A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
By Robert L. McCan, Ph.D.
The General Convention of 2006 was my first, although I have been an active Episcopalian for 25 years. As preparation for a book I had written titled, Justice for Gays and Lesbians I had studied carefully the proceedings in 2003 at Minneapolis as well as prior conventions on gay/lesbian issues.
I was impressed first by diversity within the Church as evidenced by the exhibit center. There are Catholic and Evangelical coalitions in our Church, contemplatives and social action prophets. There are women’s causes, mission projects, children’s programs and a significant Integrity presence, the organization of gays and lesbians. Even the Institute for Religion and Democracy had a display, despite their best efforts to undermine the Church’s decision for inclusion of gays and lesbians in its common life. Almost anyone in the Church can have a voice and join a cause.
Second, I was impressed by the deep, genuine turning to the Holy Spirit for guidance. The hour-long morning worship was followed immediately by devotions among both the bishops and the deputies (clergy and laity). Noon prayers were often followed by prayers by designated chaplains prior to important votes. One day I experienced three Eucharistic services. The allegation that the Church has lost its spiritual focus seems patently false.
This leads to a third observation. There was little rancor and much accommodation to the viewpoints of opponents. Debate in the House of Deputies used a two-minute rule for addresses and speakers were rotated pro and con on motions or resolutions. A Monday night hearing on several resolutions related to the Windsor Report (accommodation to parts of the Anglican Communion that oppose gay/lesbian clergy and bishops) rotated speakers using the two minute rule so that more than 70 speakers were heard, representing every imaginable position. A memorable four minutes occurred when Bishop Robert William Duncan of Pittsburg spoke as a leader of the opposition to action taken at General Convention in 2003, followed immediately by Bishop V. Gene Robinson of the Diocese of New Hampshire, the man who was confirmed as an openly gay priest to be a bishop.
Fourth, from watching the voting process, talking with old-hand vote-counters, and from discussions with a great number of individuals over ten long days, I conclude that 70% to 80% of bishops and deputies as well as visitors now favor the vote for inclusion. They decided to take no action in support of the Anglican Communion that compromised the integrity of that vote. Of course there were principled opponents who were hurting and who felt the Church had deserted them. There were also a few opportunists maneuvering to gain legal advantage in preparation for court cases over who owned church property. This “mind of the Church” was thrown into disarray when on the last day Presiding Bishop Griswold called both houses into joint session and made a plea for a resolution to use restraint in electing new gay/lesbian clergy and bishops for the next three years. His plea was to take a step back for the sake of two steps forward later.
Fifth, announcement of the selection by the bishops of Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as the new Presiding Bishop was a “kairos moment” in the life of the Church. When the announcement came there was a deep gasp for collective air, then a moment of silent disbelief, followed by weeping and hugging. That was the reaction of every woman I observed, but many of the men had similar if more restrained reactions. Give the women credit for organizations that present a strong political voice. And they were celebrating 30 years in the priesthood with a series of special events. A major pictorial display of the history of women in the church was on the walls at Trinity Church, where the bishops were cloistered during their voting process. Bishop Katharine began her tenure as Presiding Bishop-elect with enormous political and spiritual capital. She was the strongest supporter of gays and lesbians among the candidates. She used much of her “good will capital” when she urged the Convention to support the Presiding Bishop on that last day. Some said she had no choice. Others said her standing would be enhanced or tarnished by how well she was received by the Primates of the Anglican Communion, and how well she supported her gay/lesbian constituents and friends at the same time.
I was privileged to attend the Friday evening liturgy sponsored by Integrity at Trinity Church. I saw the overflow congregation with chairs in every aisle and then heard about the undercroft filled with late worshippers. I heard that the new Presiding Bishop was in the latter assembly. I saw what seemed like an endless procession of gay and lesbian priests officiating at the service and realized anew that the Church is not only affirming a gay bishop but also supporting an important cadre of homosexual priests. I heard music unfiltered from the throng of God and I was mesmerized by the emotional, power-filled sermon by Bishop Gene Robinson. I saw first-hand that for the 80 to 90% of the congregants who were gay and lesbian, Gene Robinson is both symbol and embodiment of their claim to spiritual legitimacy and integrity as persons. This was a “kairos” worship hour like few I have experienced in my lifetime.
I heard no call by gays and lesbians to leave the Church, no cry for revenge, no demand that opponents depart, but only a commitment to “keep on loving them.” “Yes, God, but they abuse us, they talk about us and decide our fate as if we were things rather than persons created in your image.”
“I know” God replies, “but just keep loving them anyway.”
I see the powerful self-giving love of Bishop Robinson and his large and growing constituency. They are committed to out-loving and out-evangelizing their opponents. I understand why the collective mind of the Church is surely moving to support them.
Finally, I witnessed a vibrant Church, not a dying one as critics claim. I saw commitment to mission goals beyond “the issue” of the day. I saw spirited debate on vital concerns of all kinds, although bishops and deputies were overwhelmed with the sheer volume of resolutions and committee reports. Yes, this is a church of verbosity and bureaucracy but in the process of dealing with the hard twin challenges of inclusion and communion, the Church is surely finding its soul.
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