Episcopalians end convention with decided move to the left

Episcopalians end convention with decided move to the left

July 20, 2009
Written by Gregg Brekke
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preaches July 17 at the closing Eucharist of the Episcopal Church's General Assembly in Anaheim, Calif.
Religion News Service photo courtesy Jim DeLa/Episcopal Life Media.

The Episcopal Church voted overwhelmingly on Friday, July 17, to allow bishops to bless gay couples and to begin developing rites for same-sex unions, despite warnings that such moves would spark schism in the global Anglican Communion.

The resolution, which allows bishops to provide a "generous pastoral response" to gay and lesbian couples, but stops short of authorizing churchwide rites, was approved by lay and clergy delegates by a more than 2-to-1 margin. Bishops approved the measure on Wednesday.

"We desire decency and order in the Episcopal Church, theological decency and liturgical order," said the Very Rev. Sam Candler, dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, "and this resolution supplies a gentle and modest way forward."

The resolution, on the final day of the church's triennial General Convention, was the second definitive move to the left for the U.S.
church. Earlier this week, delegates and bishops voted to lift a de facto ban on consecrating gays and lesbians as bishops that had been enacted three years ago.

While many Episcopalians hailed the measures on blessings and bishops as milestones for gay rights and equality in the church, they are almost certain to isolate the U.S. church in the wider Anglican Communion, the world's third-largest fellowship of Christian churches.

A majority of Anglicans worldwide view homosexuality as sinful and unbiblical, and they have repeatedly asked Episcopalians to hold off on both gay blessings and gay bishops. The measures approved this week may lead to calls for the Episcopal Church to be disciplined, and strengthen the position of the rival Anglican Church in North America, which was launched by conservatives last year.

On Friday, the Episcopal Church released a letter from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and Bonnie Anderson, president of the House of Deputies, to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, and other leading archbishops.

The letter asserts the Episcopal Church's commitment to sister Anglican churches, but also says that ordination in the church is "open to all baptized members," including gays and lesbians.

"... (I)t is not our desire to give offense," the letter reads. "We remain keenly aware of the concerns and sensibilities of our brothers and sisters in other Churches across the Communion."

Jefferts Schori and Anderson also say that the previous moratorium on gay bishops has been "a source of strain in our Church."

At the start of the convention here last week, Williams had urged caution, saying, "Along with many in the communion, I hope and pray that there won't be decisions in the coming days that will push us further apart."

The Rev. Ian Douglas, a leading liberal and professor at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., said, "We cannot pretend that (the blessing of gay couples) will not cause turmoil. I suspect it will be used by groups like the Anglican Church in North America in attempts to marginalize us in the Anglican Communion."

But throughout the 10-day convention, liberals have consistently outnumbered conservatives, whose ranks have been diminished by the steady exodus of four dioceses and dozens of parishes that have seceded since the last convention in 2006.

"Progressives stayed around and in the Episcopal Church for 30, 40 years when we were the minority and our voices weren't heard, and we were pushed out," openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire told The New York Times. "A bunch of straight white guys are now sitting there and having that experience, which is something I think could be valuable for anyone to experience."

In a minority report issued Thursday, 26 of the 130 bishops gathered here asserted their traditionalist stand on homosexuality and their commitment to the Anglican Communion.

Several conservative delegates here said the church's decision to allow gay blessings will send more Episcopalians heading for the exits.

"We're trying to be more and more inclusive with fewer and fewer people," said the Rev. Brooks Keith of Colorado. "The true authority lies in the pews of the church. The people are voting with their feet and their pocketbook."

Like most mainline Protestant churches, the Episcopal Church has seen a steady drop in membership for years.

Bishop William Love of Albany, N.Y., a noted conservative, said he's concerned that "more people leave from the conservative side ... then everyone's going in different directions and the only one who wins is Satan, who has divided us."

But many delegates said that the blessings measure would help - not hurt - ministry and evangelism, particularly to gays and lesbians.

Olivia Adams, from the Diocese of Western Michigan, said her lesbian mother and her partner had to hide their relationship until they discovered the Episcopal Church.

"Families like mine no longer have to hide," Adams said. "I am an Episcopalian because this church supported my mother." 

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