House of Bishops opens fall meeting with discussions of same-sex spouse exclusion from Lambeth 2020

September 17, 2019

El Camino Real Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves introduces an afternoon session about the Lambeth Conference on Sept. 17 at the House of Bishops meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Minneapolis, Minnesota] The Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops gathered here on Sept. 17 to begin a four-day meeting where the question of the Lambeth Conference 2020 loomed from the outset, both as a point of punctuation in Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s opening sermon and as the scheduled topic of discussion for the first afternoon.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, in calling all bishops in the Anglican Communion to attend the Lambeth Conference next summer, chose to invite gay and lesbian bishops but not their spouses, a plan he saw as a way to balance the divisions in the communion, but one that drew criticism, including from within The Episcopal Church. By the time Lambeth starts on July 22, The Episcopal Church will have at least three bishops with same-sex spouses.

Curry preaching

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preaches during the opening Eucharist of the House of Bishops meeting on Sept. 17. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

Curry alluded in his sermon to the variety of responses that Episcopal bishops are considering.

“We are going to Lambeth, but some of us can’t and some of us won’t. We’ll each have to make a decision of conscience, and that decision of conscience must be respected,” Curry said, adding that he will attend. “I’m going as a witness to the way of love that Jesus has taught me.”

An estimated 134 bishops and bishops-elect are attending this House of Bishops meeting, held in the Courtyard by Marriott hotel in downtown Minneapolis. Two of those attending have same-sex spouses: New York Assistant Bishop Mary Glasspool and Maine Bishop Thomas Brown. A third, the Rev. Bonnie Perry, is scheduled to be consecrated bishop of Michigan on Feb. 8, 2020.

The bishops, at their March meeting, approved a statement saying that, while a majority of them plan to attend Lambeth, they are “aggrieved and distressed” by Welby’s decision to exclude same-sex spouses.

At that time, Glasspool was The Episcopal Church’s only openly gay bishop whose spouse had been barred from attending Lambeth. Brown was consecrated as bishop three months later, on June 22. In March, the only other active bishop in the Anglican Communion to whom Welby’s decision was known to apply was Diocese of Toronto Bishop Suffragan Kevin Robertson.

The topic came up again in the late April/early May meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in Hong Kong, where Welby spoke about his decision.

“I ask your forgiveness where I made mistakes,” Welby said at the conclusion of that meeting, which produced a successful resolution spearheaded by Oklahoma Bishop Ed Konieczny.

In the House of Bishops’ afternoon discussion of Lambeth, Konieczny summarized the negotiations in Hong Kong. He said representatives from across the Anglican Communion ultimately came together in support of language that was “a reaffirmation of our respect for the dignity of all people,” including specifically LGBTQ Christians.

The spirit of Anglican interdependence should serve as a guide for Episcopal bishops planning to attend Lambeth, Konieczny said. Other Anglican provinces don’t always feel that The Episcopal Church listens to their experiences and concerns.

“We are in a place in the communion where we have an opportunity to turn a corner and be in a relationship with folks, but we have to do more listening than talking,” he said.

Similar points were made by both Curry and El Camino Real Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves in their remarks in the afternoon session about Lambeth. Gray-Reeves serves as vice chair of the House of Bishops.

“Whatever else the Lambeth Conference is for you and for the church … it is an amazing cross-cultural experience,” she said.

And Curry urged the bishops who will attend Lambeth to bring a spirit of humility.

“Humility for us as Americans is hard. We are quick to speak and slow to listen,” Curry said. “I am quick to speak and slow to listen, and to listen and to really hear.” He encouraged the Episcopal bishops, as they engage with bishops from around the world, “to hear each other, to receive each other, to be honest with each other, to make space for each other, to love each other.”

And although issues of human sexuality have been a point of contention at previous gatherings of worldwide Anglican bodies, Curry said he expects less tension at Lambeth 2020.

“I don’t expect a battle royal,” he said. “I pray that I’m right about that.”

