching that homosexuality is sinful. A majority viewed it as a positive breakthrough in favor of justice, inclusion and a less-literal interpretation of Scripture.
New Westminster's action, along with the American Episcopal Church's election of a gay bishop, continues to reverberate around a world in which the Anglican Communion and other denominations are emotionally debating the role of homosexuals in the church.
For the diocese, "things are going very well," said Bishop Michael Ingham, who has been in office since 1994. "There was a lot of negative energy five years ago and that's behind us now. Energy has returned to mission, ministry, outreach and evangelism. Clergy morale is good. We no longer have clergy conferences with groups of clergy praying for us over in a comer, which was a regular occurrence. We are not consumed any longer with discussions about human sexuality. We made our decision and moved on," he said in an interview.
Of the eight parishes that departed four remain dissenters, nominally Canadian Anglican churches, but non-participants in the life of the diocese. Among the four other parishes, one was closed by the diocese, one returned and a number of members in the remaining two left to set up their own congregations, but did not attempt to keep the church buildings, which remain with the diocese and the continuing members, said Mr. Adams.
The rector of the largest church to walk out, St. John's, Shaughnessy, in Vancouver, hopes the diocese will see the error of its ways. "We desire true reconciliation with the diocese," said Rev. David Short; this could only happen, he added, if the diocese enacted "a complete moratorium" on same-sex blessings.
"When we walked out of synod in 2002, we said we regard this as an impairment of the (worldwide Anglican) Communion. We respect the decision of the diocese, but we stand with the global teaching of the church on this," he said.
At the time, the withdrawal of the eight parishes cut the diocesan budget of $1.5 million by 18 per cent, according to the treasurer, and St. John's was a major factor in that cut. But St. John's also suffered, said Mr. Short. "We lost people in '02 and '03. Some people left us because they felt we were too out of step with the diocese. Other people left because they felt we weren't out of step enough, but the congregation is back to where we were," he said.
The diocese has also recovered, with the 2006 budget set at $2.12 million, said Mr. Adams. "We had to borrow money for awhile from various funds that we had, but we stopped that. We've had good revenues from investments and trust funds," he said. However, some positions remain unfilled, such as a diocesan hospital chaplain and a Christian education post, he said. …