After a day of mostly closed-door and overtime sessions, Episcopal bishops on September 24 said they'd made "enormous progress" toward a productive response to the concerns of Anglican Primates.
"This is a continuing process of discernment and clarification of the relationship of the Episcopal Church with the whole Anglican Communion" as regards church polity, the ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire and other issues arising from that decision, Bishop David Alvarez of Puerto Rico told reporters at an evening news conference.
"Through this process we have proven the quality of life of this church in which we can talk openly with each other and in which we can differ but also pray together," he added.
He was joined by Bishop J. Neil Alexander of Atlanta and Bishop J. Jon Bruno of Los Angeles, who called earlier reports about a draft document inaccurate. "There is no draft at this point," Alexander said emphatically. "We've made enormous progress today in building a very strong and broad consensus in the House of Bishops but we still have work to do."
The bishops said they want to respond in as clear and concise a manner as possible to the Anglican Primates' February 19 communiquÃ©, issued in Dar es Salaam, and which asked the House of Bishops to "make an unequivocal common covenant that the bishops will not authorize any Rite of Blessing for same-sex unions in their dioceses or through General Convention."
It also asked that bishops respond to their request to "confirm that the passing of Resolution B033 of the 75th General Convention means that a candidate for episcopal orders living in a same-sex union shall not receive the necessary consent unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the Communion" by September 30.
"We are working very closely with one another, whether conservative or liberal or moderate" to come up with a response, Bruno said.
In response to a reporter's queries about the future course of the church and possible breakaway dioceses reformulating under an overseas or other archbishop, Alvarez said: "We have been addressing precisely that issue as openly as possible, recognizing the divisiveness and controversy around it. We are very clear that we may have some people who are not in agreement with the majority positions taken by both houses of General Convention, but," he added, "that doesn't mean we can foresee a significant breakaway or division of the Episcopal Church."
Alexander said the challenges of the past few years and throughout the history of the Anglican Communion have shown "over and over how tough the fabric of our common life is. We have experienced a hard pull on our fabric but we're a tough bunch. We're faithful to the mission and ministry of Jesus and we believe that, at the end of the day, the Anglican Communion will find a way forward in mission and ministry."
Despite repeated efforts to focus the news conference on issues of human sexuality and possible schism, the bishops emphasized that the tone of their conversations are respectful, and their goal is to develop a clear, concise response for the Primates without reversing support for gay and lesbian people.
"Are we going to withdraw our support of gay and lesbian people in the church -- no," Bruno said. "They are fully enfranchised members of our body." But he added: "Are we going to do anything to exacerbate this situation? No, we won't, and we're waiting to see how our response will be received."
Alvarez agreed, adding that is an "issue of justice, love and the Gospel. That's not something you turn back."
The day's business included a presentation to the bishops by the Very Rev. Ward Ewing, dean and president of the General Theological Seminary (GTS) and convener of the Council of Deans, and Donn Morgan, dean of Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP). They briefed the house on the council's efforts to collaborate on ways to make the 11 seminaries connected with the Episcopal Church "more efficient resources for the education in and for the church."
Earlier this year, financial difficulties and drastic changes in the role of the Christian church in society have prompted the deans to reconsider theological education.
"Seminaries are in the midst of a major transformational change," Ewing said. "I want to affirm that this is all seminaries," not just Episcopal ones.
Morgan said the deans had to face the fact that they either had to change or become "11 little grocery stores trying to sell the same products to the church."
Morgan told the bishops that they must be "directly involved" with the deans and seminaries their plans are to be fulfilled. He promised to come to the house's next meeting in March 2008 with "some concrete proposals to consider."
Those proposals will center on how a small group of seminaries can collaborate in each of four types of educational offerings, including distance learning, Spanish-language ministry preparation, Anglican Communion partnerships and seminary-diocesan partnerships for local ministry development education.
The bishops also heard presentations about:
- The Episcopal Identity Project, a self-study of reactions and responses to church inclusivity. Subtitled "A Study of Change in the Episcopal Church and the Impact on the Well-being of Clergy and Bishops," researchers have surveyed priests and interviewed bishops and other leaders concerning individual and organizational changes and consequences as a result of the controversy surrounding human sexuality. The project is supported by CREDO, a benefit of the Church Pension Fund, which offers health and wellness conferences to clergy;
- Planning for the 2008 Lambeth Conference. The Rev. Dr. Ian Douglas, professor of World Mission and Global Christianity at the Episcopal Divinity School, and a member of the Lambeth Conference design team, told bishops that next year's conference will include bible study using a method known as Ndabam a SiZulu word for a small group that gathers, without time pressures and constraints, to digest important issues. For more info about the Lambeth design process, visit here.