Bishops receive theology committee's report, 'Gift of Sexuality'

March 20, 2003

In a voice vote at their annual spring retreat, the bishops of the Episcopal Church received a report of the theology committee of the House of Bishops on the 'Gift of Sexuality,' offering it to the church as grounds for discussion on a range of controversial issues.

'It was moved, seconded, and carried that we receive this document with thanks as a report of the theology committee. Though it does not reflect in all points the views of all members of the House, we offer it to the church for study and reflection, and thank the theology committee for inviting us into deeper reflection and for modeling collegiality,' said the motion, introduced by Bishop Edward Little of Northern Indiana.

The report is the product of an 18-month study by the committee of six bishops and seven academic theologians 'who represent diverse theological viewpoints.' In the preface to the report, the committee said, 'It has been our special concern to encourage the church to think about how disagreement over issues of human sexuality may become open to God's grace.'

'We believe sexuality is one of God's wonderful, complex, confusing, and sometimes dangerous gifts,' the committee wrote in an introduction. 'At the same time, we have been made freshly aware of how sexuality can be cheapened and exploited in human society and made an occasion of sin, hurt, and disorder, rather than the blessing God intends it to be.'

Ordinations and blessings

Over the ages the church has struggled to address 'the new spiritual and moral concerns that emerge in the experience and understanding of God's people. The right ordering of human sexual behavior has always been an aspect of the Jewish and Christian visions of the good for human life and society,' the committee wrote.

Two questions emerge from an attempt to address the experience of homosexually oriented persons: 'Is it ever appropriate to pronounce the church's blessing on same-gender relationships as we do on heterosexual marriages and, if so, under what conditions? Is it ever appropriate to ordain non-celibate homosexual persons, and thereby commend them as 'wholesome examples' to the church and society, and, if so, under what conditions?'

The report carefully describes the theological context that informs answers to those questions, based on the conviction that 'sexuality is a fundamental and complex aspect of human nature, which we both use and abuse. As Christians we believe it is part of God's good creation and intended to be a source of blessing and joy for human beings.'

Recognizing that 'there is a range of sexual identities among human beings,' the report said that 'as Christians we affirm that persons of all sexual orientations are created in the image of God, and they are full members of the human family,' and the church 'vigorously denounces discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation.' Yet difficult questions emerge as to 'what patterns of sexual intimacy are most congruent with the holiness of God's self-giving life.'

The report noted that some in the church are asking, out of pastoral concern, 'whether some forms of homosexual activity might be open to God's blessing in ways the church has not previously recognized. Does the church remain persuaded that all expressions of homosexual intimacy are sinful, or are there conditions under which we might be able to recognize that intimacy as a source of God's blessing, just as is true in some, though not all, expressions of heterosexual intimacy?'

Different minds

The report then explores the full range of possible answers to those questions, specifically addressing the controversial issues of blessing homosexual relationships and ordaining non-celibate homosexuals, urging respect for diverse opinions and concluding that 'we do not believe these should be church-dividing issues.'

The report warned, 'The challenge we now face is how to maintain the unity of the church in the face of such intense disagreement. Despite the common faith that makes us one, we confess that on the issues surrounding human sexuality just now, we are of different minds.' The report reminded the church that at the last General Convention it voted in resolution D039 to 'support' those who are living in 'relationships of sexual intimacy' other than marriage. 'The question remains, does extending this support include pronouncing the church's blessing on such relationships?'

Answering the question, the report said '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.' On the ordination issue, the report calls on bishops and standing committees, responsible for the ordination process in the dioceses, 'to be respectful of the ways in which decisions are made in one diocese have ramifications on others. We remind all that ordination is for the whole church.'

The report cautions against attempts to resolve controversial sexuality issues by legislation. 'For a season at least, we must acknowledge and live with the great pain and discomfort of our disagreements,' exercising 'sensitive restraint and mutual forbearance' rather pressing for a vote.

Grace-filled process

'We shared a series of papers and responses from which a draft was edited and adopted unanimously by the committee,' said Bishop Henry Parsley of Alabama, chair of the theology committee. 'We found in the process an enormous grace, working through our differences, helping us describe to ourselves and to the church the theological matters we were asked to deal with--and we were led to a deeper place of insight and communion.'

He said that the committee 'tried to be comprehensive, in the Anglican way, looking at all points of view.'

Bishop Robert Ihloff of Maryland agreed. 'The experience of thinking and stretching was grace-filled,' he said, 'with a group of diverse people committed to the church and each other. It took a long time to reach consensus and not everyone will be pleased but we went as far as we could at this time.' He expressed surprise and gratitude that the report was so well-received, 'that the bishops felt we had put our finger on the pulse of the church.'

Allowing for differences

'We understood that our paper would be read throughout the Anglican Communion, and it attempts to disabuse people of the notion that those people who support blessing of same-sex unions don't believe in the Resurrection, don't use Scripture--in other words, it was a statement that we're really all operating from the same foundation, and operating from the same foundation in good conscience, we end up in different places on this issue,' said Bishop Catherine Roskam of New York, a member of the committee.

'Difference does not necessarily mean division,' she added. '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.'

Roskam 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,' Roskam said. 'That was where we saw it from the standpoint of the theology committee, but the bishops may have by the end of the day come up with something quite different. There is no pre-emptive agreement among the bishops.'

Balanced, fair, comprehensive

Bishop John Howe of Central Florida said, 'The first thing we did was develop a statement about the task of theology and we developed what we called a theological method which we've used on several occasions for studying Scripture. It's a much richer and fuller method than any that I've ever had before and it's been very helpful to us. It's a really good method that involves Scripture and tradition and meditation and personal prayer, and then putting it all back together in a group dynamic.'

'What we did in the paper on issues of sexuality was, we took the statement about theology that we began with 18 months ago and we reworked that and said this is the framework or the context within which the whole discussion is taking place,' Howe added. 'We're Christians--we're Nicene Christians, we're creedal Christians, we're orthodox Christians--it restates that and says, within that context, we hold really divergent opinions about matters of sexuality. Our present conclusion is that equally orthodox Christians who are equally committed to the Scripture can come to very different opinions about these matters,' he said.

'We discovered we are absolutely all over the board as far as issues of sexuality are concerned. Among us, you would find just about every position that is responsibly held in the Episcopal Church represented. To our surprise, we discovered that we were of one mind that we should not legislate,' Howe said.

Howe was also grateful for the reception of the report. 'Many people felt that it was the most balanced and fair and comprehensive statement that they had ever see on the subject. They did not endorse or adopt the paper, but they commended it to the church for study.'

(In addition to Parsley, Roskam, Howe and Ihloff, the committee included: Bishop Theodore Daniels, Bishop William Gregg, Prof. Michael Battle, Prof. Ellen Charry, Prof. Ian Douglas; the Rev. James Griffiss, the Rev. Mark McIntosh, Dr. Russell Reno, and Dr. Kathryn Tanner.)

Full text of the document is on the Presiding Bishop's website.