Commission on Liturgy and Music says sexuality decisions belong on diocesan level

February 18, 2000

Those who were expecting the Commission on Liturgy and Music to drop a bombshell on the highly controversial issue of ordinations of homosexuals and blessing of same-sex relationships are going to be disappointed. The commission's report for July's General Convention urges more dialogue and, until there is some consensus, leaving the dioceses to handle the issue.

The report, now in the mail to bishops and deputies, asks the General Convention to "urge congregations, dioceses and every other church group and organization to facilitate genuine and respectful encounter between heterosexual and homosexual parishioners, recognizing that they live different lifestyles, hold different opinions but share one Lord, one faith, one baptism...."

In a resolution that is likely to draw criticism from factions trying to resolve the issue once and for all, the report says that "each diocese, under the spiritual direction of its bishop, shall determine the resolution of issues related to same-sex relationships, including the blessing of such relationships, and the ordination of homosexual Christians."

The commission was asked by the last General Convention in 1997 to "continue its study of theological aspects of committed relationships of same-sex couples and to issue a full report, including recommendations of future steps...." Because the House of Deputies in 1997 narrowly defeated a resolution calling for the commission to prepare a liturgical rite for blessing same-sex relationships, some hoped that the commission would lead the way in recommending such a change.

Passion and pain

In the introduction to its report, the commission called attention to 25 years of debate on the role of homosexuals in the life of the church, a debate marked by "passion on both sides of the issue, as well as pain." And it added, "There has been prejudice, misinformation and a lack of Christian charity."

The report attempts to remedy the situation by providing short essays on a range of theological perspectives. One on Scripture--by Prof. L. William Countryman; Tradition--by Prof. Richard Norris; Experience--by Bishop Charles Bennison; a review of understandings of homosexuality--by Prof. Timothy Sedgwick; Ecclesiology--by Prof. Daniel Stevick; Blessing--by Prof. Leonel Mitchell; Catechesis and same-sex blessings--by Prof. Sheryl Kujawa; and a concluding reflection by Bishop Paul Marshall of Bethlehem. Bibliographies are attached to the essays.

Marshall says that, among the choices facing the church, "is the possibility of allowing the political process to dominate, ending the issue without settling it, by taking an up-or-down vote." But because all of our knowledge on the subject is "imperfect," and in a state that could be described as "ignorance," he concludes, "To admit that we are not ready, theologically or scientifically, to say a defining word about the life of homosexuals in the church betokens the much broader disagreement, in practice, among very faithful people regarding sexual mores in general."

Urging those on both sides of the debate to proceed with some humility, Marshall said that "it seems best not to take absolutist positions on a national level about what cannot be known with great certainty."

He added, "When we simply cannot agree that one view compels the allegiance of all faithful people, as is the case today, the reverently ignorant thing to do is either to abstain altogether from making a decision, or else to allow dioceses to find their own way in the matter and only much later, if ever, come to some general agreement." And he warned, "The principal alternative seems to be schism, which many an ancient Christian believed to be a state far worse than heresy or ignorance."

Hopes--and fears

The Rev. Bruce Jenneker of Boston, chair of the commission, said in an interview that the 1976 General Convention said that "homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance and pastoral concern and care of the church."

The problem is that "we have been trying to work out what that means ever since," he added. "We opened a vision for gay people in the church, one that has not been accomplished. We raised expectations but also fears--and we as a commission wanted to address the hopes as well as the fears."

Jenneker said that the commission was "looking for a way to help the church move forward on an issue where there is no unanimity, where there are good people on both sides." Using the strong differences of opinion when the church opened the priesthood to women, he said that the commission is "looking for a way to live with our differences," based on a shared commitment to unity and diversity held in an honest tension.


--James Solheim is director of the Episcopal Church's Office of News and Information.

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