The seventy-sixth General Convention of the Episcopal Church made headlines last week for moving forward on same-sex blessings and officially opening its doors for partnered homosexuals to serve as priests and bishops. Stacy Sauls, the Episcopal bishop of Lexington and a close associate of the presiding bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori, argued that it was long past time to do it: Over thirty years ago, he said, the church had placed pastoral compassion over Scripture, tradition, and the teachings of Jesus to permit remarriage after divorce, and it would be nothing less than hypocritical for the church not to do likewise for gay and lesbian people.
There is a certain logic to this, of course. If we’re going to set aside the teaching of Jesus for ourselves, shouldn’t we do the same for others? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” as someone once said. According to Bishop Sauls, this was the most important point he made at the convention. Arguably, it was the most important point anyone in attendance made. The Episcopal Church has now, quite definitively, decided to step out on its own, away from Scripture, tradition, and the rest of the Anglican communion. It was a bold and brave step, for with it the church has decided that it is now a church that takes its own counsel, answerable only to God. No doubt it was a matter of prayerful discernment and conscience for many, and no doubt many will shy away from drawing out the full implications of their decision. But the implications are there nonetheless. It is a brave new thing for the Episcopal Church, a brave new church on its own in the world.
The two key resolutions, D025 and C056, were passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses of the convention, the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops. The first resolution, D025, effectively gave dioceses the green light to elect bishops in partnered homosexual relationships, thus overturning the commitment of the 2006 convention to “exercise restraint” in doing so. The second resolution, C056, committed the church to develop rites of blessing for same-sex unions with the goal of bringing draft versions for approval at the next convention in 2012. In the meantime, the resolution encouraged dioceses to develop and use rites of their own, with the expectation that such on-the-ground experience will be of value in creating a set of official, churchwide liturgies in the near future.
As such, the two resolutions represent a clear and purposeful departure from the requests made of the Episcopal Church by the rest of the Anglican communion, as expressed repeatedly by all of the official bodies of global Anglicanism over the past several years. Contradicting requests for a moratorium on bishops in same-sex relationships, Resolution D025 asserts that “God has called and may call” persons in such relationships to all of the ordained ministries of the church. And, in the face of requests not to authorize public rites of blessing for same-sex unions, Resolution C056 explicitly calls for their development and authorizes bishops to perform them on a trial basis in their dioceses. It is, in short, a clear victory for those such as Bishop Sauls who have argued for the national autonomy of the Episcopal Church and the need to move forward regardless of Anglican communion requests.
That is, at least, the straightforward interpretation of the resolutions, as understood by media outlets such as the New York Times (“Episcopal Vote Reopens a Door to Gay Bishops,” “Episcopal Bishops Give Ground on Gay Marriage”), the BBC (“US Church Drops Gay Bishops Ban”), Reuters (“Episcopal Vote Widens Anglican Split”), and the Washington Post (“Episcopal Bishops Can Bless Gay Unions”). It is, additionally, how they were understood by Anglican bishop N.T. Wright (“The Americans Know This Will Lead to Schism,”), conservative groups such as Fulcrum and the Anglican Communion Institute, and the ECUSA gay rights lobby, Integrity. Susan Russell, the president of Integrity, celebrated achieving a “clean sweep" on their legislative goals, and justifiably so.
But be that as it may, the official organs of the Episcopal Church have insisted that no matter what it might look like to everyone else, actually nothing much has changed. The two ranking officers of the church, presiding bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori and House of Deputies president Bonnie Anderson, wrote in an open letter to Rowan Williams that “nothing in [Resolution D025] goes beyond what has already been provided under our constitution and canons for many years.” By that, they mean to say that since church canons already stipulate that the ordination process is open to all persons regardless of sexual orientation, and since Resolution D025 asserts that future bishops will be considered by following canonical guidelines, they have done nothing new. The 2006 resolution, they note, asked for restraint in granting “consent” to the election of partnered homosexual bishops, and since the new resolution does not mention consent, this has not actually been overturned.
If that sounds like a distinction without a difference, that may be because it is. Indeed, they admit that “it remains to be seen” how the new resolution will be interpreted by dioceses, and that some dioceses will likely understand it as granting them latitude to consent to the election of partnered gay bishops. And no wonder, because that is precisely the point of the resolution. The General Convention, which Bishop Jefferts Schori and Bonnie Anderson insist is the highest governing body in the church, has asserted unequivocally that God calls partnered homosexuals to all of the ordained ministries of the church, and it has asked the church to discern who is called to the episcopacy in this context. Bishop Sauls, for his part, argued in an official church press conference that there isn’t; that is, until they decide to consecrate another partnered gay bishop. It is, to put it mildly, difficult to see how the rest of the Anglican world will interpret this as a positive response to their requests.
As for same-sex blessings, Bishop Christopher Epting, the church’s deputy for ecumenical and interreligious relations, has asserted that despite Resolution C056 the convention actually “did not authorize any public rites” for the blessing of same-sex unions and so did not, in fact, contravene the requests made by the global Anglican instruments of unity. It is notable that this argument was not even attempted by Bishop Jefferts Schori and Bonnie Anderson in their letter. The word game here in play is to insist that while they were asked not to authorize any churchwide rites, no one said anything about unleashing bishops to make and use rites on their own. In short, Bishop Epting’s argument not only fails on its own terms (see here), but it is difficult even to take seriously.
