Summer is upon us, so the minds preparing for church conventions naturally turn to sex -- or, more specifically, to the decades-long debate about the church and homosexuality.
I first became involved in this debate in 1991, when the Rev. Todd Wetzel invited me to work with Episcopalians United at General Convention in Phoenix. What I find most striking is that many of us feel the same cognitive dissonance today as we did then. Our church's teaching still affirms marriage as the God-ordained setting for sexual intercourse, but our church's practice allows for actions contrary to that teaching. Those who are most weary of this cognitive dissonance yearn for a vote that will decrease confusion and signal the church's future direction.
Many proponents of blessing gay unions are angry this year, especially because a paper issued by the House of Bishops' Theology Committee advised against resolving the issue through a decisive (but also divisive) vote of General Convention. "For a season at least, we must acknowledge and live with the great pain and discomfort of our disagreements," the paper said. "Sensitive restraint and mutual forbearance is needed rather than a vote that might 'win' the argument for some and leave others seemingly rejected."
Another season of waiting is not what gay activists and their supporters have in mind for this summer's convention. This year marks the first time that convention has met in Minneapolis since 1976, when it approved ordaining women to the priesthood and gave "first reading" approval for the revised Book of Common Prayer. Meeting again in Minneapolis raises liberals' hopes for what they consider the logical next steps of prophetic action and justice.
Conservatives, for their part, hope the Episcopal Church at least will not grind American liberalism into the face of the broader Anglican Communion, which -- to risk understatement -- is not as prepared as U.S. Episcopalians to pronounce God's blessings on gay unions. The most optimistic conservatives dream of a day when the Episcopal Church so clearly reaffirms the classic Christian doctrine of marriage that convention will have to find something else to argue about.
Convention will not lack ways to move the church further to the left, if it so desires. Executive Council member Louie Crew has announced his candidacy for president of the House of Deputies. If he wins, he would be the first openly gay man to preside in that house. Likewise, if the Diocese of New Hampshire elects the Rev. Canon Gene Robinson as its next bishop, convention must decide whether to approve the first openly gay bishop. (Conservatives who know the Episcopal Church's recent history do not deny that closeted gay men have been elected and approved.) Finally, of course, would be the ultimate prize: Convention authorization to prepare rites for the Book of Occasional Services that would bless gay couples.
Now that I've reported on four conventions, I am tempted to expect the sort of deal-cutting that delivers the House of Bishops from taking any decisive action. Then again, I will not be shocked if this convention moves the church leftward.
Whatever convention decides, I pray that its decisions are grounded more in theology than in wielding legislative power, more in an awareness of belonging to a global communion than in American autonomy, more in a concern for seeking the mind of Christ than in winning by a slender margin.
No vote will make this debate go away, of course. Gay activists and their supporters have come too far in 30 years simply to give up their advocacy. And nobody who knows conservative activists should expect them to walk away because of one convention's vote.
In short, we're still stuck with each other. As much as we're tempted to demonize our opponents, we still find ourselves in the same denomination, the same diocese and often even the same parish. Much like the residents of Al Gore's Blue America and President Bush's Red America, we occupy the same land, frequently are baffled by our ideological opposites and yet feel a curious kinship and love for them. As we approach General Convention and as we live in its aftermath, let us resolve to treat each other with the kindness and compassion we want for ourselves.
Douglas LeBlanc is an associate editor of Christianity Today.