Nearly 200 advocates of a rite of same-sex blessing gathered at Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis over Veterans' Day weekend for a part pep rally, part prayer meeting, part strategy session, preparing for what will surely be the most controversial issue of the next General Convention of the Episcopal Church.
Claiming the Blessing (CTB) is a collaboration between three groups-- Integrity, Oasis and Beyond Inclusion--with a primary witness to, by, and for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgendered (LGBT) individuals in the Episcopal Church. The group shares partnership with The Witness magazine as well as other organizations.
The gathering included representatives of 38 states, with almost a quarter of the participants serving as deputies to the 2003 General Convention.
The conference opened with a Eucharist at which the Rev. Susan Russell, executive director of CTB, preached to what she called "a persistent people [who] belong to a most persistent God." In a pointed reference to the American Anglican Council's "God's Love Changed Me" campaign, launched at the 2000 General Convention in Denver, Russell said, "Our persistent God does indeed seek to change us...but the change God desires for us is not our sexual orientation but our theological orientation. It's not our gender identity but our spiritual identity."
Still walking, after Lambeth
In her opening remarks, the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton, a member of the CTB steering committee and rector of St. Paul's in Chatham, New Jersey, traced the origins of the gathering to the 1998 Lambeth Conference, which passed a resolution declaring homosexuality to be "incompatible with Scripture."
"We came away from Lambeth deeply wounded and limping, but still walking," Kaeton said. "We saw what they did...We came away outraged, and remain outraged, that some members of this elite group of people in purple shirts dare to claim that they, and they only, speak the mind of the world-wide Anglican communion. What arrogance! What cheek! Last time I read the Outline of Faith [in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer] there were four orders of ministry: bishops, priests, deacons, and the laity."
"At this moment, we are focused and coalesced around a single task: to obtain authorization for the development of a liturgical rite of blessing of the faithful, monogamous relationship between two adults of any gender at General Convention 2003," Kaeton said. "Would someone please tell the bishop of Pittsburgh that we do not bless 'sexual relationships'? We are blessing faithful, monogamous relationships!"
Mutual deference for the sake of unity
The Rev. Michael W. Hopkins, president of Integrity, said that the shape of the rite of same-sex blessing that emerges from the next General Convention will not be all that advocates might hope for. "We know and accept that such a rite will not be used or even allowed to be used universally," Hopkins said. "We are quite deliberately advocating for a rite whose use would be optional for the sake of the unity of the church we love.
"We believe in our heart of hearts that our relationships are equal to heterosexual relationships, whether or not the term 'marriage' is appropriate for them, and so, in our heart of hearts, we believe the rite used to publicly celebrate them should be equal. But that is not what we are asking for. We are compromising, moderating our position... in the spirit of a resolution from the 1920 Lambeth Conference (Resolution 9:VIII): 'We believe that for all, the truly equitable approach to union is by way of mutual deference to one another's consciences.'"
Hopkins said he had several messages to deliver. To the Episcopal Church he said that gays and lesbians "are not going anywhere¡¦Gay and lesbian Christians make up a significant portion of the Episcopal Church," he pointed out. "We will continue to do so after General Convention 2003 no matter what happens. We will not attempt to get our way by threatening to leave. I ask those on all sides of this debate to make this commitment as well."
Hopkins assured conservative Episcopalians that "we do not desire for you to go away" from the Episcopal Church. He invited the president of the conservative American Anglican Council to sit down with him and "discuss ways we can proceed with the debate about our differences without tearing each other down or apart."
"We do not desire to force same-sex blessings on you or anyone," Hopkins added. "We do challenge you to stop scapegoating lesbian and gay Christians for every contemporary ill in the church, particularly for our current state of disunity or the potential for the unraveling of the Anglican Communion." He said that "scriptural interpretation and authority, including the very different polities that exist in different provinces of the Communion and whether or not local autonomy is a defining characteristic of Anglicanism" are "just one tip of that very large iceberg and if sexuality went completely away tomorrow, the iceberg would still be there."
Theology of blessing
Hopkins then presented the gathering with a draft document addressing the theology of same-sex blessings, asking that participants critique it in small groups. "The Theology Piece," as Hopkins called it, is a compilation of resources designed for use in congregational, diocesan and community settings. It includes a "Theology of Blessings" statement and a Q&A pamphlet, and will eventually include a curriculum exploring the "theological, pastoral and ecclesial implications of full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church."
"To bless the relationship between two men or two women is ... to declare that this relationship is a blessing from God and that its purpose is to bless God, both within the context of the community of faith," the document declared. "If the church believes that same-sex relationships show forth God's blessing when they are lived in fidelity, mutuality, and unconditional love, then this blessing must be owned and celebrated and supported in the community of faith."
Blessing promises, not behaviors
In a section entitled "Clearing up some questions," the document states that in blessing same-sex relationships the church is "blessing the persons in relationship to one another and the world in which they live. We are blessing the ongoing promise of fidelity and mutuality. We are neither blessing orientation or 'lifestyle,' nor blessing particular sexual behaviors."
The church must continue to wrestle with whether marriage should be limited to relationships between men and women, the draft document said, adding that "to wait until it is solved, however, in order to celebrate the blessing of a faithful same-sex relationship is pastorally irresponsible and theologically unnecessary." The document calls same-sex blessing "sacramental" in the sense that "everything in creation has the potential to be sacramental--to mediate the presence/blessing of God."
