The crowd of about 500 walked silently through the streets of an Abbotsford neighbourhood Sunday afternoon, following religious leaders in flowing robes.
A cross and the Holy Bible were carried at the front of the line.
Most of the neighbours glanced at the solemn crowd and then returned to their lawn-mowing and garden-tending, likely not realizing the significance of the procession.
It was what Rev. Mike Stewart, rector of St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, had referred to, in the service that preceded the march, as an “historic occasion.”
The event was the culmination of a years-long battle between St. Matthew’s – as well as three other Vancouver churches – and the Diocese of New Westminster, stemming from the issue of same-sex blessings.
St. Matthew’s broke away from the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) to join the Anglican Network in Canada (ANiC) in 2008, maintaining that allowing the blessings is contrary to core Anglican doctrine.
The diocese continues to operate under the ACC, which favours same-sex blessings, and won two court battles – in B.C. Supreme and the B.C. Court of Appeal – that ruled the church buildings and properties belong to them.
But it wasn’t until the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the parishes’ application for an appeal last month that the matter was concluded.
On Sunday, St. Matthew’s held its farewell service in the church it has occupied on Guilford Drive since 1977, and then proceeded to its new shared space at Grace Evangelical Baptist Church on McMillan Road.
Stewart referred to the court battle, saying the move to a new location is “the consequence” of the congregation and clergy staying true to their convictions.
“Our love for this building is great, but our love for Jesus Christ … and our desire to maintain and uphold the great tradition of the Christian Church is greater,” he said.
Flanked by the stained glass windows behind him, Stewart led the congregation through the ceremonial farewell to each portion of the building. The parishioners were asked to turn and face each portion of the facility – including the music room, the prayer counselling room, the offices and the sanctuary – as they echoed Stewart’s words: “We say farewell.”
Some members of the congregation dabbed their eyes, while others hugged their loved ones as they filed out of the building.
At the new location at Grace Church, the mood was more upbeat, as clergy urged the parishioners to focus positively on the future and not hold grudges.
“What seems to be a tragedy often turns out to be a great blessing from God,” said Archbishop Lazar Puhalo of the Orthodox community who was among the religious dignitaries in attendance.
Geoff and Judy Horner, who have attended St. Matthew’s together since 1960, when it was located on Montvue Avenue in the downtown core, said the farewell was touching.
They have fond memories of raising their three children – two daughters and a son – in the Guilford Drive church. Their eldest daughter was married there in the mid-’80s.
“It’s been a focal point to go to that church. When you go for so long, it’s like home,” Judy said.
Geoff, who began attending St. Matthew’s as a teenager before he met Judy, said it was difficult to leave behind the building, which the parishioners had raised the money to construct and later expand.
But it was more important for the congregation to stand behind their principles, he said.
“We’re not against homosexuality in the slightest, but we won’t bless their union and call it a marriage.”
The Horners said they look forward to the future as a congregation at their new location.
St. Matthew’s is among about 25 Anglican parishes in B.C. and 50 across Canada that have left ACC to join ANiC. The three Vancouver churches involved in the court battle were St. John’s, Good Shepherd, and St. Matthias and St. Luke’s.