US Episcopal Church to discuss next steps on blessings in 2012

Published March 21, 2011

The consultation was the first time a large group of deputies gathered outside of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention. Photo: Episcopal News Service

Nearly 200 members of the Episcopal Church House of Deputies left a historic March 18-19  churchwide consultation on same-gender blessings here promising to tell their colleagues and their dioceses about the work they did in preparation for the 2012 General Convention.

The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music invited one lay and one clergy deputy from each of the church’s 109 dioceses and three regional areas to hear about and reflect on its work to date on the mandate given to it in General Convention 2009 Resolution C056.

The resolution, passed in 2009, directed the SCLM to work with the House of Bishops to collect and develop theological resources and liturgies for blessing same-gender relationships. The commission is to report to the 77th General Convention in 2012 in Indianapolis. SCLM members have already reported to the House of Bishops on the commission’s work and the three bishops who serve on the SCLM (Tom Ely of the Diocese of Vermont, Pierre Whalon of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe and John McKee Sloan of the Diocese of Alabama) said they will discuss the consultation with their colleagues during the house’s March 25-30 meeting.

House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson and the Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers, SCLM chair, stressed during the gathering that the participating deputies had not been asked to debate whether the church should gather resources about same-gender blessings or whether the church should bless such relationships. Meyers said that C056 asked the SCLM to gather resources and that the bishops and deputies who gather for the 2012 meeting of General Convention "will decide the status of those resources in the church."

At its October 2011 meeting, the SCLM is due to decide on the substance of its C056 report that will be included in the so-called Blue Book collection of reports to 2012 General Convention.

Anderson told the deputies as they prepared to depart Atlanta March 19 that "we don’t agree on every single word and every single approach and on all of the theology. Some deputies didn’t agree on C056. They said so then and they say so now and that’s okay."

"Some of us did agree and we have moved together in a common rhythm," she said. "We have learned from each other and it reinforces the fact that we are the holy people of God brought together by God in holy and Christian community."

Anderson had told the gathering’s opening session that the consultation was historic both for its topic and because a large group of deputies have never before gathered together outside of General Convention for church business and to discuss a topic due to be taken up the next meeting of convention. One hundred ninety-five clergy and lay deputies from 98 dioceses registered for the gathering.

Nine deputies spoke to the consultation’s final session on March 19 about how they planned to use their experience when they returned home. Athena Hahn, Diocese of Southern Virginia, echoed an often-expressed plan to ask people with whom she talks "to just be open and think about this and reflect about this as we have for the last two days."

Vermont Bishop Ely said during a post-consultation press conference that if the participating deputies carry through on their promises to engage their deputy colleagues in such a process between now and the 2010 convention "the general convention is going to benefit so much from that engagement."

At the same press conference, Anderson predicted that relationships made and renewed among the deputies at the consultation, 51 of whom are new, will aid the convention’s work on C056. "And it will really be of great benefit to us in all the things we do at convention," she added.

The participating deputies came with varying attitudes about same-gender blessings but many who spoke with Episcopal News Service praised the consultation’s process.

The Rev. Canon Emily Morales, the vicar general of the Diocese of Puerto Rico and chair of the diocese deputation, told ENS that the combination of plenary sessions and small-group discussion provided "an opportunity to be exposed to the thoughts of people from all over the Episcopal Church and how they have been dealing with this issue."

Morales later told the gathering that she anticipated "a great struggle within Province IX" over the issue of same-gender blessings due to the conservative nature of many of its dioceses and the fact that the countries in which the dioceses operate have differing laws about marriage.

Sandy Williams, a lay deputy from the Diocese of Montana who will be a sixth-time deputy in 2012, told ENS that a member of her small group spoke of his opposition to efforts to have the Episcopal Church agree to bless same-gender relationships. "People in the group were touched by his honesty," she said.

Williams said she favors approval of same-gender blessings because "we need to offer our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters the same opportunity that the rest of us have on an equal footing," including an expectation of counseling similar to the pre-marital counseling required for heterosexual couples and a liturgical rite that is like the marriage rite.

The Very Rev. David W.T. Thurlow, of St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Summerton in the Diocese of South Carolina, is one of those who opposed what he called the Episcopal Church’s "agenda" to approve same-gender blessings during the 2012 convention. "But that doesn’t stop me from heralding what I believe is scriptural truth," he said

In his small group, he told ENS, he was "the only voice that does not concur with the trajectory of the national church on this issue and I’ve been able to voice that and have been heard."

