Friday, May 26, 2006
General Convention: Countdown to Columbus
By The Rev. George Conger
“In or out?” The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Communion are hoping to hear the answer to this question from the 75th General Convention of the Episcopal Church.
The June 13-21 meeting in Columbus, Ohio of General Convention -- the governing body of the confederation of dioceses that make up the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA) -- will present the Church’s formal response to the Windsor Report, setting out its relation and responsibilities towards the Anglican Communion. How the Convention responds to the Windsor Report will help determine the Episcopal Church’s ongoing place in the Anglican Communion, say many of the leaders of the Anglican world.
Disciplined by the Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council in 2005 for the 74th General Convention’s affirmation of the election of a partnered gay priest as Bishop of New Hampshire and for stating that blessings of same sex unions were within the bounds of church life, the Episcopal Church faces sanction for breeching the “bonds of fellowship.”
While the presenting cause for the crisis is the question of homosexuality, the underlying issue that threatens to tear apart the 82 million member Anglican Communion is a dispute between autonomy and order -- how far can an individual church go in changing heretofore common ethical and moral teachings and still be part of the catholic church?
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, has warned the Episcopal Church that it cannot dictate the terms of its membership in the Anglican Communion, and that there will be consequences -- as yet unspecified -- for the actions of the 74th General Convention, unless it reforms.
While General Convention will debate and discuss hundreds of resolutions ranging from revision of the Church’s disciplinary canons to the election of a new Presiding Bishop, the focus of the ten-day gathering will be on the Windsor Report, a study commissioned by the Primates of the Anglican Communion to examine how the Church should manage challenges to its common faith and order.
“I hope for clarity in issues before us, for meeting each other as brothers and sisters in Christ willing to find unity in Christ without arrogance,” Central Florida lay deputy Anneke Bertsch said, adding she hoped Convention would meet the “requests of the Windsor Report” and listen to “God’s agenda for our church and focus on our commitment to the Great Commission.”
The Rev. Donald J. Curran, Jr., rector of Grace Church, Ocala, and a Clergy Deputy, told the Central Florida Episcopalian Convention faced a stark choice. “I hope we all come to our senses, fully embrace the Windsor Report, repent of 2003 and come back to orthodox faith,” he said.
But he was afraid Convention would evade its responsibilities and “won't even debate the real issues at hand that are destroying the church. Many seem to think we can slide through one more time by holding hands and looking to the future,” he said.
Disputes over the interpretation of the Windsor Report’s recommendations divide Central Florida Episcopalians. Donna Bott, a leader of Episcopal Voices – which is critical of the conservative groups the American Anglican Council and the Anglican Communion Network – rejected the scenario that if “the General Convention did not comply with the WR the Episcopal Church will have chosen to walk a part.”
The Windsor Report “clearly states” that it is “not a judgment, Mrs. Bott said. It is part of a process. It is part of a pilgrimage towards healing and reconciliation. It is intended to answer the question, ‘How does the Anglican Communion address relationships between its component parts in a true spirit of communion?’” she said.
Discussion of the Windsor Report and its recommendations will come to Convention through the 61-page report “One Baptism, One Hope in God’s Call” prepared by the Special Commission on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.
The April 7 report recommended the Church “exercise very considerable caution” in electing bishops “whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church,” but stopped short of a moratorium on gay bishops requested by overseas leaders and conservatives within the Episcopal Church.
The Commission also recommended bishops not sanction public liturgies for the blessing of same-sex unions. However the current practice of private unofficial ceremonies would be permitted through the rubric of offering appropriate “individual pastoral care for gay and lesbian Christians.”
General Convention should make its “sincerest apology and repentance for having breached the bonds of affection in the Anglican Communion.” However, the language proposed by the Commission stated the apology was not for having been in error for affirming the election of a non-celibate homosexual priest as bishop, but for a “failure to consult adequately with our Anglican partners” before it affirmed the election of Gene Robinson.
Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and President of the House of Deputies, Dean George Werner, explained the report was “intended to start the conversation and not conclude” it.
Its mandate was to consider “how to maintain the highest degree of communion within the Anglican Communion given the different perspectives held with regard to the place of homosexual persons in the life of the Church,” they said.
General Convention will consider the commission’s resolutions to slow but not halt the push for gay bishops and blessings alongside a resolution submitted by Newark lay deputy, Dr. Louie Crew, that asks Convention to authorize “rites for Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage and the Blessing of a Civil Marriage in the Book of Common Prayer for same-sex couples in those civil jurisdictions that permit same-sex marriage.”
Dr. Crew’s resolution would change references in the Prayer Book and Canons from “man and woman” and “husband and wife” to “two persons.”