Dallas Bishop George Sumner agreed. In presenting a brief history of the Lambeth Conference and details about next year’s gathering, he said about 600 bishops and 500 spouses have registered so far. “A battle royal is not what they’re looking for,” Sumner said.

Dallas Bishop George Sumner provides an overview of the history of the Lambeth Conference and plans for Lambeth 2020. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

Sumner was one of eight bishops who, until last year, forbade use of The Episcopal Church’s trial rites for same-sex weddings in their dioceses. Sumner and six of those bishops relented in response to a 2018 General Convention resolution and created procedures for same-sex couples to marry. Albany Bishop William Love, who is among the bishops attending the meeting this week in Minneapolis, is the only who still refuses to allow the rites, and he now faces potential disciplinary action for that decision.

Even if the Anglican bishops at Lambeth downplay human sexuality as an issue, Welby’s decision made attending Lambeth problematic for Episcopal bishops who support same-sex marriage and who take offense at Welby’s exclusion of some spouses merely because of their sexuality.

Michigan Bishop Wendell Gibbs spoke briefly in his remarks about Welby’s decision.

“I am extremely disappointed at the archbishop’s choice of not inviting some of the spouses,” Gibbs said. “Perhaps he shouldn’t have invited any. That would have been another statement altogether. But he did what he did, and now we must be the church representing the church.”

Gibbs added that he won’t attend Lambeth, not because he doesn’t want to go but because he will have handed the reins of his diocese over to Michigan bishop-elect Perry by that time.

Massachusetts Bishop Alan Gates announced that he would not attend Lambeth because, he concluded, the cost of remaining in relationship with brothers and sisters around the Anglican Communion was too high if it required him to strain his relationship with brothers and sisters within The Episcopal Church. Other bishops and spouses continue to deliberate on whether to attend Lambeth in light of Welby’s exclusion of same-sex spouses.

Glasspool told Episcopal News Service that she plans to attend Lambeth and her wife, Becki Sander, though not invited to the conference, will travel to England with Glasspool. Brown, bishop of Maine, told ENS he and his husband, the Rev. Thomas Mousin, have not yet decided how to respond to Welby’s invitation to Brown, which specifically excluded Mousin. Perry said she and her wife, the Rev. Susan Harlow, are still considering what to do, especially since Perry is less than five months from being consecrated bishop and therefore hasn’t yet received an invitation.

Bishop Mary Glasspool, left, talks with her wife, Becki Sander, during a break in the House of Bishops meeting. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

Much of the rest of the Sept. 17 afternoon session was limited to general preparation for attending Lambeth. Gray-Reeves said a more extensive discussion of how individual bishops will respond to the invitations and exclusions is scheduled for Sept. 20, the last day of the meeting.

Other issues were taken up during the day, including in Curry’s wide-ranging morning sermon. Curry preached for 30 minutes and made several references to today’s political climate that he sought to infuse with Christian urgency rather than partisan fervor.

“I’m not being political. This is biblical,” Curry said.

Invoking Isaiah’s command to “look to the rock” of God for spiritual stability, Curry downplayed The Episcopal Church’s recently released parochial report data showing membership and attendance losses, and he rejected rhetoric that urges Americans to look backward, such as “Make America Great Again.”

Isaiah wasn’t “pining for the past. He’s summoning providence, summoning up principles and values,” Curry said. “This isn’t about pining for the past. This is about standing on solid ground that cannot be shaken.”

Curry, however, reached into the past himself for an example that drew a parallel to the United States’ foundational principles. The Founding Fathers may have been “hypocrites,” particularly regarding slavery, because their reality didn’t fully live up to their lofty ideals, but those ideals still matter, Curry said, reciting the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence and then the full Pledge of Allegiance.

“‘Indivisible. Indivisible,’” he boomed, “‘with liberty and justice,’ not just for some … ‘liberty and justice for all.’ That’s America.”

The bishops responded by briefly filling the ballroom with their applause.

“We will catalyze a revival,” Curry continued, “a revival in this nation, a revival in our church, a revival to the principles and to the God who is the author of them.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.

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