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Canadian Anglicans voting on gay couples

Canada's Anglicans are debating whether to allow their churches to bless gay couples at a time when divisions over the Bible and homosexuality are tearing at the world Anglican fellowship.

The Anglican Church of Canada is scheduled to vote in its national meeting Saturday whether to allow priests to bless same-sex unions - a step short of performing gay marriage, which is legal in Canada. Before that vote, delegates will choose a new leader on Friday from a field of four candidates, including a woman, who could become the first female elected to lead the Canadian church.

The world Anglican Communion is already in an uproar over the U.S. Episcopal Church's 2003 consecration of the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

The Episcopal Church is the Anglican body in the United States. Anglican leaders have given the U.S. denomination until Sept. 30 to unequivocally pledge not to consecrate another openly gay bishop or authorize official prayers for same-sex couples. If Episcopalians fail to agree to the demands, they risk losing their full membership in the communion.

Separately, the Anglican Church of Canada came under fire in 2002, after Bishop Michael Ingham of the Diocese of New Westminster in British Columbia allowed parishes in his region to bless gay couples. In 2004, the Diocese of Niagara voted to follow suit, but its bishop has barred the ceremonies for now.

In his opening presidential address last Sunday, the outgoing leader of the Anglican Church of Canada, Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, said debate over full acceptance of same-sex relationships is "one of the most difficult items for our discernment."

Hutchison said this week's vote raises deeper questions about how to preserve ties between Canadian Anglicans and Anglican provinces overseas, all of which trace their roots back hundreds of years to the Church of England.

Most of the world's Anglicans are theological conservatives who believe gay relationships violate Scripture. More liberal Anglicans emphasize social justice teachings in the Bible, leading them to support full acceptance of same-sex couples.

"We recognize we're at a crossroads for the church," said Rev. Canon Charlie Masters, head of the conservative Canadian group Anglican Essentials. "But the way to help this is to align ourselves with what the Bible says, not what society says."

Chris Ambidge, who leads the Toronto chapter of Integrity Canada, an Anglican gay advocacy group, argued that gays have been allowed to marry in Canada for four years "and the sun has come up bang on time every morning since then."

"Canadians as a whole are prepared to live with it. Why can't the Anglican church?" Ambidge said. "We need to progress if we're going to remain relevant."

Hutchison is retiring as head of the 1.3 million-member Canadian church, since its leaders, called primates, serve until age 70.

The nominees for Canadian archbishop are Ontario Bishop George Bruce; Huron Bishop Bruce Howe; Bishop Fred Hiltz of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island and Edmonton Bishop Victoria Matthews, who was a nominee in the 2004 election but withdrew when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

If Matthews wins, she will be the second woman elected to lead a national Anglican church in the nearly 500-year-old Anglican Communion. Last year, U.S. Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori became the first woman elected to head an Anglican province.

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