The "Moving Forward, Exploring a New Path to Full Inclusion" conference at Christ Church Cathedral in Houston in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas was meant to change the way people in the diocese approached consideration of the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the life of the church.
Organizers pointed out that the Episcopal Church has been talking about the issue since 1964. This conversation has happened at General Conventions, at House of Bishops meetings, and, more rarely, in individual dioceses and parishes.
"We wanted to find a way to help [the Diocese of] Texas have those conversations and to contribute to the national conversation, but in a way that tries to engage those who disagree and does not drive them away," said the Very Rev. Joe Reynolds, dean of Christ Church Cathedral.
"We realized after General Convention 2009 that what we were doing in the Diocese of Texas around the issue of inclusion was not working," said Laurie Eiserloh of Austin. "We had to try something different."
So on October 2, 2010, the parish hall of Christ Church Cathedral was filled almost to capacity with people eager to learn how to talk with one another across the divide of their differences on the issue of human sexuality.
Eiserloh and Reynolds are two of several conference organizers, a self-described "group of Texas Episcopalians who favor the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people in the life and ministry of The Episcopal Church."
Eiserloh said they were encouraged by a resolution passed at the February 2010 Diocesan Council meeting that said, in part, "the 161st Council of the Diocese of Texas . . . claims unity in the midst of our diversity and . .. that all sorts and conditions of humanity, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, nationality, or sexual orientation, and especially all of God's children entrusted to our care, are loved beyond measure by God in Christ, are welcomed and valued in our institutions, mission, ministries, and parishes, and are a blessing to our collective life as we engage together in mission and ministry."
The council also resolved that "all people in our communities and their relationships [should] receive the pastoral care, time, attention, and honor they are due as God is revealed in and through them and as God works to change us all into a holy people."
Dean Reynolds presided at the opening Eucharist on the night of Oct. 1. Bonnie Anderson, president of the House of Deputies, preached about the hard work of living in community and of the dangers of trying to live without community and of letting fear separate one from another.
"There is God. . . mixing us up together in a holy mess of people who we would never in all our lives choose for ourselves. . . putting us into impossible situations, with impossible people and asking us to do impossible things and then giving us the impossibly amazing gifts to do these impossible things," she said.
The next morning, Anderson and Sally Johnson, Anderson's chancellor, presented the history of the Episcopal Church, its polity, its canons and constitution, and its relationship to the Anglican Communion. They also discussed the 45-year-long movement toward full inclusion of LGBT people that covered all the various statements, studies, resolutions, and calls for dialogue.
The Rev. Lisa Hunt, rector of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Houston, presented three articles as examples of conservative viewpoints on how the church might move forward despite its difference on human sexuality. They included one from James A. Baker III, former U.S. Secretary of State and a member of St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, and one by St. Martin's rector, the Rev. Russell Levenson Jr., both published in the Spring 2010 edition of Virginia Theological Seminary's News From the Hill; and one by Bishop Edward S. Little II of Northern Indiana published in The Living Church in September 2009.
During a panel on "inclusion conversations that work," the Rev. John Bedingfield of St. John's Episcopal Church, Silsbee, in rural East Texas told of the experience he and the rector had when they decided to carry on their personal conversations about full inclusion in front of the parish and anyone else who wanted to come listen. What began with literal fear and trembling ended with the realization that people are longing for such modeling of civil conversations, he said.
"You have to move beyond fear, and you have to make space for the Holy Spirit," he said.
Anne Brown, director of communications for the Diocese of Vermont, said one key to the success of conversations in Vermont was in shifting from the focus on sex to a focus on the love manifested in the relationship.
Seattle-based Jason Sierra from the Young Adult and Campus Ministries of the Episcopal Church talked about the ways different generations approach the idea of inclusion. For conversations about inclusion to work, "they must be multi-generational, they must be narrative and they must be now," he said. "We can't afford any more suicides of young people."
Finally, Tamika Caston, an educator and spiritual director in Houston, told of her and her partner's work at continuing a conversation with their respective families about their relationship, one made more interesting by the fact that Caston is African American and her partner is white.
The conference also considered the work done for the House of Bishops' Theology Committee to write "Same Sex Relationships in the Life of the Church" and the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music's work on collecting and developing theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same-sex relationships for consideration at General Convention in 2012 as called for in Resolution C056 from the 2009 meeting of convention.
Many of those attending were from parishes or organizations calling themselves Conversation Partners. James Cowan of Houston, another of the organizers, said that while some Conversation Partners groups have among their members those who agree and disagree on the issue of full inclusion of LGBT people, nevertheless "they support heartfelt and respectful conversation. Our diocese is hungry for meaningful dialogue about how to make our church fully inclusive of lesbians and gay men who are committed Christians while maintaining unity with our brothers and sisters who are struggling to reconcile traditional views on sex and marriage."