Thurlow said he felt that the atmosphere during the consultation was far different from what he said he experienced during the 2009 General Convention, during which he was a first-time deputy. The Atlanta gathering, he said, felt "incarnational," explaining that here "they see that people who have a different viewpoint are human beings to be respected and treated with dignity."

Thurlow added that would be "prudent" for the 2012 convention to address questions that people assume have been asked and answered when they have not. "Are we blessing a friendship? Are we blessing a sexually intimate relationship? … There’s been no mention of homoerotic behavior. Is that what we’re blessing?" he asked, citing examples.

"We’ve got these questions that no one wants to touch," Thurlow said. "They’re almost like taboo topics and no one wants to broach them but if we’re truly to solicit honest debate, I think these issues need to come to the forefront."

Ian Hallas, a three-time lay deputy from the Diocese of Chicago, told ENS he felt some frustration with the small-group process because he and others thought that many of the discussion questions were "vague." He was left feeling "inconclusive" after the group sessions ended, he said.

Acknowledging that the commission still has a lot of work to do before it reports to the 2012 convention, Hallas said he hopes "we get something definitive by Indianapolis, but we have to do it right and not throw something together just to have something to present."

The Rev. Shawn Sheiner, Hallas’ deputy colleague from Chicago, told ENS that the consultation process was an opportunity for "really embracing that we can be a body that has some difference of opinion, but do it very amazingly respectfully."

"If we can take what we’ve done here and continue that between now and General Convention, there’s great hope for what convention can look like no matter the outcome," she said, adding the caveat that she is concerned that she will lose members at Grace Episcopal Church in Oak Park "if we continue down a road that doesn’t do something formally" about affirming same-gender blessings.

Resolution C056 also asked the SCLM to invite theological reflection and dialogue about its work from around the Anglican Communion. Episcopal Church bishops are being asked to discuss the church’s work on C056 with the bishops of any companion diocese relationships they may have and with the members of their so-called "indaba groups" from the 2008 Lambeth Conference of Bishops.

In addition, the theological principles and principles for evaluating rites for blessing same-gender relationships (summaries available here) that the SCLM developed for its C056 work have been turned into a survey that Anglican Communion bishops are being asked to respond to, either electronically or on paper or during conversation with commission members or other bishops.

Meyers and Ely recently met in England with the steering committee of the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation in preparation for a half-day session that will be devoted to their report on the SCLM’s work during the IALC’s August 1-6 meeting in Canterbury, England.

The liturgy and music commission is also preparing a response to an IALC working document on marriage. The international group’s goals for that document are outlined in a communique issued after its last meeting in August 2009 in Auckland, New Zealand. The working document and its appendices are downloadable here. A list of questions to which provinces were asked to respond is on page 21 of the working document.

In the document, the IALC also asks the provinces of the Anglican Communion to provide it with "theological perspectives" on gender-related issues including "the meaning of ‘male’ and ‘female’, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, gender complementarity, the cultural construction of gender, same-gender attraction, and gender hierarchy." That section also notes that the consultation also wants to work on issues of marriage and polygamy, and divorce and remarriage.

ENS coverage of the Atlanta consultation’s March 18 sessions is here. The plenary sessions were webcast live, as well a post-gathering press conference and can be viewed here.

The commission met for nearly three days before the consultation. During those sessions it also:

Reviewed "Daily Prayer for all Seasons," which is meant to supplement the Daily Office of morning, noonday and evening prayer provided in the Book of Common Prayer. The final text of "Daily Prayer" is expected be include in the commission’s report to the 2012 General Convention in the Blue Book.

Heard an interim report from a sub-committee that is reviewing the trial use of "Holy Women, Holy Men," the 2009 General Convention-approved revision to its calendar of commemorations of saints. The trial use period began July 1, 2010, and ends June 30. Holy Women, Holy Men’s prayers and propers for each saint are posted daily here, where an opportunity for feedback is provided. 

Reviewed a sub-committee’s work on a creation season, or cycle, of liturgies, and prayers for the loss of companion animals.

Heard a preliminary report on the results on a feasibility study for a possible revision of The Hymnal 1982. Responses are being taken until April 30. Links to various versions of the survey are here. Additional phases of the study are planned with an aim toward supplying complete results to the SCLM by the summer.

Agreed to plan before its next meeting in October how to develop possible Spanish additions to the Book of Common Prayer or the church’s Enriching Our Worship series that would expand the rites and versions of prayers beyond the current Spanish translation of the prayer book.

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.


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