Bishops call for 'resources' for same-gender blessing

July 14, 2009

The House of Bishops voted by a margin of 3 to 1 on July 15 "to acknowledge changing circumstances" that call forth a renewed pastoral response from the church for considering same-gender blessings.

That response, at least for the time being, was a substitution for Resolution C056, to create an open process and invite church-wide participation in collecting and developing theological resources and liturgies. The resolution now heads to deputies for approval.

Before a packed gallery of spectators bishops extended debate, proposed numerous amendments and took a 20-minute time-out for private discussion, before adopting the substitute legislation 104-30 with two abstentions.

The measure authorizes bishops, in conjunction with the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM), to devise an open process, to invite participation and theological reflection, and to report their efforts to the 77th General Convention in 2012 in Indianapolis.

The resolution noted that bishops, "particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this Church."

Bishop Tom Ely of Vermont told bishops that, after discussions were postponed July 14, he and Bishop Pierre Whalon of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe hosted two indaba-style forums attended by 26 bishops.

"We are grateful for the time we spent in this conversation and urge that similar opportunities be provided at future meetings of the House of Bishops," he added.

The indaba-style gathering was a method of engagement used by bishops at the 2008 Lambeth Conference, and was modeled after an African concept of meeting for purposeful discussion.

Ely said the bishops held two sessions, which were "characterized by a deep sense of holy listening, respect, and seeking after a better understanding of our various realities, theologies and ministry contexts. We are grateful for the time we spent in this conversation and urge that similar opportunities be provided at future meetings of the House of Bishops."

The substitute C056 resolution was drafted by a handful of bishops who attended those gatherings. Ely emphasized that it was not a report "nor should it be viewed as a statement of agreement, but rather as a renewed framework for our legislative discussions."

An amendment proposed by Bishop John Howe of Central Florida to delete the final resolve that encouraged "the members of this Church … to engage in this effort" failed by a margin of 57-56. Some bishops attempted unsuccessfully to discharge the resolution. That motion failed by a roll call vote of 94-42.

After the resolution passed, the Rev. Susan Russell, president of Integrity USA, an LGBT advocacy group within the Episcopal community, called the vote "a big step forward on same-sex blessings.

"I trust the process and most of all I trust the Holy Spirit present in the process," she said. "I have seen us do hard things well many times, and I was convinced this would be one of them. I just could not believe that this church isn't bigger and better and stronger than many were giving it credit for. I am delighted to be moving forward."

But most bishops said same-gender blessings are not a foregone conclusion.

Rather, Bishop Neil Alexander of Atlanta, who voted for the legislation, said "the church is very much engaged in this conversation and wants to do the correct and thoughtful and prayerful thing about it? I think that's pretty clear."

Bishop Andy Doyle of Texas, who voted against C056, said the vote "will have an adverse effect on communion relationships" and perhaps in his diocese, "where some people find themselves more in line with a much more conservative [and] what they would call a more orthodox mindset." But he added that the views of everyone within the diocese needed to be honored pastorally and cared for.

He added that: "We are in a process" which can go different ways. "The majority of people here in Anaheim who represent a broad spectrum of the church are very interested in moving forward.

"Nothing we did today actually did anything other than provide for the collection of and design of rites for a conversation. That's very important to understand. We didn't bless or move toward blessings any more than we were."

"What we were doing was taking what was already being done – resources that are already out there, liturgies that are already happening across the country – and collecting them so we could discuss what this is. No permissions were given today. That doesn't mean that the perception of the greater communion won't be that permission was given, or that people in my own diocese won't perceive that permission was given. But we didn't authorize anything other than the collection of material."

Bishop Jeffrey Lee of Chicago, who voted for C056 and was part of the informal indaba group, said "there's a lot of ground between here and there" or blessing same-gender relationships.

He said "it doesn't really change from a previous General Convention resolution in 2003 that recognizes congregations are operating within the bonds of our common life by responding with a wide range of pastoral responses to the needs of the members of the church."

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