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Didn't Happen at General Convention 2009—and What Did?
Every three years, The Episcopal Church’s 110 dioceses (eleven from outside the USA) and one Convocation in Europe send their bishops, four clergy deputies and four lay deputies (and a few alternates, in some cases) to meet for nine grueling days of legislation. As resolutions are submitted and batted between the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops, eventually some are agreed upon and they become official decisions of the Church.
Every three years, for at least thirty years, the media have descended upon the General Convention, fishing for tidbits that make for great headlines: “Episcopal Church Votes to [fill in the blank]!” They often get it completely wrong, either because of ignorance (qualified religion journalists being even scarcer than qualified curling reporters) or malice (Episcopalians are fun to ridicule because we are so open, and we present a much safer target than say, radical Muslims). Other commentators, usually more thoughtful, joined the chorus of inaccurate reporting this time. Philip Jenkins asserted in the Wall Street Journal that this Convention “ended the ban on gay clergy.” Bishop Tom Wright of Durham, England, a noted New Testament scholar, went further. Writing in the Church Times, he opined that “The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church (TEC) in the United States has voted decisively to allow in principle the appointment, to all orders of ministry, of persons in active same-sex relationships. This marks a clear break with the rest of the Anglican Communion.”
Both are wrong. We did not pass any such resolutions. What did happen was that, after a protracted struggle in the House of Deputies over the moratorium on ordination of partnered gay bishops, a compromise resolution, numbered D025 and entitled “Commitment and Witness to the Anglican Communion,” passed both Houses. It described the situation in The Episcopal Church, namely, that the prevailing sentiment these days is that gay people can be ordained to all three orders, though disagreement certainly continues within the church as well as within the rest of the Communion. There was also a lot of language about listening to the rest of the Anglican Communion, about our constituent membership and desire to remain a part of it, in this resolution and others.
Following up on this was another resolution that passed, C056, which was a substitute for an earlier version entitled “Liturgies for Blessings.” The earlier text called for the creation of liturgies of same-sex blessings, the substitute does not. (Because of technical rules, substitute texts may not change the title of the original resolution.) It calls for collecting theological studies and texts of experimental liturgies, which is a reiteration of C051 from the 2003 Convention. Both D025 and C056 reiterate language from previous conventions. Nothing new, in other words.
C056 did contain something new in its first paragraph: “Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That the 76th General Convention acknowledge the changing circumstances in the United States and in other nations, as legislation authorizing or forbidding marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships for gay and lesbian persons is passed in various civil jurisdictions that call forth a renewed pastoral response from this Church…” This is an acknowledgment that all the churches of the Anglican Communion, a global communion, each face new circumstances in their local situation, some nations permitting, and others forbidding, gay unions. In the United States this varies by state—some allowing, others outlawing them. In each case, the church must make a pastoral response. And in every case, this response will perforce seem different viewed from elsewhere.
But the basic stance for all is the decision to which all member churches of the Communion have subscribed: “We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ.” (Lambeth 1998, resolution I.10.c, reiterating earlier Lambeth Conference resolutions). The question, of course, remains: what is the appropriate pastoral response? Certainly, at the very least, churches in the Anglican Communion must oppose local legislation that criminalizes being gay. But a positive affirmation is also necessary: since gay and lesbian people are beloved of God and fully members of Christ’s Body, the Church, they must be treated as such.
Another aspect of this Convention’s decision-making, this time through inaction, was not to allow the use of the Prayer Book marriage rites in same-sex blessings, particularly in those states which now allow civil marriage for gay partners. The language of the texts have the full force of the canon law, which itself still defines marriage as between a man and a woman only. Only votes to change these at two consecutive General Conventions can authorize a revision of the text. If a bishop were to authorize such a use, it would be actionable.
A number of bishops, including this writer, signed “The Anaheim Statement,” presented by Bishop Gary Lillibridge of West Texas. This statement merely reiterates commitment to the wider Anglican Communion and to our ordination vows. For me, signing it was a way of re-stating that my positive votes on D025 and C056 were not to be interpreted in any way—personally or corporately—as signifying a desire “to walk apart” from the Communion or indeed, the Church catholic.
What happened at this General Convention, in terms of movement to the Right or the Left on the issue du jour, was neither. The three moratoria, as the Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies made clear in a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, remain in force. The first two concern creation of rites of same-sex blessing and ordinations to the episcopate. The third moratorium, that bishops from other churches cease intervening in congregations of The Episcopal Church, is the only one that applies to other churches of the Communion. If only they followed it as The Episcopal Church has observed the first two that concern us (and a few other provinces)… If only they observed it at all.
And we get accused of being schismatic?
More important decisions, signifying real changes, have scarcely received any attention. We voted to share the historic succession of bishops with the Unitas Fratrum, also known as the Moravian Church, as part of an agreement to enter into full communion, including interchangeability of clergy. We affirmed a much more basic agreement with the United Presbyterian Church, and gave thanks for progress toward full communion with the United Methodist Church.
Another very important set of decisions has to do with requiring, by canon law, the provision of pensions to lay employees and the registration of all institutions of The Episcopal Church in a single health care plan. While these will marginally increase costs (health care savings offsetting increase of pension premiums), the Convention also passed a sweeping series of budgets cuts, which necessitated laying off some forty employees at the church headquarters. Programs like missionaries received increased funding.
Finally, a very significant theological statement on interreligious dialogue passed the bishops unanimously, and by a large majority in the House of Deputies (with 888 voting deputies, unanimity is extremely rare). For those who wonder about the orthodoxy of our church, here are some excerpts:
“We affirm the foundational Gospel proclamation that "Jesus is Lord" (I Corinthians 12:3 NRSV here and hereafter), and therefore Jesus’ Summary of God's Law: "love the Lord your God with all your hearts, with all your souls, and with all your minds, and to love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:29-31; BCP, Catechism, page 851). For this reason we reach out in love and genuine openness to know and to understand those of other religion traditions.” (Introduction)
And these paragraphs from Section V are worth quoting in full:
Please note, Gentle Reader, that this is now the official teaching of The Episcopal Church, since it has the approval of the General Convention. The purpose of these passages is to reiterate in basic language who we are as Christians, since clarity of identity is as important in interreligious dialogue as clarity of intent. Precisely because we are followers of Jesus, we must engage people of other religious traditions in conversation, not to proselytize but rather to build common ground in the world in which we live.
So why didn’t we see headlines like “Episcopalians Give Employees Pensions, Better Health Care”; “Church Dramatically Cuts Budget, Except Missionaries”: “Episcopal Church Breaks New Ground In Reconciling Christians”, “Episcopalians Reaffirm Jesus As Lord”?
Doesn’t sell, that’s why. People want bad news. Disasters and scandals sell. “Those crazy Episcopalians” sells. Good news does not, especially when it contradicts conventional media images.
One headline that would have sold newspapers and Google ads on blogs (yes, my blog has them too, giving all proceeds to Episcopal Relief and Development) did not appear, however: “General Convention Ignores Report on Declining Numbers.” This is found in the House of Deputies Committee Report on the State of the Church, part of the 2009 Blue Book.
For all the good hard work of this Convention, the few mentions of this report in either House showed that Episcopalians, like other human beings, tend to avoid bad news. Except when it is about other people. Of course, the other Christian churches in the United States and Europe continue to experience declining numbers. Nevertheless, the next General Convention, in Indianapolis in 2012, will be even less able to avoid this issue. But we will probably try.
And, I suppose, the media and others will continue to proclaim what they want us to say, but didn’t.
 You can view all the legislation at this address: http://www.gc2009.org/ViewLegislation
Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.