Letter to the Episcopal Church in Arizona

Letter to the Episcopal Church in Arizona

by Robert Reed Shahan RobRShahan@aol.com
Bishop of Arizona

See the explanation which Bishop Shahan has added for this epistle, at http://newark.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/joy22.html --L

Epiphany 1999

Robert, in the line of succession of the apostles of Jesus Christ by the will of God and the people of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona.

To the saints who are in Arizona and are faithful in Christ Jesus.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I remember all of you in my prayers as I seek to speak a word of hope and reconciliation to those who will read this letter.

The Beginning

I begin at the beginning. My prayers led me to revisit the events leading up to my arrival in Arizona and I spent some time viewing the video presentations of my public interviews as well as the service of ordination and consecration. My interest was in seeing what I had said and the promises I made during that process of introducing myself to the people of Arizona.

There was concern on the part of some people as to my perspective on the ordination of "a practicing homosexual to the priesthood." That was the actual form of the question. "Would you, as the Bishop of Arizona, ordain a practicing homosexual to the priesthood?" My answer was as follows: "I have the luxury of not being that at the moment, but let me tell you. I respect the resolutions of the General Convention. The resolutions of the General Convention under which we are now operating say that is inappropriate."

The second question was: "Would you permit Episcopal marriage of same sex persons?" My answer was: "I don't believe that is possible."

Lest I am accused of saying something that is "legally accurate" only, please understand that I intended those answers to convey a "No" message. At the same time, I also want you to know that I found the questions to be of the "litmus test" variety and of little use in discovering what I thought at the time or what I think now.

The Lambeth Conference

This brings me to the subject of the Lambeth Conference. This gathering of the worldwide community of Anglican Bishops every ten years at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury was held this past summer at the University of Kent in Canterbury. There were some seven hundred fifty bishops present for this time of prayer, reflection, fellowship, worship, and an expression of the mind of these bishops in the form of resolutions on a variety of topics.

Certainly foremost in the news was the resolution on sexuality which the Lambeth Conference passed on August 5, 1998. A copy of that resolution is attached to this letter.

It is important to remember that the conference itself has no legislative authority over any of the provinces of the Anglican Communion and that any resolution passed by that body is to be seen as an expression of the mind of the bishops present and nothing more.

I have previously indicated in other publications that I was among the minority who voted against the resolution and I want to help you understand what was behind that vote as well as issuing a call to each of you to the high road of the Gospel life.

The two words that are the hallmarks of the position I have taken in the area of sexuality concerns are order and obedience.

The bishop is given the responsibility to be the sign of unity in the diocese. It is a unity that is born of our relationship with one another in Christ. It is not about our uniformity of belief, behavior, or our spoken words. My responsibility as the sign of unity is to call each of you to the vision proclaimed by our banner: We Are One. My responsibility is not about seeing that each of you thinks the same way about the same things. The task of the church is not to tell you what to think. The role of the church is to teach you how to think theologically and to develop an informed conscience.

The bishop as sign of unity is called to keep order in the church. This means that we are not each of us going off on our own to behave as if we were a congregational church with our own set of beliefs and practices. It means that such things as resolutions of our General Convention and the canons of the church are to be respected and obeyed until such time as they are changed. Obedience is the first degree of humility according to the Rule of Saint Benedict. It is to do what one is asked to do "without hesitation, delay, lukewarmness, grumbling or objection." The disciple offers this kind of gift to God in humility and thanksgiving.

So, what is it that God is asking us to do?

It should not be surprising that there are a variety of answers to that question. It should not be surprising that the Lambeth Conference was the scene of such variety.

The Variety of Perspectives

I have never quite understood why the issue of homosexuality and related matters is of such concern to certain people. It sometimes seems as if one's own salvation is only possible by keeping the church safe from people who differ from us in this way. It cannot be a reverence for Scripture because that reverence is very selective indeed.

If that were not the case, we would all be tithing and the church would be so involved in missionary activity that we would not have the time to argue about matters of sexual preference. If that were not the case, we would be living in observance of the code of Leviticus which is filled with all kinds of things such as the prohibition against lending money at interest not to mention all manner of harsh penalties, including death by stoning, for any number of offenses.

The list of scriptural problem areas goes on to include a teaching on divorce that most find nonsensical today and various prohibitions against women such as speaking in church, braiding their hair and wearing gold, pearls or expensive clothes.

