What consequences will decisions have for domestic and overseas mission?

August 31, 2003

NOT FOR 27 YEARS, since the Episcopal Church decided to ordain women as priests, have the decisions of a General Convention reverberated so soundly across the nation and throughout the Anglican world. This time it was about a gay priest recently elected a bishop and about whether same-gender relationships should be blessed.

With the Anglican world poised to respond, bishops and deputies consented to the Diocese of New Hampshire's election of the Rev. Canon Gene Robinson, who has lived with a male partner for 13 years. Although convention did not authorize preparation of a common liturgy to bless same-gender unions, it did recognize officially that blessings take place in some dioceses with episcopal approval while the church continues "prayer, study, and discernment on the pastoral care of gay and lesbian persons" .

Convention stepped back from preparing an official rite and that was taken as an encouraging sign by some bishops affiliated with the conservative American Anglican Council. "I think it is something we can go home with," Bishop William Skilton, suffragan bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina, told Episcopal News Service. "It is certainly better than what was originally proposed."

But the decision unleashed peril-predictors as well as Pollyannas. 

Some overseas primates swiftly delivered statements that the decision had severed the Episcopal Church's ties with others in the Anglican Communion. After a telephone conversation with Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold at convention, Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury called the communion's 38 primates to meet in London Oct. 15-17 to "find ways forward which can preserve our respect for one another and for the bonds that unite us."

The American Anglican Council, which coordinated much of the opposition, announced that its adherents would meet in Plano, Texas, Oct. 7 to 9 "to strategize for the future." Several dioceses have organized fall meetings to decide what they want to do.

Reaction immediate
Archbishop Peter Akinola, primate of the 18-million member Anglican Church of Nigeria, largest and fastest growing province in the communion, immediately issued a statement: "We are astonished that such a high level convention of the Episcopal Church USA should conspire to turn their back on the clear teaching of the Bible. ... The present development compels us to begin to think of the nature of our future relationship." 
Archbishop John Mahiaini of Kenya called for Methodists and Presbyterians in his country to merge with Anglicans "to better resist Western influences."

In a letter to primates addressing some of their questions, Griswold said: "I must say in the strongest possible terms that if I believed in any part of my being that the consent to this election [of Robinson] was unfaithful to an authentic way of reading Scripture and contrary to the leading of the Holy Spirit, I could no longer serve as the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church."

"How we have been shaped and formed as Christians and the context in which we live have a great deal to do with how we interpret various passages in the Bible and the weight we give them in making moral decisions." 

Concerning the blessing of same-sex unions, Griswold told the primates that the resolution General Convention approved "recognizes the reality of a variety of local pastoral practices, without either endorsing or condemning," and calls for "continued prayer, study and discernment" under his direction. The church's position on holy matrimony has not changed, he stated.

Ecumenical and interfaith observers and partners also responded. Bishop Stephen Blaire, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' committee for ecumenical and inter-religious affairs, said the decisions "have serious implications in the search for Christian unity and for the work of our bilateral Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue." 

The head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America saw it differently. "I am convinced these challenges will not overwhelm us because of our firm belief that the Holy Spirit is at work among and with us," said Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, whose own church may face a vote on same-gender blessings as early as 2005.

The most challenging responses, however, came from bishops, dioceses and congregations within the Episcopal Church. Across the country, diocesan bishops issued statements and reflections, some explaining their votes, some expressing hope, some distancing themselves and their dioceses from the decisions. A few appealed to the primates overseas to stand with them in opposition. Some parishes announced they would withhold contributions to the national church. 

"As a matter of conscience, our diocesan pledge will be held in escrow," said the Rev. Martin Minns to his parish in Truro, Va. At Trinity Episcopal Church in Columbus, Ga., the vestry voted to withhold the almost $7,000 it sends to the Diocese of Atlanta. 
In the Diocese of Texas, "lots of people" have decided to stop paying their pledges, according to Carol Barnwell, director of communication. "One person wanted their prepaid pledge paid back to them."

