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Robinson consent sent to House of Deputies

By David Skidmore
8/1/2003
Corrected on: 8/1/2003

[Episcopal News Service]  The election of the church’s first openly gay bishop may be decided Sunday afternoon in the House of Deputies.

In the aftermath of an intense marathon hearing at the Hyatt Hotel Friday morning, the Committee on the Consecration of Bishops recommended the consent resolution (C045) on Gene Robinson, bishop-elect and current canon to the ordinary of New Hampshire, be adopted by convention.

Adhering to instructions from the Rev. Carolyn Keil-Kuhr, co-chair of the committee, the crowd of bishops and deputies and reporters packing the hotel ballroom refrained from applauding or cheering the announcement. The committee’s hope is that their decision “is received with grace,” said Keil-Kuhr.

The measure is expected to be reported out to the House of Deputies for action on Sunday afternoon and, if adopted, go to the House of Bishops as early as Monday morning.

The two-hour hearing held in the Hyatt’s Nicollet Ballroom drew more than 300 bishops, deputies, reporters and supporters of Robinson and the Diocese of New Hampshire. Nearly equal numbers of speakers signed up to speak for and against consent. When the allotted time ran out, 19 had spoken for Robinson and 18 against. Most major papers and national news programs were present. CNN carried coverage of the consent at the top of its broadcast throughout the day.

Robinson elected for his gifts, say supporters

The Rev. Randolph Dales, deputy from New Hampshire and one of five diocesan representatives invited to speak before the general testimony period, said his diocese had chosen to call someone who they knew had the talents to be a bishop. His status as a gay man was not part of the decision, he said.

“The choice was a person, it was about the ministry, not an issue. We called Gene Robinson for his humanity, not his sexuality,” said Dales who also serves on the diocese’s Standing Committee.

His point was echoed by other New Hampshire representatives who talked about Robinson’s gift as a leader and his teaching and pastoral skills. “Never in my life have I worked with a person in whom I have more confidence than I do of Gene Robinson,” said New Hampshire’s current diocesan bishop, Douglas Theuner. Throughout his 17 years as bishop, Theuner, who will be retiring in March 2004, has known Robinson, first as a consultant to the diocese and for the past 15 years as his canon to the ordinary. 

Describing him as a man of uncommon ability and proven worth, Theuner said Robinson had always conducted himself “with the greatest integrity.”

The delegation’s youngest member, 15-year-old Jenny Lombardo of St. Paul’s, Concord, talked about how Robinson had inspired her to greater involvement in the church. “He respects youth and he simply cares,” she said.

Also speaking was Robinson’s daughter Ella who shared a statement from Robinson’s former wife, Isabella (Boo) McDaniel. In her statement, McDaniel took pains to correct a British newspaper story widely circulated that claimed her former husband had abandoned her and their daughters to take up a relationship with a gay man. The truth is they chose to end their relationship after years of dialogue and reflection, she said, and eventually chose to release each other from marital vows in a private service conducted by a close friend.

She maintains close connections to Robinson and his partner, Mark Andrews, she said, and they continue “to cherish each other’s families, heritages, and values.”

As for Robinson’s suitability for the episcopate, McDaniel praised his strength of character, his intellect and organizational ability, pastoral sensitivity and charisma, which she said “will draw more people to the church than will leave due to his sexuality.”

Marriage affirmed as sacrament

During questioning by the committee, Robinson said he was making an effort to reach out to members of his diocese opposed to his election. He has appeared at several forums and has been making unannounced Sunday visits to congregations for the past few weeks. Noting that there are three or four people in virtually every parish troubled by his election, Robinson said he was asking clergy to join him in reaching out to them, “just as on the international level it will be all of our jobs to reach out to the Anglican Communion.”

Taking issue with New Hampshire’s emphasis on the personal qualities of Robinson as opposed to his sexual orientation was committee member Dean Mark Lawrence of San Joaquin who stressed that sexuality cannot be divorced from the matter.

Asked by Lawrence about God’s purpose in creating sexual beings, male and female, Robinson said he believed that God gave humanity sexual nature so “we might express with our love the love that is in our hearts” and which is lived out in marriage. The mutual desire between two humans “is just a glimpse of the desire that God has to be in relationship with us,” he said, and why this love, as expressed in marriage, is a sacrament.

Robinson said that he experiences this same love in his relationship with his partner and through it “experiences, just a little bit, for the kind of never ending, never failing love that God has for me.”

Church’s teaching threatened, claim critics

Most of Robinson’s critics, particularly the bishops, distinguished their appreciation for Robinson as a gifted leader and Christian from his suitability to be a bishop of the church. Bishop John Howe of Central Florida, disputing Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold’s position in a recent letter to the church’s bishops that the election did not change church teaching, said past statements, studies and resolutions have “unambiguously” affirmed the church’s teaching that sexual intimacy must be confined to heterosexual marriage. “In commending to the church as a wholesome example a person who is sexually intimate in a relationship other than holy matrimony is a massive repudiation of that teaching,” said Howe.

