October 19, 2004
The Report of the Lambeth Commission on Communion, entitled the Windsor Report, was released to the public yesterday at a news conference at Saint Paul's Cathedral in London. The Archbishop of Canterbury established the Lambeth Commission in October 2003 at the request of the Anglican Primates, requesting "consideration of ways in which communion and understanding could be enhanced where serious differences threatened the life of a diverse worldwide Church." The report is substantial in its content (93 pages, with 107 footnotes) and significant in its contribution to the ongoing conversations about the present and future of the Anglican Communion. I am grateful for the thoughtful, careful, and comprehensive nature of this report. I commend it to you for your prayerful consideration and for the many conversations I anticipate we will have in response to the report and its recommendations.
In the report's Forward, Archbishop Robin Eames, Primate of All Ireland and Chairman of the Commission, writes, "This report is not a judgment. It is part of a process. It is part of a pilgrimage towards healing and reconciliation." Further on he writes, "the report is offered in the prayerful hope that it will encourage the enhanced levels of understanding which are essential for the future of the Anglican Communion."
In anticipation of receipt of the Commission's report, I joined my Episcopal colleagues in distributing "A word to the Episcopal Church from the House of Bishops," dated September 28, 2004, as we committed "to a gracious reception of the report in a spirit of humility and to a willingness to learn how we might best be faithful and responsible partners in the Anglican Communion." This is the spirit in which I am reading and responding to the report and its recommendations.
The conviction that communion is both the very nature of God and God's gift to us is a conviction I strongly embrace. It is a gift we are meant to receive, embrace, seek to more deeply comprehend and ultimately give expression to in the spirit of Christ’s reconciling love. Our Presiding Bishop said in his initial response to the Windsor Report, "A life of communion is not for the benefit of the church but for the sake of the world." In the spirit of Hymn 537, to embrace and live more deeply into God's gift of communion is to "bring Christ to the world." My initial read through the Windsor Report suggests to me that it invites us more deeply into the gift of communion and for that I am profoundly grateful.
As I believe you know, I have a strong commitment to the ministry of blessing Holy Unions that is part of our life here in Vermont. The section of the Windsor report on "Public Rites of Blessing of same sex unions" is of particular interest to us here in Vermont and so, initially, I want to offer some specific reflection on that section. I do so not to the exclusion of the rest of the report, but rather because already I am being asked to comment (by the media and others) on this particular section in light
of our policies and pastoral practice here in Vermont.
Section 136 of the report includes the statement that the Episcopal Church (along with the Diocese of New Westminster in Canada) "took synodical [General Convention] action to authorise public Rites for the Blessing of same sex unions." I think this is misleading. The Diocese of New Westminster can speak best to its own situation. However, the reality is that the General Convention of the Episcopal Church has not authorized any liturgies for the blessing of same gender unions. The 2003 General Convention resolution CO51 states that those dioceses exploring and experiencing liturgies celebrating and blessing the union of same gender couples "are operating within the bounds of our common life." I think this is an important distinction to make and understand. Bishop Paul Marshall of the Diocese of Bethlehem, and author of that particular portion of CO51, recently re-stated the understanding and intention behind those words:” I know that the text was designed to say that while this Church cannot now authorize such rites, it can tolerate their existence, giving the Spirit room to work and teach us one way or the other."
The Windsor Report expresses criticism with regard to the action of General Convention resolution CO51, and to any authorization of liturgical rites by bishops for the blessing of same gender couples, principally on the ground that there has not been sufficient consultation with other Provinces of the Anglican Communion. It maintains that such action "goes against the formally expressed opinions of the Instruments of Unity [the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates' Meeting] and therefore constitutes action in breach of the legitimate application of the Christian faith as the churches of the Anglican Communion have received it, and of bonds of affection in the life of the Communion, especially the principle of interdependence" (Section 143). It is important that we listen to this critique and engage in discussion around it with others throughout the communion.
Here in Vermont, in response to the pastoral needs of both our clergy and gay and lesbian couples seeking to have their unions blessed in the context of their faith communities, we provide policy guidelines and liturgical texts for trial use. We ask clergy officiating at Holy Unions to use these texts, so that we might have a common frame of reference for reflecting upon our experience of blessing Holy Unions. We intend to offer that concrete experience to the larger church.
Since the Windsor Report calls upon those "engaged in the process of discernment regarding the blessing of same sex unions to engage the Communion in continuing study of the biblical and theological rationale for and against such unions” (Section 145), I trust that our continuing experience here in Vermont, as well as the published report of our Task Force on the Blessing of Persons Living in Same Gender Relationships will be contributions to that engagement. The report can be accessed on the web at http//www.dioceseofvermont.org/Orgs/TfonBlessings.html.
The Windsor Report invites/recommends bishops who have authorized "public Rites of Blessing of same sex unions to express regret that the proper constraints of the bonds of affection were breached by such authorization. While I believe the liturgies we made available to clergy and couples in Vermont for their pastoral use do not rise to the level of canonical authorization, I can see how others might view our action differently. I do, in the spirit of reconciliation that the Windsor Report invites, express my regret for any breach of the bonds of affection that others have experienced as a result of our actions in Vermont and express my deep desire to be in honest conversation with those who disagree with these actions so that we might deepen those bonds of affection. Such a breach was never my intention.
I also regret the reality that gay and lesbian members of our church continue to experience closed doors and a cold shoulder from some as they seek to offer their gifts and experiences in service to the gospel. I appreciate the opportunity this report offers to reflect more deeply upon these aspects of our common life.
The work ahead of us in response to this report is substantial. It begins with a full and thoughtful reading of the report as we seek to "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" its content. We each face a choice about whether we use the report as a weapon or as a tool. My intention is to use it as a tool toward reconciliation and communion and, in the spirit of the Baptismal Covenant, as a tool for living more deeply into our promise to "strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
The Rt. Rev. Thomas C. Ely,
Bishop of Vermont