Seeking reconciliation, L.A. conversation encompasses many views on blessing same-gender unions

May 27, 2003

In the end, Deacon Fred Glass said, Alabama's late Gov. George Wallace had something more to say than "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!" during his years of virulent opposition to the civil rights of black Americans.

Glass's words were addressed to some 70 fellow Episcopalians, gathered May 7-11 in Los Angeles from 12 states to discuss their differing views on liturgical blessings for same-gender unions. The forum was a "National Conversation" convened at St. James' Church, Wilshire Boulevard, by Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno.

In 1974, after an assassination attempt had left him wheelchair-bound, Wallace visited Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery and "asked for and was given forgiveness." Wallace's contrition, Glass said, was occasioned by "a transformation of his relationships and a transformation of his heart" in his association with black people.

"Justice is the bedrock of any community or nation that seeks to be free of resentment and broken relationships," Glass emphasized in his address, one of some 13 talks offered on various aspects of reconciliation as outlined for the gathering by the Rev. Brian Cox, rector of Christ the King Parish in Santa Barbara, California, whose experience in conflict resolution reaches from Washington, D. C. to Kosovo and Kashmir. "Resentment (occurs) because others have privileges that some of us do not have. And because of the denial of privileges, we become very combative in our relationships with our oppressors.

"You cannot build reconciliation on a foundation of injustice," said Glass, who spoke from his experience of building "shared privilege" and gradually breaking down stereotypes that some white commanding officers in the U.S. Air Force held about him as a black colonel, in spite of his considerable expertise in electrical engineering and missile systems. "Justice sometimes demands the redress of wrongs from the past committed against individuals, communities or nations."

Hands in healing

Glass is part of another group of 70--a cadre of clergy and laity within the Diocese of Los Angeles who self-identify as "conservative, progressive or moderate"--who have been trained in conflict resolution under an initiative launched by Bruno in 2001. As bishop, Bruno allocated funding to offer the services of these reconcilers, grouped in teams, to any diocese or congregation seeking help in addressing issues of conflict within the church.

Bruno, whose episcopate began with a local anti-violence "Hands in Healing" campaign that spread nationally, told the participants that reconciliation is the most important work they can engage: "The work of reconciliation isn't that I want to grab you, drag you here, and make you think the way I think. It takes understanding that we have a great work in the world, to be the hands of Christ in this world.

"As the Reconciliation Initiative continues, it is my fantasy that we will live in a world of understanding, nonviolence, justice and mercy for all and respect dignity of every human being," Bruno said. "Jesus Christ expressed it. Gandhi expressed it. Mother Teresa expressed it. If we believe we can love one another with that kind of energy, we will be that kind of love in the world in such a way that we will work for abundance rather than being obliterators of one another."

Hosted under the auspices of Bruno's "Hands in Healing" initiative, the "national conversation" asked participants, including several deputies to General Convention, to "get into the mindset of reconciliation vs. the mindset of 'my way at all costs,'" said the Rev. Barbara Cavin, priest-in-charge of Church of the Holy Spirit, Livonia, Michigan, and a deputy from the Diocese of Michigan.

"As people get to know gays and lesbians," Cavin said, "then blessing of same-gender unions isn't just an issue, it's people you're talking about."

Conservative absence noted

The Rev. Randolph Dales, rector of All Saints, Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, and a deputy from New Hampshire, questioned whether the gathering reached its goal of being a "national conversation" given the number of dioceses represented and the ratio of some seven conservative participants to 26 progressives plus the balance identifying as moderates.

Dales said the L.A. conversation would have been more diverse had other conservative leaders accepted invitations to attend. "But this kind of conversation is not something we should do on occasion or in crisis," Dales said. "Reconciliation should be a way of life. It's what we're called to do, the primary goal of the baptismal covenant."

"While I am convinced that an official but optional rite for blessing same-sex unions is essential for the future of the church," said the Rev. Michael Hopkins, rector of St. George's, Glen Dale, Maryland, and president of Integrity, a national organization of gays and lesbians and their friends, "I'm also convinced that events such as this one are, as well. Progressives and conservatives have no option but to learn to live together in this church of ours. My sadness was that there were no conservative leaders present. I urge them to come to the reconciliation table. Integrity is waiting for them there."

Cost of expression

But despite the low census of conservative participants at the L.A. conversation, Arthur Kusumoto, parishioner of St. John's, Kula, Maui--a deputy from the Diocese of Hawaii and trustee of the Church Pension Fund--praised the gathering. "I'm quite impressed," he said. "I have a better understanding of the issues that will be in front of us at General Convention. My aim currently is to see that we will not be divided, and hopefully we can all work together."

