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A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond


Letter in Response to Bishop Herlong's 'Pastoral'

Letter in Response to Bishop Herlong's 'Pastoral'

By The Rev. John Lane Denson john.l.denson@vanderbilt.edu

29 August 2003

Bishop Bertram Herlong 50 Vantage Way, Ste 107 Nashville, TN  37228

Dear Bert:

I write concerning your "pastoral" letter of 11 August 2003 which I find a statement less of pastoral concern than of personal opinion.

There is nothing unique or exceptional, for example, about the proposition that bishops are elected and ordained for the whole church. So are our fellow presbyters and deacons. So, as well, are all the baptized. Further, we each enter these separate orders through the appropriate local jurisdictions, guidelines, and canons. It is especially clear, as if there be any doubt about  the context, that bishops may not exercise any of their episcopal functions outside their own diocese without the consent or invitation of the hosting ecclesiastical authority. This hardly leaves them free to roam about the "whole church," unless, of course, they assume the lawless practices commended by the AMiA, AAC, et al.

I am confident that the people of New Hampshire believed they were fulfilling their responsibility as faithful members of the Episcopal Church, that it was their prerogative to choose a bishop from their particular place in the Church, and that their choice should be honored as valid. That the Diocese of Tennessee might not have chosen Canon Robinson or the Diocese of New Hampshire might not have chosen you, reinforces an essential aspect of our identity as a Church: our differences are a part of our strength, and it is in our nature not only to disagree but to accept and welcome disagreement.  I am surprised and troubled that you do not acknowledge that fundamental -- and defining -- characteristic of the Episcopal Church.

Do you mean to suggest that because they made such a choice, the delegates to the diocesan convention in New Hampshire are not faithful? Or that they are purposely fomenting conflict to undermine the mission of the Church? Or that our internal disagreements have no place in fulfilling that mission?  Or, as well, do you mean to suggest similarly about the decisive majority vote of your fellow ordinaries and of your fellow presbyter and lay deputies -- particularly those of your own diocese whose votes for some curious reason your letter fails to reference at all?

Your focus on celibacy raises a number of concerns about the propriety of raising that question generally and the circumstances under which it might be proper.  Canon Jeffrey John, appointed by the Crown as a Bishop in the Church of England, volunteered that he and his partner have been celibate for years, but that disclosure did not calm the hysteria of some people over his appointment (although the Crown apparently was not perturbed by their relationship).  One lesson from Canon John's experience is that the question of celibacy is not relevant to extremists who flatly oppose the ordination of gays and lesbians, whether they are celibate or not.

But we are not the Church of England.  The Episcopal Church recognizes its obligation to ensure the dignity of gay and lesbian persons through, for example, the National Canons (I.17.5, III.4.1) and the Baptismal Covenant (BCP 304-305), references our latest diocesan convention chose to ignore and with your apparent consent as chair. 

Similarly, the Church recognizes its obligation to avoid discrimination against anyone on the basis of his or her marital status (Canons I.17.5, III.4.1).  The two forms of discrimination could be linked by innuendo if, for example, a single person is presumed to be secretly gay or lesbian because he or she is not married.  For anyone in the Episcopal Church to invoke the test of sexual celibacy against a gay or lesbian person -- who at this point in time cannot be married in the church -- or to oppose an episcopal election on that basis, not only offends sensibilities but also violates canon law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and marital status. 

Recently the U S Supreme Court recognized that the Constitutional right of privacy extends to homosexual persons. As Lawrence v. Texas makes plain, the dignity of adult, responsible homosexual persons to make certain choices in their private lives is an interest that is protected by the Constitution of the United States. Surely you do not believe that you or your fellow presbyters  should be forced to forfeit your Constitutional right to privacy as a condition of ordination.

When might it be proper to inquire about a person's sexual practices, or ask questions about a person's marital status?  If there is evidence of misconduct, or if abnormal psychological indicators appear, certainly these would constitute reasons for raising questions in these areas.  But without evidence of impropriety or other extenuating circumstances, as a general rule it simply is not the business of the  Episcopal Church to inquire about intimate details related to the adult, consensual relationships of its members, whatever their order of ministry.

These observations are grounded in our polity, our identity as a Church, and in the national canons. In Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold's letter to all bishops, he said "we need to respect the action of the Diocese of New Hampshire," and he himself did so and so affirmed.  I believe our canons require that we defer to the Diocese of New Hampshire, not merely respect its action, just as we expected from the church when you were elected and ordained. 

In light of the Episcopal Church's canons prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and marital status,  there is no impediment to Canon Robinson's confirmation. 

Your letter may have pleased some readers, but I assure you, it has hurt and outraged many others.  It risks enflaming division and could, as you seem to fear, lead to unhealthy (and unfaithful)  political and economic consequences. You are entitled to your own opinion on the subject of Canon Robinson's election in New Hampshire.  But in your role as a "bishop for the whole Church," for this entire diocese, and for your  episcopal colleagues, you are not entitled to issue a divisive and hurtful statement such as the one of August 11, which may have encouraged the occasion for at least one parish to take unilateral and publicly embarrassing action to disassociate themselves from the Episcopal Church and, ironically and naively enough, to place themselves under your jurisdiction alone. Will you encourage such a "parallel jurisdiction" in our midst?

I urge you to make altogether clear your intentions implied by your associations with the AAC, the Truro statement and others, and the forthcoming meeting in Plano, TX. The meetings you have announced for September 6 and 14 are appropriate times for you to do so.

You have left this diocese in moral disarray and confusion. It deserves more integrity and less ambiguity and innuendo from its leaders and an episcopacy of which it can be proud. As your fellow presbyter, I urge you to consider your legacy and to show that you genuinely care for us all.

Faithfully

Lane Denson


You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to lcrew@newark.rutgers.edu Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.

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