Bishops turn down development of same-sex liturgies

August 6, 2003

A day after confirming the election of an openly gay man as bishop, the House of Bishops on Wednesday agreed to a compromise and decided not to move forward with the development of same-sex blessing liturgies.

An amendment offered by Bishop Peter Lee of Virginia and approved by the house deleted the lines from resolution C051 that asked the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music to develop rites for blessing same-sex relationships. The resolution now goes before the House of Deputies for consideration – but without a measure that would provide for developing same-sex blessing liturgies.

The amended resolution calls the church to “continued prayer, study and discernment on the pastoral care of gay and lesbians persons.” The work is to include the compilation and development of resources under the direction of the Presiding Bishop to facilitate as wide a conversation as possible throughout the church.

A similar measure to develop same-sex rites was narrowly defeated by the House of Deputies at the last General Convention.

While the decision disappointed some activists, others said the resolution offered some latitude in the phrase, “We recognize that local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions.”

The move was taken as an encouraging sign by bishops affiliated with the American Anglican Council. “I think it is something we can go home with,” said Bishop William Skilton, suffragan of South Carolina. He would have felt better, he said, if there had been no resolution moving the church toward accepting gay and lesbian relationships, but was willing to live with the compromise worked out by the bishops. “It is certainly better than what was originally proposed,” he said.

Bishop Edward Salmon of South Carolina, who chose not to vote on the resolution, said he had no major objection to it since the language to develop rites had been dropped out. The more significant action, he said, was yesterday’s consent on the bishop coadjutor-elect of New Hampshire, the Rev. Gene Robinson, which makes the vote on the resolution moot. Robinson is an openly gay man living in a committed relationship.

More moderate conservatives saw the measure as something of speed bump. More reflection and study is needed on how the church incorporates gay and lesbian members, said Bishop Herbert Thompson of Southern Ohio. He noted the “wonderful pastoral way” both sides of the issue had agreed to the compromise. The message today, he said, is that the church is not yet ready develop rites for blessing same-sex unions. “Maybe down the road but we need a conversation and they are allowing that to happen.”

Bishop Lee said he offered the amendment in consideration of the 43 bishops who voted against the Robinson's confirmation. After Tuesday’s vote, several bishops said they would be calling on the other primates of the Anglican Communion “to intervene in the pastoral emergency that has overtaken us.” Some deputies walked off the floor Wednesday and have made dire predictions about schism and the future of the church.

Lee, who voted in support of Robinson, said that the “exercise of restraint,” in the church, the nation and around the world, would be an appropriate pastoral response.

Bishop John Lipscomb of Southwest Florida was on the opposite side of the debate Tuesday and has spoken against the confirmation of Robinson. But on Wednesday, he offered support for Lee’s amendment.

He pledged to “do everything possible to help my diocese turn to godly conversation about what will continue to be a difficult issue.” He said the amendment provides the opportunity to engage and continue that discussion.

Bishop Henry Parsley of Alabama also cast a "no" vote against Robinson’s confirmation, but he found common ground in the amended resolution.

“Our liturgy expresses what we believe. So we need to be particularly clear theologically before we move forward liturgically,” he said. “This amendment helps us be a church together as we seek theological consensus more solid and sound than we have found.”

While the Diocese of New York is stronger and growing because of the ministries of gay and lesbian priests and lay people, Bishop Mark Sisk also said he was aware of the worldwide implications of approving the development of same-sex liturgies.

“I am mindful that our actions do have an impact around the world. We are not alone,” Sisk said. “I believe we are growing in the direction that will, in the future, authorize such blessings. I am also aware that all growth needs to take place in a measured way. Growth that is too quick leads to weakness.”

There was dissent as well. Some bishops urged the house to reconsider and to approve this step in developing same-sex blessing liturgies.

“You cannot understand the experience that it is for every gay and lesbian member of the Episcopal Church when this house debates whether or not our relationships can be honored and celebrated,” said Bishop Otis Charles, who announced he was gay after he retired as bishop of Utah. “We must be mindful of the pain that is in the hearts of all the people in your conversations, known or unknown, who are gay and lesbian … who would like to have the same dignity that each one of you has in your relationships.”

Bishop James Kelsey of Northern Michigan read his diocese’s vision statement, saying that it calls the church to move ahead with faith and compassion.

Gay and lesbian persons “deserve our support and affirmation,’’ he said. “They should not be asked to live in hiding. They – and we – should celebrate the gifts they bring to us.”

Two proposals to reinstate resolution B007, crafted and proposed by the bishops of Province IV, also failed.

The Prayer Book, Liturgy and Music Committee reworked C051 to merge several of the resolutions in an effort to find common ground, said Bishop Catherine Roskam, suffragan of New York and the committee’s vice chair.

The fear among many committee members was “If we don’t bring home something, we are going to lose people,” Roskam said. “We worked to craft something where we might not lose one.”

-- Episcopal News Service writer David Skidmore contributed to this article.