Among participants--who included laity and clergy, gay and straight, men and women, Anglos, Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans--some spoke to the cost of publicly expressing conservative, progressive or moderate views about liturgical blessings for same-gender unions.

"I feel a deep sadness, and I don't think it is possible to reconcile the issue," attorney Lynn Moyer of Long Beach, California, said in a plenary session. Moyer said that she has felt "disbelief at the way Christians are treating one another, and hurt, attack and hatred from liberals" who differ with her opposition to same-gender blessings.

"The issue won't go away," Moyer said. "If it passes there will be schism and the only issue that remains for me at this point is how will we reconcile parting. Will it be an angry, awful divorce or reconcile relationships allowing people to leave as friends? I feel your pain. I want you to feel my pain, too."

Focus on core values

While conversation participants spoke at times about steps and "grace" required when parties decide "to part amicably," the gathering's focus remained on reconciliation. At one point, participants drafted a resolution, intended for General Convention, that recommended the reconciliation and dialogue process to the wider church; however, consensus was not reached around the resolution, and discussion was tabled, with the understanding that it would be taken up again via electronic mail.

"Reconciliation is what Jesus calls us to," said Michael Cunningham, L.A.'s diocesan missioner for administration and mission congregations, who assisted in hosting the conversation. "In the catechism in the back of the prayer book, it's clear that reconciliation is what Jesus calls us to. Engaging in that work is a truthful and honorable way to be faithful to Jesus. And being faithful is what I seek to be.

"If people have courage," Cunningham said, "they will seek to be reconciled with one another, and will stay within the church. I think the issues that bind us together are greater than those that divide us."

Key to the discussion was a small-group exercise in which participants identified individual and collective Episcopal Church core values. Values held by individual participants were: "compassion, respect, integrity, truth, forgiveness, justice, community, spiritual growth, communion with God," while top core values identified for the church at large were: "tradition, consensus (with diplomacy), reason (with knowledge), liturgy, aesthetics, scripture, and power."

Cox, who served as one of the chairs of the New Commandment Task Force, noted that without exception, each group listed "respect" as a core value for individuals, but not for the larger church.

"It is interesting how much we reveal about ourselves," Cox told the group. "Respect is consistently listed as a group core value, but no one mentioned it for the church.

"At the heart of justice is respect. If we don't value respect we will never achieve justice," said Cox, who leads the diocesan reconciliation initiative with Cynthia Drennan, parish administrator of St. James' Church, Newport Beach; Joanne O'Donnell, a local Superior Court Judge and parishioner of St. James' Church in Los Angeles; and Michael Witmer, an attorney and parishioner of the Cathedral Center Congregation in Los Angeles.

"And when we get to what values we share, conservatives and liberals, underneath it all, value a lot of the same things."

Beyond labels

Hopkins told the gathering that, more than anything, he hates being labeled a liberal.

"I hate labels because they continue to force us to speak in sound bites and position statements and to draw lines in the sand," he said. "My reaction to the conflict in the church is similar to Lynn's [Moyer]. I feel a deep sadness. We continue to draw lines in the sand and dare one another to cross them, to define the ‘other' side. I'm frustrated."

Noting that members of his own constituency frequently criticize him for "selling out," Hopkins stressed the need for real, ongoing conversation. "You can't enter into the dance of reconciliation without the risk of taking hits from your own folks who don't understand the opportunity to have a real conversation and try to find a way to live together.

"I'm frustrated that not much of that feeling is reciprocated," said Hopkins, adding "the absence of conservative counterparts in the church who failed to be here has taken some hope away from me. It says to me that they don't believe the issues are reconcilable. And perhaps the only thing we can do is to decide how we'll part. I don't want to do that. I don't want to part ways. I don't want to live in a church when ‘liberals' and ‘conservatives' can't live together.

"That's not the church I joined some 20 years ago. It's not the church I pledged my life to at my ordination. I know my life and ministry would be diminished without you," he told the other participants.

"I know my own insistence that a way has to be found for same-sex blessings poses a dilemma for some people," he said. "I seem to be saying I want both things, and I guess I do. We can disagree and still witness to love, peace and justice in the kingdom of God."

Difficult for moderates too

Michael Russell, a parishioner of St. James' Church in Los Angeles, said that just because he's a moderate doesn't mean "I'm not as disturbed as the other speakers."

