In a news conference on March 21 that immediately followed the semi-annual meeting of the Episcopal House of Bishops near Houston, Texas, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said that a meeting with Archbishop Rowan Williams and members of the Primates' Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion is crucial in the mind of many bishops.
"I think that the bishops of the Episcopal Church very much want Rowan Williams and the members of the Primates' Standing Committee to hear directly from us about our concern for all members of this church, those we agree with theologically and those with whom we disagree, gay and lesbian members of our church and those who find it difficult to countenance blessing unions or ordaining gay and lesbian people.
"That the archbishop and the other Primates be invited to hear from us about concerns around polity issues, how this church is governed, that we do not make decisions lightly or easily, but after lengthy conversation and deliberation through a very reasoned process," she said. "I think there is some belief in this House [of Bishops] that other parts of the communion do not understand us very well."
The invitation to Williams and the Primates took the form of a unanimous resolution in which the bishops asked for "three days of prayer and conversation regarding these important matters."
Whether their desire will be granted is yet unknown. "In Tanzania, I invited him," said Jefferts Schori, referring to the meeting of Primates of the Anglican Communion in February. "He indicated that his calendar was too full. I will ask again."
Will teach Anglican identity
A panel of eight bishops joined the presiding bishop in the 45-minute telephone news conference with about 20 journalists. They included Bishops Edward S. Little of Northern Indiana, chair of the bishops' planning committee; Chilton Knudsen of Maine; Dean Wolfe of Kansas; Stacy Sauls of Lexington; Catherine Roskam of New York, a representative to the Anglican Consultative Council; Mark Sisk of New York; Chester Talton of Los Angeles and Richard Chang, retired bishop of Hawaii and vice president of the House of Bishops. Carlos Touche Porter, primate of La Iglesia Anglicana de Mexico, also was present. Not all bishops spoke.
On the second to last day of the meeting, the bishops had approved a "mind of the house" resolution by voice vote. While affirming the desire to remain within the councils of the Anglican Communion, they said a proposed pastoral scheme recommended by the Anglican primates in February would be "injurious" to the church and urged Executive Council to decline to participate in it.
The scheme calls for a vicar to represent the presiding bishop in dioceses requesting alternative oversight -- some seven of the church's 111 overall -- as well as a "pastoral council" to negotiate the necessary structures for parishes that will not accept the direct ministry of their bishop, or of the presiding bishop.
"We didn't separate the two but addressed the pastoral scheme," said Sauls of Lexington. "It would be my opinion that there could possibly be a way to structure a primatial vicar arrangement that would be acceptable to the House of Bishops and meet the needs of our members who conscientiously cannot accept the actions of General Convention in 2003."
The presiding bishop seemed to agree. "My sense is that those details may be part of the discussion we expect to have around the church during the summer and that further conversation will be had at our meeting in September."
What required the bishops to act now on this resolution, said Sisk of New York, was that the primates had called for the creation of a pastoral scheme immediately. "That's the thing that moved us along ... that that it was being enacted immediately -- not later."
The bishops gave five reasons for urging Executive Council to reject the pastoral scheme. First, they said, it would violate church law because it would call for a delegation of primatial authority not permissible under Canons and a compromise of autonomy not permissible under the Constitution.
Second, they said, it would fundamentally change the character of the process in which all Anglican churches were participating together.
Third, it would violate the church's founding principles following its liberation from colonialism and a life independent of the Church of England and fourth, it would sacrifice the emancipation of the laity for the exclusive leadership of high-ranking bishops.
Most important of all, they said, the proposal is spiritually unsound. "The pastoral scheme encourages one of the worst tendencies of our Western culture, which is to break relationships when we find them difficult instead of doing the hard work necessary to repair them and be instruments of reconciliation," the bishops said.
In the news conference they said the bishops have agreed to focus attention on the subject of Anglican identity and the Episcopal Church in coming months, to listen to Episcopalians across their diocese, and to return to the next meeting in September, ready to respond to the remaining aspects of the Primates' communiquÃ© and the covenant for the Anglican Communion that were not addressed during this past week.
No talk of blessings
"We did not talk about gay bishops or same sex blessings," Jefferts Schori said in response to one question. "We did not begin to respond to the Primates' communiquÃ© in that area."
Sisk said there was no discussion on a moratorium that the Primates have demanded. They want the Episcopal Church not to consider openly gay or lesbian clergy for the episcopate and for bishops not to authorize blessings of same-gender relationships. A deadline of September 30 has been set for the bishops to respond.
Sisk said a statement in one resolution, approved by the bishops that all God's children, including gay and lesbian persons, are full and equal participants in the life of the church "was not intended to signal anything more than what it says. We did not discuss the moratorium," he said. "That issue did not surface."
Little of Northern Indiana said he believes that there exists broad agreement among bishops that gay and lesbians are welcome members in the church but said, "the question is how you respond pastorally, such as blessings. We focused our attention on the church's relationship to the wider communion ... not on specific issues of sexuality," he said.
The presiding bishop said a significant percentage of bishops attended the meeting.
"Nearly every diocese in the church was represented. We gathered with graciousness to meet friends old and new, to reflect together, to pray together, to come apart for a time of rest and refreshment, to hear about mission initiatives in the church.
"We spent all of [one day] focused on the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals] and environmental sustainability, in particular. We heard about the experiences of the dioceses affected by hurricanes in the United States. We heard from the bishops of Mexico about their experience. We discussed in a workshop issues having to do with immigration across our joint borders. We heard about the recent concluded conference in South Africa ... and in general we discussed our participation in mission in God's church."
Jefferts Schori was asked, since she had not objected to the Primates' resolution that was approved in Tanzania, whether she had changed her mind. "My response to Primates then was that was the best we could do. I said I would bring the communiquÃ© back to the House of Bishops and present it to them."
Asked if she now supports the resolutions that emerged from the House of Bishops meeting, Jefferts Schori paused, then responded, "They have emerged as a sense of the House [of Bishops] and as leader of this house I certainly will support them."