Resolutions slowing down or speeding up the introduction of same-sex blessings will not satisfy the Anglican Communion’s call for a halt to same-sex blessings, observers warn. Nor does the Special Commission’s report include “a rejection of the decisions of the 2003 General Convention,” Episcopal Life reported.
Archbishop Williams has cautioned Convention not to end the House of Bishop’s moratorium on consecrating actively homosexual priests to the episcopate or permitting rites for the blessing of same-sex unions until the Communion is of common mind.
“I believe if there is ever to be a change in the discipline and teaching of the Anglican Communion on this matter it should not be the decision of one Church alone,” Archbishop Williams said on February 17.
The actions of the 74th General Convention were “seen in the Communion as the decision of one Church which has consequences and repercussions for others that they have not fully owned themselves” Archbishop Williams said.
He said the Anglican Communion “will expect reaction to what has been said around the Communion” from the General Convention. “On a matter where traditionally there has been a very clear teaching” there must be “the highest degree of consensus for such a radical change.”
Speaking on behalf of Dr. Williams to the March 17-22 meeting of the House of Bishops, Bishop Michael Langrish of Exeter “told the U.S. bishops that the language of the special commission is not adequate,” and “that if they consecrate another gay bishop or authorize same-sex relations, the Anglican Communion will break apart,” The Times of London religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill reported.
The Anglican Communion had “real anxieties” over the Commission’s call for “very considerable caution” in electing a bishop “who was in a relationship not liturgically sanctioned by the Church,” Bishop Langrish said.
While “no one can force another province or diocese either to go or remain,” Bishop Langrish noted, “no diocese or province can enforce its own continued membership simply or largely on its own terms. There has to be engagement. There is no communion without a shared vision of life in communion.”
“Any further consecration of those in a same-sex relationship, any authorization of any person to undertake same-sex blessings, any stated intention not to seriously engage with the Windsor Report, will be read very widely as a declaration not to stay with the Communion,” the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative warned.
A challenge to the moratorium was avoided May 6 with the election of the bishop of California. Among the seven candidates on the ballot to succeed the Rt. Rev. William Swing were three partnered gay and lesbian priests.
While the selection of the Suffragan Bishop of Alabama, the Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus, avoided a direct clash, it did not change the status quo in California, according to conservative Episcopalians such as the AAC. Bishop Andrus stated in his acceptance speech his election was a “vote for inclusion and communion — of gay and lesbian people in their full lives as single or partnered people, of women, of all ethnic minorities, and all people.”
The election in Northern California on May 6 may set Convention on a collision course with the wider Anglican Communion over the issue of the election of a bishop “whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church.”
While there have been over a dozen American bishops who have been divorced and remarried, Northern California’s canon to the ordinary, the Rev. Barry Beisner, will be the first priest to have been divorced twice and married three times before being consecrated as bishop.
In 1946 the Episcopal Church permitted divorcees to remarry in the Church upon special license of their bishop. Clergy were generally not permitted to remarry after divorce and retain their orders until the 1960s. Only the Episcopal Church, Anglican Church of Canada and the Church in Wales have permitted divorced and remarried priests to be consecrated bishops.
There is no single standard exercised by the Episcopal Church. Some dioceses, such as Iowa, permit a fourth marriage after divorce, California permits three, while the majority permits a priest to have two.
In the Anglican churches of the Global South remarriage after divorce is viewed as adultery and grounds for dismissal from the priesthood unless special circumstances apply. If affirmed by the 75th General Convention, Canon Beisner’s election may provoke as strong a reaction from African church leaders as did the election of Gene Robinson.
Fears that Convention will choose “not to stay with the Communion” have prompted a series of “what if” sessions at Lambeth Palace. Meeting with Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, key English bishops, overseas primates and leaders of the Communion’s conservative wing, Archbishop Williams is reviewing his options and preparing for a possible schism within the Episcopal Church.
Four Primates have asked Archbishop Williams to hold an emergency meeting of Primates this summer in the anticipation that General Convention will not honor the Windsor Report, while bishops affiliated with the Anglican Communion Network will meet on May 17 at Nashotah House with Bishop N.T. Wright of Durham to set a common post-convention strategy.
The Rev. Joyce Holmes, rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Avon Park, a clergy alternate deputy to Convention, said her prayer was “we will not be anxious, and will stay focused on our mission in Central Florida.”
The Rev. Canon D. Lorne Coyle, rector of Trinity Church in Vero Beach, and the spokesman for the Central Florida General Convention deputation concurred saying he hoped “our Episcopal Church will have a change of heart and want to work closely with the rest of the Communion to spread the Gospel of grace around the world.”
However, “regardless of what happens in Columbus this diocese is blessed with a godly bishop in John Howe,” Canon Coyle said. “The clergy and lay leaders of Central Florida are committed to stand with him to project the Gospel of grace into the 21st century.”