· Special Reporting During General Convention ·
· Denver, Colorado USA · July, 2000 ·
 
July 12, 2000
GC2000 - 072

Bishops follow deputies in dropping last resolve of sexuality resolution

By David Skidmore and Joe Thoma

(ENS-DENVER) Fearing a divided house and a divided church, bishops followed the lead of the House of Deputies on July 12, and voted down an attempt to develop liturgical rites for same-sex unions.

In a marathon session, running from mid-morning to late afternoon, the bishops revisited ground seeded in 1991 when differences over homosexuality forced six days of closed sessions and a nine-year healing process. In the end, they voted to reject an amendment that would have restored the last resolve, stripped from resolution D039 by the House of Deputies. The vote followed a strenuous, and in some instances, acrimonious debate. But, despite the impassioned tones, the discussion remained generally cordial.

The 85 to 63 vote against the amendment by Bishop Clark Grew (Ohio), however, did not settle the fate of the resolution developed by Committee 25. Though four abstentions were officially recorded, no vote was recorded at all for over two dozen bishops. A late substitution motion by Bishop Vincent Warner (Olympia) means the bishops will take up the matter as the first order of business on Thursday, July 13.

Adopted overwhelmingly by deputies in a voice vote July 11, the resolution's first seven resolves affirm both the church's traditional teaching on the sanctity of marriage and recognize that within the church there are both married and non-married couples who are living in "life-long committed relationships." Both marriages and other committed relationships recognized by the church are to be characterized by fidelity, monogamy and mutual affection and respect, the resolution states. The resolution also acknowledges that some members "acting in good conscience" will behave in contradiction to the church's traditional teaching on sexuality.

Dropped by deputies was a final resolve directing the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to prepare liturgical rites supporting committed relationships "other than marriage." It was this last resolve that Grew's amendment attempted to restore to the resolution during the bishop's afternoon debate.

Warner's motion, introduced as a substitute for Grew's amendment, calls for the bishops to continue studying the theology of "long-term committed loving unions" of unmarried persons, both homosexual and heterosexual, and to report the findings to the next General Convention. The report is also to include "proposed rites in support of such unions, "if indicated by the study. In addition to voting on the motion, the bishops must still vote on the overall resolution. At that point, if they approve the motion and the resolution, it must return to the deputies for concurrence.

Concern about consequences
Debate centered on the consequences of adopting or rejecting Grew's amendment. Conservatives warned of parishioners leaving not only their congregations but the Episcopal Church if any movement were made toward approving liturgical rites for same-sex couples. For those supporting the full inclusion of gays and lesbians, the issue was one of justice and pastoral care.

Bishop Otis Charles, identifying himself as the only openly gay bishop in the church, observed that "the church is full of good gay and lesbian people who are committed, who love the Lord, who serve the Lord, and are going to continue to serve the Lord." Without the provision for liturgical rites, said Charles, gay men such as himself "are still living in untruth because I cannot openly, fully, completely stand in your midst as a man who loves another man and let that be part of our experience together."

Every time he blesses a committed same-sex relationship, said Charles, "it becomes a political act. I don't want to be that way in the church. I want to be one with you."

For several bishops, though, approving rites for gay and lesbian couples was a step fraught with the risk of alienating not only a sizable number of church members but the rest of the Anglican Communion.

The issue addressed by Committee 25's final resolve is "where this church is deeply, deeply divided," said Bishop William Wantland (Eau Claire). "I would call on this house to keep in mind not just the impact in our own church, but what this says to the rest of the Anglican Communion."

Wantland, a veteran of two decades of sexuality debates in the house, also mentioned the potential consequences for the Episcopal Church's relations with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church, and the United Methodist Church, all of which adopted resolutions opposing same-sex unions in the last year and a half.

Bishop Frank Gray (Southern Virginia) had little hope of resolving the issue. "We are hopelessly at odds on this," he said. "We are not of one mind. We are of two minds."

Bishop Robert Ihloff (Maryland) said the leadership of the church has an obligation to keep their dioceses from splitting over issues such as sexuality. "It was distressing for me to hear, on the floor of the House of Deputies, people who would leave the church if the eighth resolve were passed," he said. "That threat is left on the doorstep of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and those of us who support them."