"We decided on getting feedback and being collaborative, but we didn't think through how to put it back together. I'm going to filter it and have a draft ready for the Claiming the Blessing board sign off on at our meeting in January," Hopkins said. "The Theology Piece" is posted at Everyvoice.net, with an online forum to collect feedback.
Uniting to get beyond the issue
Participants then broke up into small sessions to address concerns such as the challenge of preaching an inclusive Gospel, finding theological resources for gay & and lesbian "family values" in the church, and doing evangelism in the gay and lesbian community, including sponsorship of a gay-friendly Alpha program.
Organizing for General Convention 2003 attracted the attention of most participants, as Beyond Inclusion board member Peggy Adams and Edgar K. "Kim" Byham of the Diocese of Newark, both attorneys, explained the workings of the legislative process and led a discussion on the importance of raising the blessings issue in 2003.
Joining Hopkins for a session on "GLBT Advocacy at the International Level" was Richard Kirker, general secretary of the UK-based Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement [LGCM], who was raised in Nigeria. Hopkins discussed the establishment of an Integrity chapter in Uganda in 2000--a process he acknowledged as fraught with difficulties, many of them centering around cultural differences with regard to money as well as sexuality. Integrity has sent almost $50,000 to the Ugandan chapter, he said.
Hopkins pointed out that the experience of Ugandan gays and lesbians in their own country is parallel to the experience of Uganda itself under colonialism. "Ugandan gays enter a subjugated class," he said, cut off from their society's cultural mainstream.
"I dream about Integrity being able to send mission teams to different provinces," Hopkins said, to do mission projects and "meet people," not to change minds but to build relationships.
At a session on denominational politics entitled "Being a Responsible Church Politician," Executive Council member Dr. Louie Crew, the founder of Integrity, said same-sex blessing was "not the cutting edge issue for the church, nor should it be." "This issue of same-sex unions is stealing time from our common goal of mission. It's important to unite to get beyond it," said Crew.
Crime of silence
At a banquet on Friday night, Washington bishop John Bryson Chane delivered a stirring after-dinner address that brought participants to their feet. He blasted dioceses of the church for not following through on the sexuality dialogues mandated by several resolutions of General Convention. "Had open, honest, consistent dialogue, study, and debate been the norm within the Episcopal Church over the last 25 years in dealing compassionately, biblically, pastorally, and theologically with issues of human sexuality, then I believe we probably would not be meeting here tonight in preparation for Minneapolis in 2003," Chane opined. "In many ways the Episcopal Church has been guilty of one of humanity's greatest crimes...the crime of silence."
Chane challenged the Episcopal Church to answer three questions in Minneapolis. First, he said, the church must decide whether it is "fair, theologically sound, and pastorally appropriate to inhibit the informed judgment and pastoral care of good priests" with reference to same-sex blessings in their congregations. Second, he asked whether it is "an open and faithful pastoral response to the gift of the Holy Spirit when a congregation's discernment of a person's call to the ordination process is disregarded by a diocese simply because that person happens to be gay or lesbian and is living in a monogamous, committed same-sex relationship." Finally, asked Chane, "is there any grace or compassion in forcing celibacy upon a gay or lesbian person as the only option if they are to be ordained to the diaconate or priesthood?"
Chane also criticized the Episcopal Church for "centering its will and vast resources on internal jurisdictional disputes and canonical conflicts" when the world is threatened by "pandemic disease, abject poverty, religious wars, racism, misogyny, and illiteracy."
"In the last 24 hours, 15,000 people died from AIDS in Africa. Tomorrow and every day thereafter--another 15,000 people daily will die of AIDS," Chane said. "How can we as a church be so engrossed in our own internal battles that we are immune from this horror?"
The Rev. William Countryman, professor in Biblical studies at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, gave the conference's final address. "I've noticed that people who object to what we are working toward here often speak of it as the work of a 'gay/lesbian lobby,' the functional equivalent of the 'outside agitators' of the not so distant past," Countryman said. "The church ought to be delighted, of course, if it found people outside the church clamoring for its blessing. But I don't see that happening," he added, to chuckles from the audience.
Countryman drew a distinction between the "Geneva tradition" of Puritanism, whose theological heirs, he maintained, are modern U.S. evangelicals, and the broad stream of "classical Anglicanism." "For members of this theological tradition, purity of doctrine trumps God's mandate for Christians to stick with one another through thick and thin," he said.
"We look to some like radicals. In reality, we are in the odd position of being the principal advocates of classical Anglicanism today on this continent," Countryman proclaimed to applause from the gathering.
"Well-meaning people sometimes say to me, 'Why can't the gay and lesbian community just hold back on this point so the church can get on to more important things in its mission?'" Countryman continued. "To that, my answer is, 'Spiritually, there may not be anything more important'... This blessing of unions is not finally, for us, about social convenience, or status, or even justice. It is about our access to God."
Former Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning was the celebrant at the conference's closing Eucharist, with the Rev. Robert Taylor, dean of St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle, preaching. Browning was presented with Integrity's Louie Crew Award at the banquet.
By Jan Nunley