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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church

A Meditation on What Went Wrong in Columbus

A Meditation on What Went Wrong in Columbus

By Peter Carey



The New Testament has only one word for “church”--the Greek word ekklesia. However, it is used in two different ways. One way means “the local Christian community.” For example, “the churches of Galatia” or “the church of the Thessalonians.” [Gal 1.2 and 1 Thes 1.1] The other way means “the whole Christian community around the world.” St. Paul uses the word in the latter sense in 1 Cor. 12.28: “And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers,” etc.

So the word “church” in the Bible is used in two different senses--one to describe the local community and the other to describe the worldwide community. The two are not contradictory. The church is both local and universal. However, they sometimes find themselves in tension. This I think is part of what happened at the recently concluded General Convention in Columbus.

General Convention is made up of two houses--a House of Bishops and a House of Deputies.

The House of Deputies is composed primarily of lay people and parish priests, people for whom “church” means the local church: St. Swithins-by-the-Sea, St. Andrew’s, Christ Church, Holy Apostles. The place where I worship every Sunday. My church.

Of course the people who served as deputies at General Convention were perfectly aware (more aware than most probably) of the larger church--the diocese, the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion, but for them, church means, above everything else, the local church to which they belong.

The lay people and the priests who attended General Convention as deputies were all elected as representatives of their dioceses and so they were by definition people who are involved in the larger church, but still the bedrock experience of their lives as Christians remains the local church.

Many of the deputies at Convention were gay. “Faithful gay and lesbian Episcopalians were everywhere,” is how Bishop Gene Robinson expressed the GLBT presence in Columbus. The House of Deputies contained many many openly lesbian and gay priests and laypeople.

In most Episcopal parishes, the presence and active participation of gay and lesbian people are taken for granted. They are simply there. The rector may be gay, a vestry person or two may be gay, the music director is almost certainly gay. And, depending on the location and the prevailing ethos of the parish and diocese, a fair percentage of the congregation is likely to be gay, except in the most ultra-conservative dioceses like Springfield, Fort Worth, or Pittsburgh.

And so the overwhelming majority of people who travelled to Columbus to serve in the House of Deputies this year were either gay themselves or came from parishes where being gay is simply no big deal.

The idea that gay people should be scapegoated or marginalized or sacrificed on an altar of expediency for some chimerical “place at the table” was simply out of the question when the idea of denying consent to partnered gay people to serve as bishops was presented to the deputies. And on Tuesday, June 20th, they rejected this odious proposal by a margin of two to one. “No Outcasts” remained both the practical and the theoretical commitment of the House of Deputies that day.

That should have been the end of it. But it wasn’t. What went wrong?

To understand what went wrong we need to return to the second meaning of “church” in the New Testament. The meaning of “the whole Christian community around the world.”

This is the meaning of the word “church” that bishops focus on. This is the meaning that bishops understand and are committed to in the marrow of their bones. The universal church. In our case, the seventy-seven million-member Anglican Communion. The third largest body of Christians (after the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox) on the planet.

Again, it’s not that our bishops don’t understand the local church. They do. They often have a deep knowledge and appreciation of the local parish. But the meaning that really resonates with them is the second meaning, the universal meaning.

When a bishop is ordained, he or she is told, “With your fellow bishops you will share in the leadership of the Church throughout the world.” (BCP 517) And later in the ordination ceremony, he or she is asked the question, “Will you share with your fellow bishops in the government of the whole church?” (BCP 518)

And so the idea of the universality of the church and of each bishop’s participation in “the councils of the church” is immensely imporant to every bishop and conversely, the prospect that our bishops’ place in the councils of the worldwide church might be in jeopardy fills them with horror.

Bishops also take very seriously the numerous places in the Bible, especially in the Gospel of John, where our Lord prays for unity among his disciples.

There are also cultural reasons why bishops are so keen on the universality of the church and on keeping their place at the table of the universal church.

Anglican bishops know that they belong to a very exclusive club. Even today, in all but a few of the churches of the Anglican Communion, no women need apply. That club is also solidly heterosexual, with one exception in the United States, plus a few closet cases and some celibates.

Bishops travel a lot and they attend a lot of meetings--in their own dioceses, in their own countries, and internationally--and generally they are very skilled at parliamentary procedure. The primates or presiding bishops are masters at it. Bishops who preside over meetings of lay people generally get what they want. I know. I used to be a trustee (although not as a lay person) of the Diocese of New York.

Bishops are given a lot of deference. In England they are still called “Your Grace” and in many countries, people still kiss their rings. They live in “episcopal palaces” and in many countries they are driven around, as Archbishop Akinola is in Nigeria, in expensive cars by chauffeurs.

They love processions. Ah, how they love processions! Nothing stirs the heart of an Anglican bishop more than processing down the main aisle of Canterbury Cathedral with their “brother bishops”. And when, during a Lambeth Conference, their engraved invitation to tea with the Queen in the gardens of Buckingham Palace arrives--weather permitting--well, can you blame them for wanting to keep their place at the table?

Yes, I think you can and I think in the case of what happened in Columbus, we should. What happened there on June 21 was disgraceful, and particularly disgraceful for retiring Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold.

Bishop Griswold’s behavior on the last day of the Convention was reprehensibe because he refused to accept a decision that had been made the day before, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, by the House of Deputies.

Now I have no idea what Bishop Griswold’s inmost motives were in doing what he did, but this much seems clear: the Presiding Bishop adamantly refused to accept that the Holy Spirit had been at work in the House of Deputies. He knew better and so he rammed through the legislation he wanted. He railroaded the Convention. He bent the rules. He twisted arms. And he got what he wanted.

Did Bishop Griswold promise Archbishop Williams he would deliver a moratorium to him? Did Bishop Griswold twist Presiding Bishop-elect Schori’s arm to get her to publicly support the gay sellout? Were parliamentary rules broken and not merely bent? Did Bishop Griswold promote the “listening process” by silencing others? The answer to these questions and many other questions like them will probably never be known.

But the answer to one question will be known: was it worth it? The answer to that question has already begun to emerge and it is, of course--no. Blackmail payments tend to get higher and higher and there is no doubt that the Episcopal Church is being held hostage by the Archbishop of Canterbury, by the Windsor Report, and by Archbishop Akinola and his Global South. They think they know better than we how we should treat our “homosexual” members and they will have it no way but their way. With them there is no compromise, no discussion, no dialogue, no listening process, and if they can possibly swing it, no place at the table for our bishops until we all “repent.”

The House of Deputies understood this on June 20th, but on June 21st Bishop Griswold and most of his fellow bishops caved in to blackmail yet again. The idea of having to give up the group photograph at the Lambeth Conference with their brother and sister bishops was just too much to bear. And so they betrayed their gay brothers and sisters instead.

The people who served in the House of Deputies at this year’s General Convention believe every bit as much in the unity of the church as the bishops do. They too understand and take seriously our Lord’s call to unity. But not unity at any cost. Not unity that betrays others. Not unity that demeans or humiliates or makes their brethren second-class citizens.

Let us pray that there will never, ever be another General Convention like the one that just happened.

You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to 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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