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The retired Anglican archbishop of Toronto, one of the Canadian church's most distinguished clerics, has had his licence to perform marriages taken away after he officiated at the wedding of a lesbian couple.

Most Rev. Terence Finlay performed the ceremony in a United Church in violation of Anglican canon law, which permits its priests to marry only heterosexual couples. The United Church permits same-sex marriages.

"I think our church has waited a long time and has discussed this issue over and over again and, in this particular situation, time just ran out for me," he told the church's national newspaper, The Anglican Journal.

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Archbishop Finlay married well-known Toronto public policy planner Mary Rowe and artist and writer Sandra Morris on June 24. Rev. Malcolm Sinclair, the pastor of Toronto's downtown Metropolitan United Church where the ceremony was held, signed the marriage licence.

Archbishop Finlay's action is certain to aggravate strains in the world Anglican Communion, which is on the verge of schism over the issues of permitting active homosexuals in the priesthood and blessing homosexual unions. His reprimand was reported on the BBC World Service and in The Times of London and the London Daily Telegraph.

The diocese of New Westminster, B.C., permits its priests to bless gay unions, but nowhere in the Canadian Anglican Church are homosexual marriages permitted, though they are legal across Canada.

The Canadian church's governing body, the General Synod, will meet in June to decide whether same-sex blessings should be permitted in all Anglican dioceses.

A number of priests and bishops have said they will leave the Canadian church if that occurs, and there are increasing signs that the socially conservative Anglican churches in Africa and Asia plan to kick the liberal Canadian and U.S. churches out of the Anglican Communion.

Archbishop Finlay, who is in England and could not be contacted, told the Journal that for him the issue of unity in the church has been supplanted by the issue of justice.

He has been a friend of Ms. Rowe since she was a child. "Her father was one of my theological professors and he was an honorary assistant in one of my parishes and over the years our families have remained very close," he told the Journal.

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He said that out of a "long journey of love, friendship, support and familial relationship with this particular person and her partner," he came to the conclusion "that their love for one another was part of God's divine love and it was appropriate that that be deeply blessed."

Ms. Rowe and Ms. Morris said in a statement: "We were deeply moved by Archbishop Finlay's involvement in our wedding service, as were our friends and family who joined with us to celebrate the sacredness of this occasion. "

Bishop Colin Johnson, who was Archbishop Finlay's executive assistant until succeeding him as bishop of Toronto in 2004, said in a memorandum to clergy a few weeks ago that he had reprimanded an unidentified priest for performing a same-sex marriage, "admonished him not to do it again and suspended his licence to officiate at marriages until the end of 2006."

The unidentified priest's identity became known on the weekend.

Bishop Johnson did not return calls asking for comment.

He said at the time of his election as bishop that he personally supports same-sex blessings: "Part of my role will be to make sure that the church does not disintegrate over this but remains unified. I think that is possible to do."

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Archbishop Finlay, when he was head of the Toronto diocese, fired one priest who was in a homosexual relationship and reprimanded another for blessing the union of two lesbian Anglican deacons. "Life in the church was very different in those days," he told the Journal.

He has since tried the get the fired priest reinstated.

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