All in all, one is left with the spectacle of the Episcopal Church’s leadership trying desperately to convince the Anglican communion and countless onlookers, by the artful use of lawyerly nuance and political hair-splitting, that they did not do what they did.
Arguably, this is the worst of all possible worlds. While one might wish that the church had not decided to leave behind biblical sexual norms, it is by now clear that this is the position of the great majority of Episcopal leadership. As such, there would have been genuine integrity in stating forthrightly that the Episcopal Church disagrees with its Anglican brothers and sisters, and that, out of their prayerful discernment and sense of God’s justice, they cannot comply with the Anglican world’s requests.
But that is not the path the Episcopal Church’s leaders have chosen. Instead, they have professed their heartfelt desire to remain full members of the Anglican communion, but on none but their own terms. As the Windsor Continuation Group and many others in the Anglican world have warned time and time again, the bonds of trust in Anglicanism have been frayed far past the breaking point in recent years. Many Anglicans around the world no longer believe that they can trust the Episcopal Church to say what it means and do what it says, and the actions of the seventy-sixth General Convention, along with the present stance of church leadership, will almost certainly add fuel to the flame of Anglican discord and mistrust. Honesty and clarity would have been better, but it appears too late for that now. Even for those such as Rowan Williams who have bent over backward to give the most charitable reading of the Episcopal Church’s actions, this may be a bridge too far.
Rowan Williams, for his part, is widely expected to issue a statement in the near future on the Episcopal Church’s actions. In an Anglican communion that seems ever closer to spinning out of control, many are looking to him right now for clarity and guidance. In the past, Archbishop Williams has spoken of “constituent” and “associate” membership to describe the coming covenanted reality of the Anglican communion, with the constituent membership comprised of those churches and dioceses who covenant to walk together on matters of faith and morals, and an associate group of Anglicans who decide instead to place a higher premium on national autonomy. Many hope that Williams will apply this language to the present situation, at least provisionally.
So too, many hope that Williams will reaffirm his commitment to the Anglican Covenant in its present form, the Ridley-Cambridge draft, as well as reconsider the Episcopal Church’s role in the continued covenant process. Given the actions of General Convention, it is clear that serious questions must be raised about the extent of the Episcopal Church’s commitment to the process in the first place.
Finally, the many Episcopal bishops and parishes that have long sought faithfully to remain Anglican are now hoping that Williams, along with the Anglican primates, will give them a place to stand and a way to move forward with clarity and hope. Both clarity and hope are in short supply right now in such dioceses as Dallas, Albany, and South Carolina, not to mention traditionally minded parishes in places like Philadelphia and Lexington. Many ordinary, faithful Episcopalians who seek to remain Anglican are worried about what the future may hold. In short, the Communion Partner bishops and rectors are hoping to find a true partner in the archbishop of Canterbury.
What then of the Episcopal Church’s future? With regard to its continuing relations with the larger Anglican communion, its leadership has a choice to make—either honesty and clarity about their decision to walk apart, or continued obfuscation and maneuvering. With respect to its own members who still seek to walk together with Canterbury and the rest of the covenanted Anglican world, the church’s leaders have a choice to make as well. Either they can graciously allow conservative Episcopalians to do what is necessary to walk with the rest of the Anglican world, or they can follow the imperial road of majority tyranny, coercion, and lawsuits.
As for whatever is left of the Episcopal Church after the dust settles, the future is unclear. By all indices, the church is graying fast and shrinking faster, attracting precious few youth and young families, its progressive reputation notwithstanding. One of the buried stories of the seventy-sixth General Convention is its decision to make drastic cuts to the church budget, including its entire evangelism department. Much of this, of course, is attributable to the economic downturn, but some of it is not—just enough of it to be disturbing. If present trends hold, in the not-so-distant future many of its members will be either in nursing homes or cemeteries, with devastating effects on the numerous small dioceses and parishes that are just barely holding on. And in far, far too many places, especially the seminaries, theological depth and immersion in the Scriptures and the catholic tradition is a thing of the past.
In short, the sad parallels to be drawn with the shriveled, largely post-Christian fate of the United Church of Christ are there without number. Of course, the winds of revival, mission, and theological rigor may yet return one day to the Episcopal Church. Even now, there remain vibrant congregations, exciting scholars, and hopeful young people who believe in the church’s future. And the counsel of Gamaliel still holds true. But against such great odds, it is a brave soul indeed who would entrust her soul to the General Convention and take the Episcopal Church’s future and faith as her own.
For such a small church to venture forth from Scripture’s norm, to leave behind the faith of its fathers, to live at the very razor’s edge of all of catholic Christendom, whether Anglican or no—whatever this is, it at least requires courage. And no doubt there are many within her number who truly and genuinely possess it. However Erastian, bourgeois, and politicized Episcopal conventions may seem these days, one hopes that there are at least some left who are willing to say: This is the will of God, and may God judge me ever so severely if I lead his sheep astray. Any who do not feel the force of this are both foolhardy and fools, damnably so. Those who do feel it run the risk of hubris, of taking God’s place for their own. But those who take their stand with fear and trembling, having prayerfully discerned the mind of Christ, and act in conscience out of love for their brothers and sisters are, I do not doubt, truly brave. It is only, one hopes, a very brave new church that would set off on its own, a lonely new prophet in a brave new world.
Jordan Hylden, a former junior fellow at First Things, is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School.