At the U.S. House of Bishops closing news conference, from left, Bishop Nathan Baxter of Central Pennsylvania, Bishop Frank Brookhart of Montana, Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, Bishop Tom Ely of Vermont, Bishop Chilton Knudson of Maine, Bishop Tom Shaw of Massachusetts.
Bishops of the Episcopal Church ended their six-day meeting in New Orleans by rejecting calls from some Anglican leaders abroad for a tougher stance against the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church.
In a near-unanimous vote, the bishops said they would “reconfirm” a resolution from last year’s General Convention that asked them “to exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.”
They further acknowledged that “non-celibate gay and lesbian persons are included among those to whom (the resolution) pertains.” They also pledged “as a body not to authorize public rites for the blessing of same-sex unions” and endorsed a plan for alternate Episcopal oversight for conservative parishes which do not accept their liberal bishops.
The vote essentially maintains the status quo in the Episcopal Church, though the statement excluded a reference from last year’s convention resolution to a moratorium on gay bishops and blessing rites until the next General Convention in 2009. (It did not suggest that the moratorium would be permanent.) No openly gay bishops have been elected since the elevation of Bishop Gene Robinson in New Hampshire in 2003. The “exercise restraint” resolution is not binding and may be tested if the diocese of Chicago elects a lesbian candidate on Nov. 10.
Although some dioceses and some bishops have allowed church blessing ceremonies for gay couples, the governing General Convention has not developed a liturgy and has so far simply voted to acknowledge that such blessings are taking place within the life of the church.
The bishops arrived in a city still struggling, two years later, to recover from Hurricane Katrina. During the first two days of their meeting, they heard from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and other Anglican leaders from around the world who were meeting concurrently in New Orleans.
At a news conference wrapping up the meeting, Bishop Don Wimberly of the diocese of Texas said the group was “really sobered” by hearing from Archbishop Williams and the members of the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council. It is one thing to “read reports” about what the rest of the Anglican Communion thinks about the actions of the Episcopal Church, he said, but it is different sitting face-to-face with people expressing those concerns.
“I’m going to support this,” he said of the resolution, adding that the Episcopal Church would have to wait and see how the rest of the Anglican Communion will respond.
Earlier this year, Anglican primates, or national bishops, asked the U.S. bishops to make a strong commitment against gay candidates to the episcopate and against same-sex blessings. The New Orleans gathering stopped short of that. At the news conference, former South Carolina bishop Ed Salmon noted that the process used to reach the final document did not acknowledge the “unconscious oppression of those who don’t agree.” Several of the most hardline conservative bishops did not attend the last two days of deliberations. Bishop Salmon did say that the effort “represented significant progress in terms of the House of Bishops working together.”
However, he said that the document did not directly address the primates’ communique of last February.
“I believe we have a problem in the Anglican Communion because we have a problem in the Episcopal Church,” Bishop Salmon said, explaining that the problem is “symptomatically” about human sexuality, but “more deeply” about theological differences. Bishop Salmon said, though, that he would do everything he could to make the statement work.
He and his colleagues also affirmed Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s plan to appoint episcopal “visitors” for dioceses that request alternative oversight. They also said they “deplore incursions into our jurisdictions by uninvited bishops and call for them to end.” Some primates in other countries have been elevating dissident American priests to the office of bishop so they can minister to disaffected U.S. congregations and dioceses.