Friday, 14 July 2000
Bishops concur on sexuality resolution
Thursday, the House of Bishops concurred overwhelmingly with the House of Deputies on a largely descriptive resolution about human sexuality (D039s). Consisting of seven "resolves," the resolution is widely seen as advancing the dialogue over same-sex relationships in the church, although the original framers of the resolution intended it to be more widely applicable to all intimate human relationships, both homosexual and heterosexual.
Bishops voted 119-19 to concur with the resolution as it was received from deputies, with four abstentions.
Absent from the resolution was a controversial eighth resolve that would set in motion the preparation of rites "by means of which the Church may express ... support" for relationships of "mutuality and fidelity other than marriage."
An effort by the bishops to re-introduce the eighth resolve (defeated earlier bydeputies) failed Wednesday by a vote of 85--63. A substitute eighth resolve submitted by Bishop Vincent Warner (Olympia) was withdrawn. It would have committed bishops to theological study and possible drafting of rites if they so decided.
After passing the first seven resolves, bishops approved a "mind of the house" resolution that committed them to "continue to study and be in conversation regarding issues of human sexuality." The presiding bishop will appointanexpanded Theology Committee (of all orders) to study and possibly draft a further mind of the house resolution.
The resolution as passed
The first of the resolution's resolves urges the Church to provide "a safe and just structure in which all can utilize their gifts for creative energies for mission."
The second acknowledges that there are couples living in marriage and couples "in the Body of Christ and in this Church" living in "other lifelong committed relationships." The resolve admits "the issues of human sexuality are not yet resolved."
The third and fourth resolves list the expectations for committed relationships as "fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and holy love," while denouncing "promiscuity, exploitation and abusiveness."
Similarly, the fifth resolve commits the Church to holding its members "accountable to these values" and promises that the Church will "provide for them the prayerful support, encouragement and pastoral care necessary to live faithfully by them."
The sixth admits that some people "disagree with the traditional teaching of the Church on human sexuality" and that they may "act in contradiction to that position."
Finally, the seventh resolve affirms that people on all sides of controversial issues "have a place in the Church." It reaffirms "the imperative to promote conversation between persons of differing experiences and perspectives" and implies the dialogue will take place in the context of the Church's teaching on the sanctity of marriage.
What the bishops said
During the period of debate --- or "conversation," as the bishops prefer to call it --- concurrence on the first seven resolves was expected. Debate consequently centered on issues of leadership and how quickly the church would advance the cause of its gay and lesbian members. In the words of William Swing (California), "There isn't a bishop in this house who doesn't know where we'll be in ten years." But he noted that the real issue wasn't how long it would take to reach a point of full inclusion for homosexual people, it was instead how the church could reach that position and remain intact. "How do we get there and stay in union?" he asked.
Swing surprised some when he declined to support the eighth resolve, stating, "Eight would be fine with me, but we're the whole church of God. We must exercise restraint and move together."
For other bishops, the need for pastoral care and justice demanded the return of the eighth resolve. Hays Rockwell (Missouri) told the house a story of removing a squirrel from his attic. He purchased a "cage that does not kill" called a "have-aheart" trap. "I checked it every morning," he said. "When I caught the animal, I drove to the Genessee River and threw it in. My wife said I have `half a heart'," he observed wryly. Rockwell said that without the eighth resolve, the resolution was also "half-hearted." "It removes a way forward to affirm children of God who seek to be honored.... Let's find some language to make these seven resolutions whole-hearted."
Throughout the debate over D039S, speakers in both houses repeatedly addressed the issue of the threat from congregations and some dioceses to withdraw from communion with the Episcopal Church.
Robert Ihloff (Maryland) raised the matter early in the bishops' debate when he said that the church is suffering from a "crisis in leadership."
He said hewas "distressed to hear about the number of people who would leave the church if the eighth resolution were included." That fault of threatened schism is usually, he said, "laid at the doorstep of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters." In this case, however, "It has to be laid at the doorstep of our church."
John Croneberger (Newark) echoed the sentiment when he said, "I hope the church won't sell out to a culture of fear." On the other hand, Charles Duvall (Central Gulf Coast) said the House of Deputies vote indicated the church is "almost exactly evenly divided." He said the church is "not ready to move forward to a call for rites."
The House of Bishops seemed content, as the deputies had been, to inch the Episcopal Church to a place of conversation that explicitly recognizes the existence of couples living in "lifelong committed relationships" other than Holy Matrimony. In doing so, bishops recognized that for some the action would not be "enough." For other congregations and dioceses it would be, in Duvall's words, "a stretch."
For some, the action will "deepen the division" most agree is plaguing the church. For others, the action will "deepen the conversation." Yet the widespread agreement in both houses of General Convention virtually assures that the debate will progress. Let the conversation begin.
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