Most encouraged a wait-and-see stance. Many bishops issued statements upon their return home from General Convention, either with words of reassurance or invitations to join discussions. "Evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics, liberals, conservatives, progressives, moderates, broad church and low church folk can indeed serve Christ together if we are willing to listen to one another and God," wrote Bishop Thomas Shaw and his two suffragan bishops to Episcopalians in Massachusetts, with whom they asked to meet on Sept. 14th.

In an Aug. 20 letter to all clergy and bishops, Griswold wrote that, "regardless of one's point of view of the outcome of various votes, General Convention was almost universally perceived to be a well-ordered and caring community with sensitivity to the feelings of others and with mutual respect."

Nation watched events unfold
"We've gotten a lot of publicity," said Therese Yeiser, a deputy from Lexington, Ky., "and that is going to cause a lot of people to check out the Episcopal Church." She reported that CNN and Fox News had put a link to the Episcopal Church website on their sites, "and our church website had over 2 million hits."

When a reporter suggested to Bishop Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island that the controversy and media attention were overshadowing other church work, Wolf replied, "It may be distracting, but it is an extraordinary opportunity for us to show the tremendous depth and breadth of this church. We are not a church that purports to have all the answers. We are a church that wrestles with the questions. And you all [the press] are telling this to the world. What an incredible opportunity!"

The Rev. George Werner, who was re-elected president of the House of Deputies, had a similar reaction. "This Sunday may be one of the greatest if not the best missionary Sundays in the history of the church," he told deputies at the convention's closing session.

The Rev. Susan Russell, spokeswoman for an advocacy organization for same-gender blessings, said she returned home to California to find a packed church, unusual for August.

Thousands gathered for Eucharists in a convention exhibit hall that was transformed by lighting, liturgical art and banners into a worship space.
Photo by Dick Snyder

What will happen is anyone's guess. Bonnie Anderson, newly-elected vice president of the House of Deputies and six-year chair of convention's Standing Commission on Program, Budget and Finance, isn't overly concerned about the withholding of funds. 

"I don't think there is going to be any major crisis or any major effect to our ministry," she said. "If everybody [threatening] withheld, I think we'd have about a $2 million dollar effect out of $146 million."

But, she added, "We would hate to lose that. Every giving is significant."

Convention's major decisions
Debates over Robinson's election and same-gender blessings threatened to overshadow other decisions made to set the course for ecumenical relations, ministry development, seminary training and young adult ministries for years to come.

Many resolutions reflected conventions decisions concerning 20/20, the ambitious movement that seeks to build member commitment and church growth through the year 2020.

Saying that more can be done for mission if less is spent on administration, deputies and bishops unanimously approved a reorganized $146,395,000 budget for the coming triennium.

Ministry canons changed

By unanimous vote, the bishops adopted an omnibus resolution from the Standing Commission on Ministry Development that overhauls the Title III canons governing lay and ordained ministry.

The revisions are designed to streamline discernment, candidacy and ordination; to promote the importance of formation of all baptized members; to clarify the types and functions of licensed ministries; and to create a single canon for priesthood. Although bishops rejected the most controversial measure -- direct ordination to the priesthood -- the resolution will have major implications for the chief forces guiding ministry development: diocesan commissions on ministry, standing committees and bishops. 

For the first time, children were formally invited to attend and participate in some aspects of General Convention. At one Eucharist, 9-year-old Brenna Macdonald of Alaska read from Galatians: "In Jesus Christ, you are all children of God." Clusters of her peers sat at tables and participated in worship.

The dioceses of Puerto Rico, with its 30,000 baptized members, and Venezuela, where the church began as an Anglican chaplaincy to the British in 1830, were officially welcomed into the Episcopal Church. They join the dioceses of Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador Central, Ecuador Littoral and Honduras in Province 9. 

By the end of convention, the presiding bishop said he was impressed by convention's mission energy. "I am heartened that we have endorsed the Millennium Goals of the U.N., that we have taken seriously what it means to be a community of reconciliation, not only within ourselves and between ourselves, but globally, and our commitment to an increased global citizenship," he said.

"I think it is a real sign of our mission energy and our willingness to look outward and not simply inward."

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