Bishops' theology committee publishes draft report on same-gender relationships

March 23, 2010

Published at 07:20 p.m. EDT, this story updates an earlier version to add comments from the meeting's news conference.

The Episcopal Church's House of Bishops, concluding its six-day retreat meeting at Camp Allen in Navasota, Texas, has posted a draft of the long-awaited 95-page report titled "Same-Sex Relationships in the Life of the Church" on the College for Bishops' website here.

"For a generation and more the Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion have been engaged in a challenging conversation about sexual ethics, especially regarding same-sex relationships in the life of the church," Theology Committee Chair and Alabama Bishop Henry Parsley wrote in the report's preface. "The hope of this work is that serious engagement in theological reflection across differences will build new bridges of understanding."

A notation on the report's table of contents page cautions that the report "has been edited in several places" following a discussion among the bishops on March 20. "The responses of several pan-Anglican and ecumenical theologians will be added to this study in the summer, along with some further editing, before a final edition is published," the note concludes.

The House of Bishops had asked its theology committee in 2009 -- prior to the 76th meeting of General Convention -- to study the theology of same-gender relationships. In its report to the convention the committee said that the study would be "designed to reflect a full spectrum of views and to be a contribution to the listening process of the Anglican Communion, as well as to the discussion of this subject in our province." The committee said the study would be "a long-term, multi-step project that is designed to be completed in 2011."

Controversy developed in early June 2009 when Parsley initially declined to release the names of the theologians appointed by the committee to conduct the study. The names have since been released and the authors listed on the report are:

  • Dr. John Goldingay, the David Allan Hubbard professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California;
  • Dr. Deirdre Good, professor of New Testament at the General Theological Seminary in New York;
  • Dr. Willis Jenkins, Margaret A. Farley assistant professor of social ethics, Yale Divinity School;
  • The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Kittredge, Ernest J. Villavaso Jr. chair of New Testament and dean of community life at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin;
  • The Rev. Dr. Grant LeMarquand, academic dean and associate professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania;
  • Dr. Eugene Rogers, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro;
  • The Rev. Dr. George Sumner, principal and Helliwell professor of world mission, Wycliffe College, Toronto; and
  • The Rev. Dr. Daniel Westberg, research professor of ethics and moral theology, Nashotah House, Nashotah, Wisconsin.

House of Bishops Theology Committee member Dr. Ellen Charry, Margaret W. Harmon associate professor of historical and systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, is the editor.

Diocese of Nebraska Bishop Joe Burnett said during a post-meeting news conference that as members of the bishops' theology committee he and Parsley acted as consultants to the group of theologians, along with Charry.

"I think the house believes that the progress that was made both in terms of the more well-known conservative viewpoint, for lack of a better term, as well as the creative theological work of the more liberal group, again for lack of a better term to characterize them, did provide some new theological insight and grist for conversation," he said. "But we all believe and are of a mind that there is more work to be done in pursuing strictly theological and biblical insights that will give the church some kind of resource to work toward finding a way to live together in the midst of some rather strong differences among many of our members, clergy and congregations."

Although the meeting was billed as a retreat, and members of the public and the news media were not allowed to observe the sessions, at least five bishops blogged and tweeted from Camp Allen, at times during the sessions. Those bishops included Andy Doyle of Texas, Paul Lambert of Dallas, Steve Lane of Maine, Brian Prior of Minnesota, Greg Rickel of Olympia, and Kirk Smith of Arizona. Some of those bishops posted comments about the report, which the house discussed on March 20.

"The reception was less than thrilling," Smith wrote of the papers in his blog. "One bishop pointed out that there was nothing new in the arguments, stuff we have heard 20 years ago. Still, I guess that it is a good thing that we are still at the table exchanging views."

Meanwhile, Rickel wrote that he was "a bit disappointed with the report itself, which was really simply two papers, one from the conservative viewpoint, and one from the progressive viewpoint." Rickel noted that the paper did "provoke very good discussion."

Lambert, Diocese of Dallas bishop suffragan and member of meeting's planning committee, wrote on the Anglicans United website that the report "was received with some caution and we will continue to use the report as a basis for further conversations and it should not be seen as the definitive statement of the church's statement on same-sex relationships, although some would see it as so."

Lambert and other blogging bishops noted that while the house had requested one paper on same-gender relationships in the life of the church, two were presented. Lane in his blog said the theologians, one either side, "identified themselves traditionalist and expansionist."

Lambert wrote that the theologians "determined early on in their study that it was not possible to present one paper on the subject. So the conversation continues with two very divergent views, which in my mind, shows where we are as a church on the matter of same-sex relationships."

While meeting in Anaheim, California, General Convention passed Resolution C056, which calls in part for the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, in consultation with the House of Bishops, to collect and develop theological resources for the blessing of same-gender blessings with a report due to come to the 2012 General Convention.

In a related matter, Lambert wrote that the church's recent majority decision to consent to the ordination and consecration of the Rev. Canon Mary Glasspool as a bishop suffragan for the Diocese of Los Angeles was discussed by bishops at the meeting, but not in a formal way during a plenary session.

"Of course, her presence at our meeting makes it difficult to discuss this openly and honestly, both for her and the house gathered," Lambert wrote. "I bid your prayers that we may have a spirit of mutual respect and forbearance for all involved. I do believe that we will do so with sensitivity and concern for all."

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, Burnett and the other bishops who spoke at the news conference, including Diocese of Kansas Bishop Dean Wolfe (the house's vice president), Diocese of Pittsburgh Bishop Kenneth Price (house secretary) and Diocese of Central Pennsylvania Bishop Nathan Baxter, confirmed that Glasspool's pending ordination and consecration was not part of the agenda and was not discussed during the times when bishops had conversations with their table companions.

Also during the Camp Allen gathering the bishops:

  • elected two bishops on March 24, including the Rev. Dr. James "Jay" Magness as the sixth bishop suffragan for federal ministries and the Rev. Canon David Bailey as bishop of the Navajoland Area Mission.

  • heard, in Wolfe's words, "living-giving" presentations about the emergent church, a "compelling report" from Diocese of Haiti Bishop Jean Zaché Duracin about the church's needs in the wake of the Jan. 12 magnititude-7 earthquake, received a briefing from its Title IV Review Committee and issued a letter express "solidarity" with the people of El Salvador and their "condemnation of the attempted assassination" of Bishop Martín Barahona.

  • discussed the challenges facing theological education, especially what Price called "the financial crisis of the General Theological Seminary." "The house expressed its concern and particularly asked that a committee that the presiding bishop has appointed to look into theological education continue its work and that it be in touch not only with General Seminary but other seminaries as well," Price said.

Wolfe added that "it was noted that in the midst of great crisis there was also great opportunity for creative solutions and re-visioning theological education."

Concluding the briefing, Price said that in his 15 years of attending House of Bishops meetings he always "comes away energized, but this time particularly I was impressed with the depth of the discussion and the diversity amongst the bishops, and yet at the same time the unity that we feel as the House of Bishops and our support for one another."

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