Hiltz elected to lead Canadian Anglicans on eve of vote on same-sex blessing ceremonies

Winnipeg, Canada - A liberal-leaning bishop who has expressed support in the past for full acceptance of gays and lesbians was elected Friday to lead the Anglican Church of Canada.

Bishop Fred Hiltz of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island was chosen on the fifth ballot by clergy and lay people at the church's national meeting. Among the three other nominees for the post was Edmonton Bishop Victoria Matthews, who would have been the church's first woman leader.

The vote came one day before the assembly, called the General Synod, is to decide whether to allow Anglican priests to bless same-sex couples -- a step short of performing same-sex marriage, which is legal in Canada.

Chris Ambidge, president of the Toronto chapter of gay advocacy group Integrity, said Hiltz "has long been an advocate of opening church doors to all people" and that his election signals to gays and lesbians "that they are welcomed and affirmed in their church."

The leader of the Anglican church, called a primate, does not directly set such policy for the church; that is the role of the General Synod.

Still, the Rev. Canon Charlie Masters, head of the conservative Canadian group Anglican Essentials, said the election of Hiltz raised "fears" about the future of the denomination.

"He is the first bishop who has publicly given his support to same-sex marriage so there are concerns of his position," Masters said.

Hiltz, 53, will succeed Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, who is retiring at the end of this meeting.

Hiltz, who is married to Lynne Samways and has a son, refused to discuss his personal views after the election, but he said he worries that a vote in favor of same-sex blessings could lead some theologically conservatives to break away from the church.

"I will do all I can to encourage people to stay in the church and remain respectful at table and in conversations," Hiltz said.

The vote comes at a time when divisions over the Bible and homosexuality are tearing at the world Anglican Communion, a 77 million-member fellowship of churches that 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.

Even before this week's Canadian meeting, the world Anglican Communion was 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.