Reframing the Conversation: The Anglican Communion and Human Sexuality
Utah’s Episcopal Diocese is speaking out on behalf of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered individuals in the Anglican Communion, issuing a lengthy statement of support that will be taken to a meeting of the House of Bishops in Texas this week:
“We in Utah have been strongly supportive of gay and lesbian people in our life and in our leadership,” says Reverend Canon Mary June Nestler, press officer of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, “and we wanted to issue a statement that would both encourage marginalized people – people marginalized by their sexual orientation – to encourage them in the face of hearing so much that’s negative about them from our Anglican brothers and sisters worldwide.”
Nestler notes that the 2003 ordination of a partnered gay man as Bishop of New Hampshire has led some church leaders to urge the Archbishop of Canterbury to expel The Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion. However, Nestler says the statement by the Utah Diocese is earning positive response since its release yesterday:
“I have already had emails of support from all over the country; we issued this statement on a listserv as well,” Nestler says.
It is believed that the Epsicopal Diocese of Utah is the only diocese whose deputies and leadership have offered such a response to the wider Anglican Church. Full statement:
A Statement by the Deputies to General Convention 2006, Leadership, and Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah
March 13, 2007
Ye are not now to learn, that as of itself it is not hurtful, so neither should it be to any man scandalous and offensive, in doubtful cases, to hear the different judgement of men. Be it that Cephas hath one interpretation, and Apollos hath another; that Paul is of this mind, and Barnabas of that. If this offend you, the fault is yours. Carry peaceable minds, and ye may have comfort by this variety. Now the God of peace give you peaceable minds, and turn it to your everlasting comfort.
(Richard Hooker, “Learned Discourse of Justification”)
The Utah deputation to the General Convention 2006 and other diocesan leaders met on February 22, 2007, at the invitation of the Tenth Bishop of Utah, The Right Reverend Carolyn Tanner Irish, to review and discuss the Primates’ Communique from Tanzania. After several attempts to respond to its various points, we felt called to state who we are as a Church and how we came to be where we are on matters of great importance — rather than simply to respond to descriptions and opinions expressed by others.
Therefore this document seeks to reframe the conversation of matters now dividing the Anglican Communion worldwide.
In an effort to produce a document of readable length we have not explicated the issues as deeply as their seriousness demands. In the hopes of presenting these comments for wider readership and reflection, we make them concisely and offer them prayerfully.
The Baptismal Covenant
The Book of Common Prayer 1979 of The Episcopal Church, pp. 304-305.
Our people seek to live out the covenant of Holy Baptism. This is the foundation of our identity as Christians, and the vows we make in this covenant are based on our understanding of the essential relationship between God and humanity.
The covenant is placed at the heart of the baptismal liturgy in the context of the Apostles’ Creed. Echoing the earliest known liturgies of the ancient Church, the covenant calls each baptized person into faithfulness in prayer, fellowship, eucharistic celebration, repentance, and proclamation of the Good News, asking for commitment in the questions which follow the Apostles’ Creed. The two final questions are these:
Q: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Q: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
(We note with appreciation that the substance of these questions is affirmed but differently stated in Sections 3 and 4 of the Report of the Covenant Design Group.)
We cannot answer “I will, with God’s help” with integrity if we do not love the neighbor who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered (hereafter “gay and lesbian”), if we do not strive for justice for all persons, and if we do not respect their dignity by our words and actions. Our Lord Jesus Christ himself modeled a ministry of care and respect for persons marginalized by their societies. Bigotry, discrimination, and hatemongering have no place in the life of the baptized.
Our Baptismal Covenant describes our Christian commitment, solemnly sealed by water and the Holy Spirit and regularly reaffirmed by each of us in liturgy. We will not lay it aside for the sake of an outward unity. We are not willing to bear this cost, nor to set the cost on the backs of lesbian and gay people.
The context of the covenant with the Apostles’ Creed is important here. The Anglican tradition has over the centuries resisted the sometimes forceful calls to become a confessional Church, as in some Protestant traditions. We hold firmly to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds as our definitions of doctrine. We have adopted versions of the Book of Common Prayer in our provinces which we believe rightly reflect the doctrine of the creeds.
