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CONNECTICUT: Diocese called to end distracting conflict, permit pastoral blessing of same-gender unions

By Mary Frances Schjonberg


[Episcopal News Service]  The Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, meeting in its 222nd diocesan convention October 20-21 at Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, heard its bishop call for an end to strife in the diocese and a change in the way gay and lesbian relationships are treated in the diocese.

In his convention address Bishop Andrew D. Smith updated the diocese on the conflict between five congregations and himself over his 2003 consent to the election of Gene Robinson as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire.

"We are not before the Panel of Reference, the federal case has been dismissed, and the ecclesiastical charges remain under investigation," he said.

Smith explained that the Archbishop of Canterbury withdrew the congregations' complaint from the Panel of Reference because the petitioners had also initiated civil and ecclesiastical litigation.

"The Archbishop and the Panel reasoned that the civil and ecclesiastical suits seek judgment through adversarial action, whereas the purpose of the Panel of Reference is to seek reconciliation," Smith said.

Smith said he is being investigated by the Episcopal Church's Review Committee for the
Ecclesiastical Court for the Trial of a Bishop over his use of the canons to remove the leadership of Saint John's, Bristol, Connecticut. He told the convention that attorneys for the committee are in the diocese this month as part of the investigation.

He also reported that the lead attorney for members of the congregations has told the diocesan attorney that they will file a new suit in Connecticut state court demanding a settlement with the bishop. "Settlement? Settle what? Settle with us or we sue?" Smith asked in his address. "That sounds like a threat to me, in the way of the world, unworthy of Christ."

"What most hurts, in addition to our severely strained relationships in Christ, is the active nurturing of dissension and the diversion of our attention and assets away from our mission and ministry," Smith said.

He urged an end to the strife.

"The passive nonsupport and the active sabotage of the diocese by the leaders of these five congregations and those who support them from the outside are a scandal in the community and before the Lord, and they cannot continue," he said.

"If you cannot tolerate the life and openness of the Episcopal Church, then honorably move on. Above all, stop the whining and the destructive behavior which diminish all of us and the Lord Jesus. This Church has gospel work before us, and we have been more than patient, and the attacks continue and it is time for us to say, enough!" he added.

Smith said the root of the conflict is "what kind of church this will be, what our gospel values and imperatives are, how we shall live and minister. Shall we be a church of generosity, or of judgment? The focus in this question is whether this church will accept as full and valued members persons who are followers of Jesus and who are gay and lesbian."

Smith called for a change in the diocese's policy prohibiting clergy from blessing same-gender unions.

"At the heart of the matter is whether we as a Church will welcome and embrace and serve with and care for and bless persons who are homosexual and partnered as cherished and fully accepted members of the Body of Christ," he said.

"I must be clear that we are not creating or authorizing a new sacrament. Nor are we giving a green light for public ceremonies that look and sound like weddings. Nor am I authorizing any public rite or liturgy," he said.

The decision to bless a specific union will be one made by the clergy and lay leadership of the couple's congregation.

Smith said that he would not allow priests to officiate at the civil unions of gay and lesbian people, as is now allowed by Connecticut law, in part because "our Church has not made provision in our polity to address the issue." However, he said that the couple requesting a blessing should have already entered into a state-defined civil union.

The bishop wondered if the church "can rethink whether clergy should officiate as state agents at weddings, and we might back out of the costly, costumed pageant industry that cares more about perfect settings than faith."
Saying his mind was changed on the issue by "the witness of the focused faith and pure charity of so many gay and lesbian companions who seek lives blessed and lived in Christ . . . and their clear witness to the love and power of the risen Christ," Smith  asked that people who become involved in such blessings share their experiences so that the diocese can learn from them.

"I am well aware that we have visiting us members of our [Anglican] Communion who may differ significantly from what I am offering today. Your presence is a living sign of the breadth and grace of the Anglican Communion," Smith said. "I ask and pray that, if you disagree with me, yet you will be tolerant, and allow us room, and pray for us in these times."

Those guests included Bishop Dinis Sengulane of Lebombo, Bishop John Danbinta of Gusau in Nigeria and Bishop Ernest M. Shalita, who served 44 years as priest and bishop in the Diocese of Muhabura in Uganda.

He thanked them for their presence at convention, adding that he believed "new awareness and relationships within the Anglican Communion are a blessing which has grown directly from the theological engagements of the past years."

The full text of Smith's address is available here.

Resolutions passed by the convention included ones to:

  • recommend a 3.5 percent increase in the 2007 minimum salary schedule for clergy;
  • adopt a $5.2 million diocesan budget for 2007;
  • amend the diocesan constitution to name elected lay deputies and alternates to General Convention as ex-officio members of the diocesan convention;
  • call on Connecticut's governor and its state legislature to "address the state's health care crisis in a comprehensive manner and adopt a plan to achieve universal health care in Connecticut;"
  • urge the state legislature and Governor to restore rental-assistance programs, "appropriate substantial funds" from the state's Housing Trust Fund for construction and rehabilitation of moderate- and low-income housing, and mandate towns and municipalities to require developers of multi-unit housing projects either to set aside some units for affordable housing or contribute a portion of the costs to an affordable housing fund; and
  • urge the U.S. Congress to enact legislation to expand temporary workers' programs to include all persons who enter the U.S. and engage in meaningful work, and overseas workers offered employment in the U.S. through formal contractual arrangements in response to the labor needs of specific sections of the economy; give such workers certain rights, benefits and the option of seeking permanent resident status; and urge Connecticut Episcopalians be urged to "advocate in the public arena for human rights for immigrants and undocumented workers."

The convention failed to pass resolutions that would have:

  • urged Smith and the Standing Committee "publicly and openly disassociate themselves and the Diocese of Connecticut from the limitation on the consecration of bishops contained in B033, passed at General Convention in June 2006," and
  • urged Smith to "take the steps necessary to delay the election of a Bishop Suffragan until the church at large rejects the limitations on consecrations contained in B033."

More information about the resolutions are available here. The Diocese of Connecticut consists of 67,000 Episcopalians worshipping in 177 congregations.