Sex and Ecumemism

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Sex and Ecumenism 
The Revd Canon Professor J. Robert Wright

This essay was published in the July 2003 issue of The Anglican.


            In the last few weeks two very strong statements have come from quite different quarters both urging that the forthcoming General Convention not force a decision one way or another about  the blessing of same-sex unions by a legislative vote.

            In its long-awaited, lengthy, unanimous report released to the press on March 20, the theology committee of the House of Bishops, composed of six bishops and seven academic theologians, stated and explained its conclusion as follows: "Liturgy provides cohesion for the Anglican Communion, and it is through our liturgies that we define what we most deeply believe as Christians. Because at this time we are nowhere near consensus in the Church regarding the blessing of homosexual relationships, we cannot recommend authorizing the development of new rites for such blessings."

            Consisting of thirteen persons whose theological abilities are highly respected and who as a group would probably be regarded as "balanced" or possibly even weighted slightly on the liberal side, the membership comprised (without their titles) Michael Battle, Ellen Charry, Theodore A. Daniels, Ian T. Douglas, William O. Gregg, James E. Griffiss, John W. Howe, Robert W. Ihloff, Mark McIntosh, Henry N. Parsley (chair of the committee), Russell R. Reno, Catherine S. Roskam, and Kathryn Tanner.  And with no recorded dissent, this committee reached its conclusion:  "For these reasons, we believe it is imperative that the Episcopal Church refrain from any attempt to 'settle' the matter legislatively. For a season at least, we must acknowledge and live with the great pain and discomfort of our disagreements. The act of trusting those with whom we disagree intensely bears witness to the reconciling power of God, which is always beyond our imagining. Sensitive restraint and mutual forbearance is needed rather than a vote that might 'win' the argument for some and leave others seemingly rejected."

              Commenting on this report and its subsequent debate within the House of Bishops, Bishop Catherine Roskam, Suffragan of New York, remarked that "Difference does not necessarily mean division." . . . "We believe that our polity allows for difference. We recognize that some people will want division out of this, but theologically there are not really grounds for it." Continuing, she said that the issue of blessing same-gender relationships is "one we need to keep dealing with. This is not a backing away from the issue, but rather looking at ways we might move forward as a whole church, in accord with the directives of Lambeth to continue the conversation. . . . A lot of bishops felt very strongly that we should not pre-empt making a decision legislatively, and that was not our intent."

            Thus the recommendation from the theology committee of the House of Bishops.  And from a different quarter but with a very similar conclusion, the Rt. Rev. Mark S. Sisk, Bishop of New York, registered his opinion on the NY diocesan website in the context of his remarks about the possibility of a "new understanding" of committed same-sex relationships.  He said: "It takes time for the Church as a whole to reach a common mind about any such new understanding.  I do not believe that this process of discernment can or should be determined simply by an up or down vote of a legislative body.  Parliamentary and legislative actions rarely resolve such fundamentally pastoral issues; any truly new understanding within the Church needs to grow out of the lived experience of the People of God."

            Sisk continued: "I believe that we are in a transitional moment.  We are at a time between times when numbers among us believe that God's will in this matter clearly favors, even demands, such blessings, while others, perhaps the majority among us, most emphatically do not agree.  As a bishop, I bear responsibility to both groups in my diocese, as well as all whose views are less strongly held.  I am a pastor to all, and in that work I must be honest and forthcoming about my own views.  However, it is not my vocation to substitute my own experience and convictions for those of the larger community of faith, or to deny to them the opportunity to clarify their understanding as they grapple with this question themselves.  That opportunity is their right."

            The Diocesan of New York summarized:  "I have come to the conclusion that the best way for the Church to reach a common mind, the most promising way forward, is to recognize and accept the fact that we live in a time of deep disagreement.  As we disagree, we must work hard to be respectful to opposing views.  I am further convinced that we do not serve our Church well by attempting to force a resolution one way or the other.  Instead, we must live within the tension of that disagreement, and allow time for the Spirit to work among us.  We will best experience that working not in legislative action but in the halting, tentative, and yet ultimately decisive way we have experienced the Spirit working among us through the ages."

            Thus Mark Sisk of New York adds his voice to the other distinguished thirteen.  They all urge that the church should continue to seek a common understanding, but all of them also counsel that we should make no decision on one side or the other at the present.

            So are we now left with an impasse, in which some of the best voices of the church are calling for us to take no action right now?  Is there no way forward, apart from more prayer and more argument?  I suggest that there IS a way forward, and it is a way for which we have already cast our votes, in the Phoenix General Convention of July 1991.  The text of that resolution, number B020 (Journal 1991, pp. 210­211, 807-808), passed unanimously, resolved "That this Church receive the report of the Standing Commission on Human Affairs as clear evidence of no strong consensus in this Church on the human sexuality issues considered or the resolutions proposed," but then it was further resolved  "That the office of the Presiding Bishop now be directed to propose to all provinces of the Anglican Communion and all churches with whom we are in ecumenical dialogue that a broad process of consultation be initiated on an official pan-Anglican and ecumenical level as a bold step forward in the consideration of these potentially divisive issues which should not be resolved by the Episcopal Church on its own."

            Just think of it!  Back in 1991 it was voted unanimously that the Episcopal Church, rather than tearing itself apart, should take an ecumenical lead in this matter, and that the office of the Presiding Bishop himself should call for a broad process of consultation with other Anglican provinces and with our ecumenical partner-churches on this matter.  Was anything done about the implementation of this resolution?  According to the national Archives of the Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas, there is no record that anything was done, but the resolution is still on the books and waiting to be implemented.  One can understand why arm-chair administrators may have feared  to act upon it, and it too might not produce a definitive solution, but it IS a course to which we are already committed.  Surely, it would be an alternative to doing nothing, and it would move us beyond the course of just spending three more years in prayer and argument.                 J.  Robert Wright.