Ecumenical agenda strained but not irreparably damaged by convention decisions

October 1, 2003

The ecumenical agenda of the Episcopal Church has been strained but not irreparably damaged by the decisions of the recent General Convention to endorse the election of an openly gay bishop and acknowledgement that dioceses are blessing same-gender relationships, according to observers.

"The relationships with our ecumenical partners have been strained-but not broken. None of our conversations are being derailed," said Bishop Christopher Epting, the church's deputy for ecumenical and interfaith relations. Declining to speculate on the long-term ramifications, he said that it would be important for the upcoming Primates' Meeting in mid-October to "send a message to our ecumenical partners that we may be messy but we are still a communion, bound together while we disagree on a range of issues as we continue our efforts to move from a federation of churches to a true communion."

Prior to the Minneapolis convention, the Episcopal Church's official dialogue with two "separated" Anglican churches-the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Anglican Province of America--met at Virginia Theological Seminary and discussed openly and candidly the sexuality issues and the implications of the decisions for the future of the dialogue. Participants agreed to meet again no matter what the convention decided.

The Reformed Episcopal Church's General Council, however, did later pass a resolution stating that it "disagrees with and is saddened over the Episcopal Church's confirmation of a divorced, practicing homosexual to the Episcopacy and their failure to condemn the blessing of same-sex unions." The council said those decisions "will surely impair and impede substantive ecumenical dialogue with the Reformed Episcopal Church." Despite its disappointment, the council said that representatives would attend the next meeting in January 2004.

The journey continues

The Roman Catholics were more blunt. Bishop Stephen Blaire, chair of the Catholic Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said the decisions "reflect a departure from the common understanding and the meaning and purpose of human sexuality" and therefore "have serious implications in the search for Christian unity and for the work of our bilateral Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue in the United States."

Pointing out that the two churches "have held serious and fruitful dialogues" for almost 40 years, Blaire said both "remain committed to prayerful and honest dialogue, however difficult, in responding to Christ's prayer for unity of the church."

"There clearly are still substantial areas of disagreement, not least the ordination of women, the process of intercommunion and now on sexuality," said Bishop John Flack, the archbishop of Canterbury's representative to the Vatican. "But I do think we are on this journey-and the journey continues."

The Vatican itself has not commented, due largely to a pending visit by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to Rome October 2-5.

The Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas, representing five million members in North America and Mexico, issued a statement that "expressing our deep concern over recent developments." The statement said "neither Scripture nor Holy Tradition blesses or sanctions such a union between persons of the same sex." While condemning the blessing of those unions, the statement said that "we must stress that persons with a homosexual orientation are to be cared for with the same mercy and love that is bestowed by our Lord Jesus Christ upon all of humanity."

The official dialogue with the United Methodist Church met in Minneapolis shortly after the end of the convention, identifying common areas of hymnody, spirituality, social action and witness. Methodist participants noted that their church was also dealing with sexuality issues.

Trust the Holy Spirit

At the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA), meeting in Milwaukee the week after General Convention, a proposal to suspend full communion in the wake of the sexuality decisions was overwhelmingly defeated. Also, a proposal to allow bishops in the ELCA to be installed outside of the provisions of the full communion agreement, Called to Common Mission, was defeated by a large margin. The assembly did not change the timetable for a major theological report on blessing same-sex unions and ordaining non-celibate clergy due for the meeting in 2007.

Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson of the ELCA said that legislative actions of full communion partners "ultimately do not determine" how the Lutherans handle similar issues. "My responsibility and challenge is to put the events of the Episcopal Church General Convention into an appropriate context," he said, making it clear that he had no intention of stifling debate within the ELCA. "We must trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in all of our deliberations."

"We do need to respect the deliberative processes of the Episcopal Church as we do for our other full communion partners," added the Rev. Lowell Almen, ELCA secretary in noting that those partners make decisions in different ways.

Muslims postpone meeting

An apparent casualty of the controversy, however, was the third meeting of the Anglican Communion/Al Azhar Joint Dialogue Commission scheduled for New York September 10-11, on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Al Azhar is the ancient mosque and university in Cairo that holds an authoritative position throughout the Sunni Muslim world. The dialogue was administered by the Anglican Communion Network for InterFaith Concerns and would have been hosted by the Episcopal Diocese of New York.

Citing unease in Egypt about the affirmation of Robinson's election, the Muslim participants pulled out of the dialogue at the 11th hour. Al Azhar sent a letter to Bishop Mark Sisk of New York and Bishop Mouneer Anis of Egypt, a member of the Anglican Committee for Dialogue, apologizing for not attending. The Egyptian media reported Robinson's confirmation immediately and contacted Mouneer for comment. He told them about the official position of the Anglican Communion as expressed in the 1998 Lambeth Conference's resolution condemning homosexual activity as contrary to Scripture.

Pope Shenouda of the Coptic Orthodox Church called an immediate meeting of his House of Bishops to discuss the issue and also gathered other Christian leaders, producing two statements that condemned the Robinson election. Mouneer met with other members of the Al Azhar Dialogue Committee and they decided to continue the dialogue but in another venue.

"We should redouble our efforts to continue that dialogue," said Epting in an interview, because the dialogue is designed to discuss a wide range of issues where there is some substantial disagreement. "It is time for us to be especially sensitive in all of our conversations and dialogues."