The creeds do not address particular ethical or moral issues, but formulate what is essential to the faith about the nature and work of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. We do not accept any attempt to elevate particular moral questions and answers to the level of essential doctrine. The Church has always been free to establish its teachings and discipline with respect to moral issues in ways faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This freedom should not be diminished by temptations to expand core doctrines with litmus tests of so-called “orthodoxy.”
Defining and Redefining Authority
The Holy Scriptures, Polity, and Documents of Meetings
The Holy Scriptures
Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? …
Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?
Judgments about ethics by appeal to the Holy Scriptures alone are foreign to our Anglican traditions, which have always included other sources of authority in their deliberations. The seminaries of The Episcopal Church have taught biblical studies for more than a century by employing the hermeneutical methods of modern biblical criticism.
These methods require that Holy Scripture be interpreted not in their literal sense alone (nearly impossible, since each of us brings our own lenses to the interpretive task), but with reference to scholarship in linguistics, history, narrative, culture, anthropology, archaeology, and other disciplines which, in combination and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, may reveal a yet undiscovered richness in the text.
The interpretation of Holy Scripture is impoverished by narrow understandings and by the selective application of such understandings to complex moral issues. There is no single biblical morality. Few biblical scholars would claim that a monochromatic approach to ethics and human behavior exists in the Holy Scriptures.
For these and other reasons Anglicans have historically rejected sola scriptura in the narrow sense that some continental Reformers understood it. We hold that the Holy Scriptures are indeed the Word of God and do contain all things necessary to salvation, as our ordination oath states, but this written Word of God is a witness to our Lord Jesus Christ, not Christ himself. Or, to state it differently, following Anglican theologian John MacQuarrie, the Holy Scriptures are not the revelation of God; Christ is the revelation of God, and the Holy Scriptures are the record of that revelation.
The Holy Scriptures, written in antiquity, could not and did not foresee many of the ethical questions we face in our age. We cherish the revelation of God which comes to us most perfectly in Christ, by whose Mind and in whose perfect example all our biblical interpretation must be prayerfully tested.
Christ’s risen presence and God’s Holy Spirit assist us in the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures as communities gather both in liturgy and in synod. Synods, solemnly and prayerfully met, have historically held the weighty responsibility of interpreting the sacred texts as they formulate the beliefs and actions of our provinces. The General Convention bears this responsibility, as do the highest assemblies of each of our provinces.
Unity in essentials.
Diversity in nonessentials.
Charity in all things. (Augustine of Hippo)
We are wary of setting forth any new design for our Communion which creates supra-provincial bodies capable of directing or legislating for our provinces. Recent disagreements concerning human sexuality have demonstrated that the hope of finding a worldwide path acceptable to all on this or other major issues may be elusive (and, we believe, may not at all times be desirable).
We are called to demonstrate the values of living with diversity while still seeking to discover the unity Christ alone can give. Unity cannot be forged violently or artificially out of the fires of dissent. It is a gift of Christ fervently to be prayed for and thankfully to be acknowledged in those places across the Communion where the fruits of our cooperative ministries are so richly evident.
We value and uphold the rights of provinces to provide for their own episcopate, locally adapted, and to create provincial canons and structures that serve their people. We do not wish to become a centralized Communion, even one focused on the so-called Instruments of Unity (or Instruments of Communion). We note that these Instruments allow for precious little participation by lay persons and even less for women, who are not yet called to leadership or even voice in many places across the Communion.
We are concerned that the Communion is addressing proposals to change our polity substantially, driven by the tensions around issues of human sexuality. We believe this will set a dangerous precedent. There will come other issues that have the potential to divide us. These ought not to be resolved by redefining our structures each time they emerge, nor can one newly-created structure hope to anticipate all future demands.
Provincial autonomy has served us well thus far precisely because it has not demanded uniformity. It has relied on the exercise of affection, not law, to bind us. The depth of our worldwide conversations, and until recently their generally irenic spirit, demonstrate how well autonomy works when member provinces and their leaders are committed to the exercise of respect among equals. Lack of such commitment and practice does far more damage to the bonds of affection than do the contents of any specific issues of debate.
