Episcopal Church convention opens debate on sexuality

Published June 15, 2006

The Rev. Kendall Harmon, deputy from the Diocese of South Carolina, urged ECUSA to use clear language in its response to the Windsor Report at a June 15 evening hearing at the church’s General Convention.

Columbus, Ohio American Episcopalians devoted early sessions of their triennial General Convention, meeting here June 13-21, to debate on whether the church should pull back from moves toward greater acceptance of homosexuality, in the interests of worldwide Anglican unity.

In two hearings held June 13 and 14, a legislative committee heard a broad range of opinion concerning the church’s proposed response to the Windsor Report. Prepared by an international Anglican panel, the report contains requests that a moratorium be placed on electing homosexuals as bishops and on permitting blessing ceremonies for gay couples and that the U.S. church express regret for electing a gay bishop in 2003.

Critics who believe that the Bible bans homosexuality also say that if the Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA) refuses to accede to the report, the worldwide Anglican Communion, with about 77 million members, will break apart. Anglican churches are self-governing, but are “in communion” with the Church of England. Supporters say that Scripture did not envision faithful, long-term gay relationships and the body of Christ includes all.

Reflecting the high interest in these issues in both the religious and secular world, the 1,500-seat hotel ballroom where the hearings were held was filled to capacity, with a sound feed piped to those outside who could not get in.

Speakers addressed several resolutions before the committee, which has the power to change or amend them before they come to the convention floor. One expresses “deep regret” for causing distress to other parts of the communion. Another says the church should “exercise very considerable caution” when considering a candidate for bishop “whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church.” Another asks the convention to affirm “the need to maintain a breadth of private responses” to the needs of gay couples, but also asks bishops not to authorize public rites of same-sex blessings.

Several speakers, both conservative and liberal, took issue with what they saw as the resolutions’ fuzzy language.

Canon Kendall Harmon, a delegate from South Carolina and a conservative theologian, said “we have been asked for a moratorium, to stop until a new consensus emerges in the Anglican Communion. Yet the language we get is ‘exercise considerable caution’ – a fudge. Let’s be honest. Let’s be clear.”

Rev. Ellen Neufeld, a delegate from Albany, N.Y., said that “if it is the mind of this church not to (follow the recommendations of the Windsor Report), let us say that openly and sincerely.”

Tate Chambers, a delegate from the diocese of Springfield (Ill.), wondered what the phrase “bishops whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church” means and Rev. Michael Hanley, of the diocese of Minnesota said it seems like “a litmus test for ordination.”

However, several speakers also said they found the resolutions were a sincere response to the Windsor Report that tried to maintain a relationship with the rest of the communion.

The visiting John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, the Church of England’s second most senior clergyman, said that the Windsor Report was acting like a doctor, saying a relationship needs to be healed. “Anglicanism has always responded to the challenge … by Scripture, reason and tradition,” he said. “Maybe the committee should ask: do these resolutions help us ourselves … to show the marks of our own crucifixion?”

One of the most pessimistic viewpoints was voiced by Bishop Robert Duncan of the diocese of Pittsburgh, a well-known conservative. “We have reached an impossible moment in holding together the conservative and progressive wings of our church,” he said. If the convention does not accept the recommendations of the Windsor Report, he said, “the rest of the communion will conclude ECUSA has decided to walk apart.”

Standing behind Bishop Duncan in the speakers’ queue at the microphone was Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the openly-gay priest whose consecration as bishop has proven to be so controversial. He offered a different view. “This debate is about one thing: do we recognize Christ in gay and lesbian members of this church? Do we see Christ and are we courageous enough to acknowledge Christ in the lives of our gay and lesbian members? It’s not about saving the (Anglican) Communion. We can’t decide what they might do. Our job is to discern the will of God as humbly as we can. Let me tell you what the homosexual agenda is: Jesus Christ.”

Rev. Michael Hopkins, of the diocese of Rochester (N.Y.), and a former leader of Integrity, an Anglican gay support group, said the Windsor Report is saying that “we must speak in the same way as the rest of the communion” but “we need each other and our alternative voices.” Gay people, he added, “have not been part of the conversation.”

Bradley Worth, of Montana, said that for people who support Bishop Robinson, the resolutions “ask us to turn our backs on the Holy Spirit” and “many of us cannot regret where we have been sent by God.”

However, Rev. David Roseberry, of Dallas, noted that he has organized an online petition that asks the church’s bishops to stop further consecrations of “persons in same-gender relationships” and stop same-sex blessings. “One thousand, sixty four priests have signed this petition, representing 22,000 years of service to this church. Can you hear me now?” he said.

The full convention is expected to consider the resolutions within the next two to three days. More than 1,400 bishops, priests and lay delegates are attending the gathering.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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