The scene at the Lambeth Conference on August 5, 1998, where a bishop from Sudan likened any homosexual expression to bestiality and pedophilia and received great applause, was also the scene where an American bishop made a somewhat sympathetic reference to homosexuals in his diocese and was hissed and booed.

This is not about Scripture. It is not about holiness. It is not about order. It is not about obedience. It is about politics. The politics have come from both sides of the question and both have made reasonable conversation difficult. I have had about enough of it.

The church in many parts of Central Africa and other regions is as dogmatic as the Moslem culture with which they collide in the "two-thirds world." It is not an attractive sight. It is a scene where they want to condemn homosexuality quite soundly while turning a blind eye to the instances of polygamy, tribalism, genocide and even female mutilation in their own culture.

I tire of the righteousness that is not of God. I tire of a proclamation that is harsh, judgmental and calls forth that same kind of judgmental posture from those who disagree. It creates its own environment in which there is not love, mercy, acceptance, hope, grace, or holiness.

I call the Episcopal Church in Arizona to a higher road. While I still remain in support of order and obedience within the church, I will, when given the opportunity, speak and vote in favor of a more inclusive community that more closely reflects what this servant of God believes to be the Gospel teaching of our Savior Jesus Christ.

The ordination of persons

I will seek to move the church to ordain and to call forth those among us whom we deem to be healthy without regard to sexual orientation or identity. This decision is not mine alone, but it is shared with members of congregations, vestries, clergy, the Commission on Ministry, the Standing Committee, representatives of the mental health and physical health community, as well as the rest of the church speaking through the General Convention.

I will not act alone or precipitously, but I also will not allow the wholesale condemnation of homosexuality to go unchallenged in Arizona. Jesus did not call groups of people. He did not say we need fishermen. He did not say we need tax collectors. He did not say we need farmers. On the contrary he said: "Peter, James, John, Matthew. Come. Follow me." He called people by name and not by any other category of identity.

The Blessing of same sex relationships

Regarding the marriage of same sex persons I still stand by what I said in the interview before being elected Bishop of this diocese. I do not believe that is possible. This is not to say that same sex persons cannot live in committed relationships which are a blessing to both persons. I know and have known many such persons who are in long term relationships. I just believe that "marriage" is not the right symbol of blessing for them. I, along with others, will be thinking and praying about what might be an appropriate symbol.

We should not refuse to bless a relationship of monogamous love and lifelong commitment in a church that blesses animals, boats, cars, buildings, candles, pieces of cloth and basically "anything whatsoever" as it says in the Manual for Priests. While we are not yet in a position to make the pronouncement in a unified way, I tell you that the blessing already resides with those who would seek it. I am not authorizing or changing anything here. That will be done by the church in its wisdom acting in convention.

One of the ironies of life is that the church is the community of blessing. We are in the world to provide and proclaim blessing. We are not here to withhold blessing. It is, after all, God who blesses everything. We are the people who pronounce the words of blessing, but it is God's blessing. We are one of the ways that God's blessing is made manifest and it is our vocation to seek opportunities to bless.

It is clear to me that while marriage is a sacramental expression for males and females, there can be a way to bless those who wish to have a relationship set apart in holiness. Some kind of covenant is appropriate and I can see this applying to many relationships. You must remember that we are talking about responding only to those persons who come to the church asking for God's blessing to be pronounced upon a relationship.

The irony here is that we do weddings regularly where the couple involved want to be married, but the thought of seeking God's blessing on the relationship has never occurred to them or their wedding consultant. For many, the church is merely the site where the wedding takes place. We are called to be a more serious place of blessing. In fact, I often think that the church would be better off if we were out of the wedding business entirely and only did blessings for those who particularly desired them after they were married in a civil ceremony. It would give more integrity to our blessings.

The Use of Scripture

The high road calls us to listen to Scripture, Reason, and Tradition as we seek to be faithful followers of the one who died with arms outstretched for the whole world. All of it. All of us. All of them. All of you. All of me.

There is a difference in reading Scripture and hearing the message of Scripture. When one reads Scripture there are only the words and they are there to be used as weapons if that choice is desired. When one hears the message of Scripture, it will always be as a call to unity in Christ. It will always be a call into a blessed relationship with God and one another.

This unity is expressed quite clearly by Saint Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. Paul writes: I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Pray for me

I ask that you pray for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me that will allow me to boldly proclaim the Gospel of Christ as I believe I have done in this letter. We are one! We are all one! All of us are one! Hear this and believe!

Grace and peace be with you all.

In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Robert Reed ShahanRobRShahan@aol.com
Bishop of Arizona


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