We affirm, with the ancient Church, the principle of respect for diocesan and provincial boundaries, which is foundational to the integrity of provincial relationships. Permission is required for any bishop to exercise ministry in another diocese. Degradation of this principle weakens the whole.
Documents of Meetings
Documents and resolutions that emerge from the Lambeth Conferences, meetings of the Primates, and working groups have value in our ongoing discourse, but they have been recently accorded an authority they simply do not have. Members of the General Convention of The Episcopal Church 2006 heard the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion assure us that the Windsor Report was one step in a process which will take years to blossom fully. We know that the Lambeth Conferences’ resolutions have no legislative force, and that no province is required to take upon itself any demands made beyond its own boundaries (and, indeed, some provincial canons make this expressly illegal). Such is the current nature of Anglican polity.
We are concerned about a creeping authoritarianism, both in the claims made by the groups that produce the documents and also in the manner they are employed in worldwide discussion. In places it is noted that while such documents have no legal force, they are spoken of nonetheless as representing the “standard of teaching” of the Anglican Communion or as bearing a “moral force.”
We regret that the documents themselves are being used as if they already have definitive moral and juridical force across the Communion. Authority cannot be claimed by itself. It must be recognized and accepted by those whom it governs. The process of acceptance to which The Episcopal Church and all provinces have been bidden has only just begun. It may be strongly argued that The Episcopal Church has in fact addressed what has been asked of us through our churchwide structures with greater fidelity than other provinces.
We are well aware that languages and cultures across the world speak of gay and lesbian persons and the concepts of human sexual behavior differently. Some languages have no words for what the English terms mean; some cultures describe no similar concepts.
The Holy Scriptures do not speak of what we describe in The Episcopal Church as loving, faithful, monogamous, life-long commitments of two persons of the same sex, nor do they speak of the intimate sexual lives such committed persons may express with one another in their relationships. We must therefore look more deeply within as well as beyond the Holy Scriptures for guidelines that may be brought into dialogue with those passages of Scripture usually employed to address matters of sexual intimacy. Sustained study, dialogue, and prayer are critical to understanding the mystery and gift of human sexuality. This Church has offered to the Communion a study entitled To Set Our Hope On Christ, which speaks at length of these complex issues.
Some cultures have not yet engaged in public discussion of the issues on any significant level because of religious or ethnic tensions within their communities or because of cultural norms or taboos. We are fully conscious that respectful dialogue and education about human sexuality cannot happen with ease in many places for various reasons.
Nevertheless, we believe the Church must take leadership in this. We are conscious that many provinces where dialogue and education are possible have not yet undertaken such study. We urge the Primates of the Anglican Communion to engage as a body themselves, and to offer opportunities to their peoples, for serious study of the scholarship produced in the last decades by researchers in the medical and human sciences as well as the work of a broad spectrum of theologians.
No true education can take place without hearing lesbian and gay voices in scholarship and in person. It is deeply distressing to us that gay and lesbian people are being spoken about and not with.
We hold firmly that each person is a child of God, beautifully and wonderfully made. We do not sanction the use of any language in our worldwide discussion or from our leaders that demeans, demonizes, demoralizes, or damns people who are gay or lesbian. We are ashamed that any in our midst have spoken with words that are hurtful and even shameful in our debates about human sexuality.
Language is powerful. Words, including religious words, can and have incited violence against the gay and lesbian children of God. No person should be spoken of with a single-identity “tag” meant to define, often in demeaning ways, the whole person.
For these sins we ask God’s forgiveness and beg our Communion to repent of any participation in this verbal abuse, the power of which to escalate into violence is all too well demonstrated.
At the same time we acknowledge and repent of our culture’s part in the degradation of human sexuality and the ways this has affected other countries, particularly through the entertainment industry. Many of the truly immoral dimensions of sexual behavior, including abuse, infidelity, pornography, exploitation, promiscuity, and violence, have no doubt stemmed from this general cheapening. Such behaviors are not to be found solely among people of any one sexual orientation, however. We do not condone any of these behaviors, yet we understand why many in the Communion may be reluctant to credit any words on sexual morality from the West.