Bishop David Bena, suffragan of Albany, said a Robinson consent separates the church from traditional teaching and “threatens to shatter the Episcopal Church as we know it.” He justified his statement citing the overwhelming vote at the 1998 Lambeth Conference upholding traditional teaching on marriage, the House of Bishops Theology Committee report urging the church to avoid legislative action on same-sex unions, recent statements from the primates of the communion, and British priest Jeffrey Johns standing down from his appointment as bishop of Reading.

Said Bena: “We will lose vast numbers of congregations, members and revenue, and this act will show us not to be the prophets of the Anglican Communion but American mavericks going our own way.”

Stating he was “humbly” asking Robinson to step down as bishop-elect, Bena warned that proceeding to a vote, up or down, “will simply rupture the Episcopal Church family.”

Ominous warnings were also given by Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh and Bishop Edward Little of Northern Indiana. “The departure from the Christian consensus will separate us from the one holy catholic and apostolic Church,” said Duncan, “and in the matter of the historic faith we will separate ourselves from the teaching about apostolicity.” 

Given the church’s fourth-century ruling that a council erring on one matter of faith invalidated all other actions of that council, Duncan warned that chaos created by a consent adoption would free many church members to “disregard all actions of this convention: its resolutions, its canons, and its budget.”

An adoption by convention, he said, “will invite intervention precisely because the council has erred and the only court of appeal is outside this nation,” referring to the primates and other provinces of the Anglican Communion.

Noting the difficulty in offering pastoral care to gays and lesbians and still remaining faithful to scripture, Bishop Little warned that confirming Robinson’s election would effectively end dialogue on the issue. “We will have set aside the moral consensus of the Christian church throughout the ages, and there will no turning back,” he said. “It will be a definitive moment.”

The tragedy of that action, he added, will be the likelihood of fostering “deeper and more disastrous conflicts” over the church’s faith and order.

Fear of schism overstated, supporters say

Warnings of schism and impaired communion were countered by Robinson’s supporters who pointed out that the Episcopal Church’s vote in 1976 admitting women to the priesthood and the Massuchusetts diocese’s 1989 election of Barbara Harris as the first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion had not resulted in a lasting break with other Anglican provinces. “Instead it has made us stronger and a more vibrant church with the full inclusion of women in ministry,” said Massachusett’s Bishop Thomas Shaw, arguing the same could hold true for extending the church’s full ministry to gays and lesbians.

At the 1998 Lambeth Conference, Harris and the other 10 women bishops were warmly welcomed, he said. “Far from being spurned, far from causing schism, they were the toast of the town.”

The potential for experience to transform people’s understanding of scripture and tradition was also shared by the Rev. Mariann Budde of Minneapolis. When she was called to her first parish, Trinity Church in Toledo, Ohio, in 1988 the members had never experienced a woman priest. Some were confused and stayed away, but after several months they came back and told her they believed she was called to the ministry. The same could hold true for Robinson, she said.

It is not the Episcopal Church that is abandoning the historic catholic and apostolic faith, argued the Rev. Howard Anderson of Minnesota. In keeping with its 20/20 mission, the Episcopal Church is at a place where it could spread its doors wide open to welcome all people into its ministry, he said, and the confirmation of Robinson would be one sign of that.

The Episcopal Church, unlike the Roman Catholic Church, is known for its unique charism of inclusivity, he said. “We ordain women. We know the primary sacrament is baptism, not ordination.” The committee needs to think hard about this charism, he said, “and decide whether we will be the last catholics — big ‘c’ or little ‘c’ — or whether we will be watered down Roman Catholics trying to defend some moral like the Pharisees, or dressed up Presbyterians.”

Issue moves to deputies, bishops

At the end of the testimony the committee withdrew to an adjacent room for a closed-door discussion lasting 15 minutes. In her report on the committee’s decision, Keil-Kuhr did not indicate whether the committee’s vote was unanimous, saying only that it was taken by secret ballot. She also reminded their action is not a final decision. It will be up to both houses to approve the consent, she said.

The plan, confirmed at this morning’s news briefing, is for the resolution to be placed on the House of Deputies' daily legislative calendar for Sunday afternoon. If adopted there, the measure goes to the House of Bishops for action, possibly as early as the Monday morning legislative session.

In his remarks following the committees vote, Bishop Chester Talton, Los Angeles, bishops chair, said the six bishops on the committee found the hearing to be fair and the groundwork laid for a full discussion in the House of Bishops.

With 106 bishops with jurisdiction in the church, the consent may require up to 54 affirmative votes to pass. In the consent votes on two other bishops-elect yesterday, the votes totaled 99 and 102 in the house. The bishops customarily have voted after the consent to seat the new bishops and give them voice during the sessions.


 

Corrections to this Article
8/1/2003   The Rt. Rev. David Bena, suffragan bishop of Albany, who offered testimony in Friday morning's committee hearing, was misidentfied in a previous version of this story.