"I have no problem with people's sexual orientation, but I feel the clergy have done me a disservice. They haven't given me the theology or religious background to adequately address this issue. I'm forced to rely on the bias of my upbringing, through 12 years in Catholic schools.

"I would like to have religion provide moral absolutes or at least guidelines to teach my children. When I talk to conservatives, they think the church is trying to solve social problems through religion," Russell said.

"I've gone to the Bible, it's confusing. The Old Testament has been used to justify a lot of things that are not socially acceptable. I am married to a Caucasian woman," said Russell, who is African-American. "Less than fifty years ago, that wasn't acceptable, and people quoted Scripture about that."

A recent experience as a member of a lay discernment committee for a gay aspirant who has been in a long-time committed relationship prompted Russell to reflect more deeply about the issue.

Being moderate is hard, he acknowledged. "Where I am, on the fence, I do fear that, without providing more foundation about what we're doing. I don't understand what we're being opposed to. Is it welcoming gays into the church as a part of the church, or deciding that same-sex blessings are the equivalent of marriage? All people are not called to all sacraments. People who aren't heterosexual may not be called to marriage but that's not to say they aren't called to longer-term committed relationships."

Eight core values of reconciliation

"Collective identity and dissent are part of God's plan," Cox told the conference during his address on "Reconciliation as Moral Vision" while guiding participants through a 77-page syllabus that he prepared to support the dialogue. "It is God's intention that we have a sense of dignity, distinction and identity."

Cox outlined eight core values of reconciliation that are "like facets on a diamond," he said, "reflecting the principles taught by Jesus of Nazareth." These same eight core values formed the topics of major talks during the gathering.

-- Pluralism: Seeking unity in the midst of diversity. In her talk on this subject, Drennan likened the nurture of diversity to the art and science of bridge-building.

-- Inclusion: All are welcome, valued and desired in the spirit of agape, or unconditional love. In his talk, Cunningham spoke of "demolishing walls of hostility," ranging from the complexity of racism to the insensitive use of language. "Saying, ‘I hear you: I don't agree, but help me to understand'" said Cunningham, means "that we are kept in dialogue, and therefore kept together in Christ."

-- Peacemaking: Resolution of conflicts and disputes. Cox addressed this point in his talk titled "Conflict Resolution."

-- Justice: Following the moral absolutes given by God, such as human rights and respect. "Sharing Privilege: The Principle of Social Justice" was the topic addressed by Glass.

-- Forgiveness: Setting people and communities free from the burden of hate and the desire for revenge. Donna Machado, parishioner at All Saints, Pasadena, addressed this under the title "Healing Relationships Between Individuals and Communities: The Principle of Forgiveness."

-- Healing deep wounds: Understanding the collective memory of a community or nation and the wounds of history. Cox took up these points under the title "Facing the Truth About History: The Principle of Healing Collective Wounds." In a subsequent companion exercise, small groups identified the "greatest wounds" in the history of the Episcopal Church; their lists included racism, gender discrimination, exclusion over sexuality issues, complicity in slave trade, slavery and the Civil War, mixed messages of 19th century evangelism, sexism, inability to deal with sexuality, the Methodists leaving the church, misogyny, treatment of women and the process of regularizing women's ordination, the Pope's declaration that Anglican orders are "invalid," classism, treatment of First Nations people, and clericalism.

-- Sovereignty: In secular terms, the state's authority over its citizens and land; in theological terms, the submission of one's self to God's will. In her talk titled "Submission to God," the Rev. Anne Tumilty, priest-in-charge of St. James' Church, South Pasadena, urged participants to contemplate the role of humility in their relationships with God and other people.

-- Atonement: Finding peace with God, which leads to transformation of the human heart. John Parsons of Christ the King in Santa Barbara addressed this topic by recounting his experiences of God's forgiveness for accumulated anger, some of which was sparked by his encounter with life-and-death situations while a Marine during the Vietnam War.

The eight points were reiterated during two Saturday-morning talks; "The Basis of Unity" by Michael Witmer, and "Becoming an Instrument of Reconciliation" by Jenny Parsons of Christ the King. With her Wednesday talk on "Moral Vision," Joanne O'Donnell joined Cox in delivering the opening presentations in the four-day dialogue.

Citing Victor Hugo's remark that "There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come," Cox concluded, "Conflict over sexuality may be God's way of bringing us to reconciliation. I really believe it is an idea whose time has come."