Finally, mindful of our commitment to respect the dignity of every human being, we hope that all Primates and other bishops will work to ensure that pastoral care is provided for all their people, including gay and lesbian members of every province.
We note that the Internet, so useful a tool for human communication, has served both those who would truly be in dialogue across the globe as well as those who would wield it as a weapon. The Internet has the capacity to amplify the voices of a few and to misrepresent the positions of others. While it gives voice to those previously excluded from debate, it can also allow people to hide behind its anonymity. Its speed and its tendency to suggest urgency lend themselves neither to thoughtful theological inquiry nor, at times, to the dissemination of accurate information.
There is no doubt the Internet has shaped the conversation on human sexuality worldwide. It has brought many points of view to the fore. It has also forced our Communion to make quick responses to momentous issues. While the Church has never been known for moving with particular dispatch, its employment of the Internet as the primary locus and voice of the current conversations has contributed in large part to the sense of urgency the Communion feels. The artificial pressures of polity and theology at high speeds are now propelling the Communion to issue demands that The Episcopal Church make responses out of season with our constitutionally sound and canonically-bound processes of decision-making, processes which have served this historic Church well for more than two hundred years.
These demands for nearly immediate responses misrepresent or ignore our polity. As is only becoming clear to some across the Communion, our House of Bishops may not speak for the Episcopal Church definitively. Our House of Deputies, composed of equal numbers of lay and clergy persons from each diocese, must participate and concur in decisions that bind this Church through our own Constitution and Canons and in our relationships worldwide.
Our ongoing dialogues with other provinces of this Communion will benefit from a more accurate understanding and acknowledgement of the polity of The Episcopal Church. The Communique requests that our Bishops make an unequivocal common covenant that (they) will not authorize any Rite of Blessing for same-sex unions in their dioceses or through General Convention…and confirm that the passing of Resolution B033 of the 75th General Convention means that a candidate for Episcopal orders living in a same-sex union shall not receive the necessary consent…unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the Communion.
Our bishops are bound by the decisions of the General Convention of this Church. They may not, even by common covenant amongst themselves, agree to do otherwise. They may, of course, individually exercise the latitude allowed them in canons and in General Convention resolutions. But they may not covenant to act unilaterally to clarify or sidestep the processes of General Convention and to frustrate the freedom and intent of the Constitution and Canons of this Church.
We respectfully present these thoughts and concerns to the wider Church, praying that they may assist in reframing the debates away from the narrow consideration of human sexual conduct and toward the humanity of those persons who are gay and lesbian, the place of Holy Scripture richly interpreted in our moral decision-making, and the structures of our communities through which we seek to live in the light of Christ.
We encourage our Presiding Bishop, The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, to foster the formation of networks with Primates who are supportive of the actions and directions of The Episcopal Church. Their collective voice will assist the Communion in understanding that the issues we have spoken of in this paper have support in other provinces and are not solely expressed by many in The Episcopal Church.
We express our desire to continue in the bonds of affection that tie us by the Spirit’s tether, not by the shackles of our own making. We continue to pray that the Anglican Communion may be a worldwide witness to the saving grace of Jesus Christ in the lives of all its diverse peoples.
O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the earth, and sent your blessed Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near:
Grant that people everywhere may seek after you and find you; bring the nations into your fold; pour out your Spirit upon all flesh; and hasten the coming of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(The Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 100)
The Deputies to the General Convention 2006
The Reverend Canon David E. Bailey
The Reverend Adam S. Linton
The Reverend Susan G. A. Wiltsey
Steven F. Hutchinson, Esq.
Mr. Russell P. Babcock
Ms. Karen Cramer-Van Winkle
Col. Jay P. Stretch
The Canon for Ministry Formation
The Reverend Canon Mary June Nestler
The Members of the Standing Committee
The Members of the Diocesan Council
The Tenth Bishop of Utah
The Right Reverend Carolyn Tanner Irish
The Alternate Deputies 2006
Toni Marie Sutliff, Esq.
Ms. Nancy Appleby
Ms. Ann B. Ellingson
Ms. Barbara Losse
The Rev. Cn. Pablo Ramos
The Rev. Suzanne Duffield
The Rev. R. Michael Mayor
The Rev. Steven Andersen