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The Indecisive Debate about Homosexuality in the Episcopal Church
by Doug LeBlanc
Every three years the Episcopal Church convenes a General Convention, which—with more than 800 deputies and up to 300 bishops—it claims is the world’s largest legislative body.
A General Convention consists of 10 hectic days of debating and voting on reams of legislation. This year’s convention is scheduled for July 16–25 in Philadelphia.
The conventions lock some Episcopalians into perennial three-year cycles of roller-coaster morale. Many who think of leaving the Episcopal Church for Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy adopt a “wait and see” stance, expecting that the next General Convention will act decisively enough to send them to the exits.
The convention must act decisively on at least two questions this year. It must elect a new presiding bishop, and it must decide whether to approve a Concordat of Agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
A committee has proposed four candidates for presiding bishop, including two moderates and two liberals. None of the four candidates offers much hope that the Episcopal Church will return to a clearly orthodox stance on sexual morality.
The convention probably will approve the Concordat, because it has so little to lose by entering into “full communion” with a denomination roughly twice as large as the Episcopal Church. Whether the ELCA’s churchwide Assembly also will approve the Concordat when it convenes two weeks later, is a more open question.
The convention has not acted decisively on much since the hurly-burly of the 1970s, when it approved ordaining women to the priesthood in 1976 and accepted a heavily revised Book of Common Prayer in 1979.
Also in 1979, the convention deputies and bishops passed a resolution stating that “it is not appropriate for this Church to ordain a practicing homosexual, or any person who is engaged in heterosexual relations outside marriage.”
Episcopalians have debated that resolution ever since. Bishops such as John Shelby Spong of Newark, N.J., dismiss it as merely “recommendatory,” and say that without the force of canon law, it is on a par with calling for boycotts against multinational corporations.
With its exoneration of retired bishop Walter Righter in April 1996, the Court for the Trial of a Bishop essentially guaranteed a “local option” approach to ordaining actively homosexual clergy. If a bishop and the Standing Committee deem a candidate worthy of the priesthood, the Convention is unlikely to resist.
The discussion now shifts to whether the Episcopal Church will officially bless homosexual unions as the equivalent of marriage or as something else.
The 1994 Convention charged the Standing Liturgical Commission with preparing “a report addressing the theological foundations and pastoral considerations involved in the development of rites honoring love and commitment between persons of the same sex.”
That report is complete, and the one source of relief for orthodox Episcopalians is that it makes no specific recommendations. Even so, the report shows a decided bias against orthodoxy. It presents the Church’s traditional teaching—that Christians are either in a monogamous marriage or they are celibate—as merely “one end of the spectrum.” At the other end of the spectrum is the view that a homosexual union is the equivalent of marriage.
Even the advocates for blessing rites are undecided about whether a homosexual union should be called a marriage—because they see marriage, not homosexuality, as morally compromised.
For instance, at a conference called “Beyond Inclusion”—which met in April at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California—participants praised a proposed rite for blessing homosexual unions that mentions neither monogamy nor lifelong commitment.
The Rev. Juan Oliver, canon missioner for the Diocese of New Jersey, defended those liturgical choices. Oliver said the two essential elements of marriage are commitment and blessing—nothing more.
The proposed rite is “not a contract or a book of law,” he said. “It is more important to praise God for Sally and Sue, even in the face of infidelity, than to praise God for their 42 years of a genitally exclusive monogamous relationship, during which they have hated each other,” Oliver said. “Faithfulness is not about plumbing.”
Whether the Church refers to homosexual unions as marriages “is a political and a semantic issue, not a theological issue,” Oliver said.
“I don’t want the relationship I enter into with a partner to be the same as heterosexual marriage, thank you,” he said. “I want it to be equal.”
Oliver said the proposed rite “is a sign of the reign of God” and “is free of gender determinism.”
“When you perform the rite, it deconstructs heterosexual marriage,” he said. “Let’s not kid ourselves about how earthshaking this really is.”
Earlier, conference participants asked whether marriage is worthy of their allegiance. Some described marriage as an often sexist, patriarchal, “heterosexist” and violent institution that may not accommodate what they described as more egalitarian homosexual relationships.
A number of speakers and conference participants said they have no desire merely to imitate heterosexual marriage.
The Rev. Rand Frew of New York asked how the Church should respond to “bisexuals and transgendered people” and whether it should affirm non-monogamous relationships.
“I would be distressed if the drive toward blessing gay unions merely applied Reformation understandings of heterosexual unions to gay unions,” said William Countryman of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, one of four plenary speakers.
“I’ve started to think that maybe we are a threat to marriage as we know it, and maybe the Church needs to redefine marriage,” another participant said.
“It does threaten, you’re absolutely right,” said the Rev. Mark Kowalewski of Huntington Beach, California. “It does threaten the primacy of heterosexual marriage, which is based on sexism.”
One note of hope for orthodox Episcopalians is the growing concern among moderates and liberals about a “heterosexist backlash” at the Lambeth Conference, scheduled for 1998.
The Lambeth Conference meets once every decade, when the archbishop of Canterbury invites all Anglican bishops to convene for three weeks of discussion—and the occasional resolution.
Two meetings of orthodox Anglican theologians from the Third World—the South to South Encounter and the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion Theological Resource Network—have passed the “Kuala Lumpur Statement,” which makes clear their commitment to defending the Church’s teaching on sexuality.
“We are deeply concerned that the setting aside of biblical teaching in such actions as the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions calls into question the authority of the Holy Scriptures,” the statement said. “This is totally unacceptable to us.”
Unless liberal Episcopalians grow impatient for a decisive victory in 1997, they are more likely to opt for more “dialogue” until 2000. If the Episcopal Church votes in 2000 to bless homosexual unions, that gives liberal Episcopalians another eight years before Lambeth meets again to convince the rest of Anglicanism that the church in the United States has done something “prophetic” rather than heterodox.
Meanwhile, Episcopalians waiting for the General Convention to speak with clarity will probably have to wait yet another three years.
Doug LeBlanc is the editor of United Voice, a publication of Episcopalians United.