Ihloff also said he was concerned about the "casual way in which the church blesses everything under the sun," including blessing boats, yacht clubs and races. "The most frivolous is the blessing of the hunt, which is a big part of Maryland. If we can bless hounds and persons in the hunt, where the hounds at least in their heart of hearts have only one object, and that is to tear apart another living being, then we need to look at the compassionate heart of Jesus, where I think blessing is already being given to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters."

Bishop John Croneberger (Newark) spoke of the love and acceptance in his immediate family, including his lesbian daughter. "What do you do when you can't go home" to that sort of loving family, he asked. "The only thing I ask is, remember Psalm 123, which we read on Sunday: 'Have mercy on us, oh Lord, have mercy; for we have had more than enough of contempt.'"

Threats of schism
One group in the church understands God's purposes through the Holy Spirit "in line with a reasonable understanding of holy scripture," said Bishop Andrew Fairfield (North Dakota). But another group, he said, sees God's purposes revealed through "a reaction to contemporary experience." This, said Fairfield, is the fault line that is running through the church.

Sharing what he called a "personal issue of trust," Fairfield noted that the house was not following the principles it endorsed at its recent meetings in San Diego and Lake Arrowhead. "We said we were going to do one thing, and it was not forcing the issue," he said. But the last resolve being proposed by Grew "forces the issue of membership."

Bishop Keith Ackerman also raised the specter of schism. What really frightens him is that many of those supporting restoration of the provision for same-sex rites are doing so "not because they are for it but because they want the church to split," he said. "They really do." His comments prompted an audible gasp from the visitors gallery. "That is just sad, inappropriate, and unfortunate, and I do not share that," he said.

Fairfield's characterization of the theological fault line running through the church prompted a response from Bishop Catherine Waynick (Indianapolis). "I would urge us to be careful not to characterize one another as either paying attention to scripture or paying attention to experience," said Waynick, a member of Committee 25. "I would expect all of us take both into account while reading the scripture."

Waynick also urged the house not to be "driven in our deliberation or decision by the fear of disagreement. Our call is not to come to agreement on every troubled issue that comes to us in our journeys. Our call is to love one another in spite our disagreements."

The prospect of parishioners streaming out church doors was cited by Bishop Bert Herlong (Tennessee). "As many as six, eight or maybe ten congregations could leave the Diocese of Tennessee," he said. Herlong said he agreed with Wantland that relations with the rest of the communion "will be further jeopardized if we arrogantly proceed on a course of blessing same-sex unions."

Even moderate bishops wondered whether supporting same-sex blessings might be premature, and argued for approving the resolution without the last resolve. Bishop Frederick Borsch (Los Angeles) said that the seven resolves approved by the deputies represented a significant step forward, one that is pastoral and worth commending. "This is a truly pastoral outreach of this church," he said. While it may lead to a future "that is a little murky," it "speaks to the best of our church."

Voting their consciences
In a press conference following the vote, Bishop Catherine Roskam (New York) said that despite the strong opinions expressed, the day's debate continued to demonstrate bishops' commitment to avoid "the old way of relating." In recent years, some discourse among bishops has been marked by rancor. "Standing on different sides of an issue doesn't mean we're divided," said Roskam, the only briefing officer to attend the press conference. "We're united in love."

Roskam voted to reinsert the eighth resolve, and said its intent might eventually come to pass. "This is the way the spirit is moving in the church," she said. "But I'm just one person up here," and other bishops might feel differently, she said.

Bishops' votes on the resolve did not follow geographic lines or other classifications, she observed. Some of the votes against reinserting the passage came from bishops of largely urban dioceses and some bishops from rural areas voted to reinsert. Some of the no votes could be taken as "not yet" votes, she said. "We come here and vote our conscience," Roskam said. The bishops "deliberated this issue with a great deal of integrity."

Roskam pointed out that Bishop Leo Frade (Honduras) spoke for the resolution, challenging the popular assumption that Third World people and people of color don't support issues of sexuality. "The stereotypes ... don't hold," she said.

When asked how large a population of gay and lesbian people would be "advantaged" by the adoption of the resolution, Roskam replied that in allowing people full access to the church and its sacraments, "we're not advantaging anyone." She quoted research that says 10 to 20 percent of the overall population is gay, but her "armchair" estimate is that "the percentage is larger in the Episcopal Church, because we have been a welcoming church."

--David Skidmore is director of communications for the Diocese of Chicago. Joe Thoma is director of communications for the Diocese of Central Florida. 

 
 
 

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