Discussion of human sexuality will again occupy debate at General Convention
Deputies and bishops are being asked to reconsider the 2006 convention's stand that the church "exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion."
The statement was widely acknowledged as applying to gay candidates and was titled Resolution B033.
In addition, and not for the first time, the convention faces proposals for developing an authorized liturgy for blessing same-sex unions.
Voluntary commitment to a proposed Anglican covenant that is partly a reaction to controversies over homosexuality is also on the convention's table even though a final text of that agreement will not exist in time for convention.
Consideration of the first two issues will take place against the backdrop of recent news that the House of Bishops has commissioned its second theological study in nine years on homosexuality.
In addition, House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson wrote to the deputies June 29 that it would be asked to consider convening in two rare "committee of the whole" sessions the afternoon of July 9 and the morning of July 10 "to exchange information and viewpoints among the deputies" and to inform the legislative committee that will consider all B033 resolutions.
Concern over the reaction from the wider Anglican Communion about eventual decisions made about Resolution B033 and same-gender blessings likely also will hover over the Anaheim meeting.
The Episcopal Church began studying issues of human sexuality in 1964, when General Convention said that "changing patterns in human action have raised inquiries concerning the church's position on sexual behavior" and called for data gathering and studies that would result in recommendations to the next convention. Since then, the church has published 10 officially sanctioned studies and reports on human sexuality, including the 2005 "To Set Our Hope in Christ," which summarizes the history of the debate and the changes in perspective the church has experienced.
The newest study by a subcommittee of the House of Bishops Theology Committee follows the main committee's 2003 report The Gift of Sexuality: A Theological Perspective.
Theology Committee chair and Diocese of Alabama Bishop Henry Parsley said the new study was "designed to articulate theologically a full range of views on the matter of same-sex relationships in the church's life and to foster better understanding and respectful discernment among us."
The study is due to be complete in 2011. Controversy greeted the announcement, in part because the names of the group appointed by the committee to conduct the study will not be announced until, in Parsley's words, "the work has reached the appropriate stage." Some observers questioned the need for another study, and some wondered what impact the work might have on decisions in Anaheim about Resolution B033 and same-gender blessings. Internet reports listing six of the eight committee members were not officially confirmed.
"I have no problem with studies being done, but you don't have to wait to respond to your baptismal covenant to respect the dignity of every human being while waiting on some committee to tell you how to do it," said Louie Crew, co-chair of the Diocese of Newark’s convention deputation.
He said he "would cry foul" in Anaheim if anyone suggested to the convention that Resolution B033 could not be reversed until the study was completed.
Other members of convention will oppose efforts to change the church's position as stated in the resolution.
The Rev. James Simons, chair of the Diocese of Pittsburgh's deputation, for example, said he wanted to see B033 stay in place "for the sake of the communion, for the sake of wider fellowship."
"I don't think it's perfect, but I think it has been helpful in carrying conversations and having dialogue with other provinces," Simons said, adding that affirming the resolution "will send a message that we want to continue to be a part of the Anglican Communion -- that we want to try to heal whatever wounds have been incurred over the past several years -- and I think it would go a long way toward showing good faith to the wider communion."
The genesis of Resolution B033 lies in General Convention's 2003 decision to consent to the ordination of Gene Robinson, an openly gay and partnered priest, who was elected bishop by the Diocese of New Hampshire.
The 2006 B033 resolution was the convention's response to the invitation of the 2004 Windsor Report for the Episcopal Church to enact a moratorium on electing and consenting to the consecration to the episcopate of people living in same-gender unions "until some new consensus in the Anglican Communion emerges."
The Windsor Report also called for a moratorium on "public rites," but some Episcopalians say that the context of the issue has changed. In 2005, civil partnerships and same-gender marriages became legal in England and Canada, respectively.
In the United States, the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire allow same-gender marriages or are due to by Jan. 1.
The convention will consider a resolution (B012) to give bishops in those states leeway in performing such marriages. Sponsored by Maine Bishop Steve Lane, the resolution asks convention to extend "generous discretion … to clergy in the exercise of their pastoral ministry" to adapt the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage and Blessing of a Civil Marriage rites in the Book of Common Prayer for use with same-gender couples.
Such adaptation would have to take place under the discretion of the bishop and they would give the House of Bishops annual written reports on their experience each March and to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music for its report to the 77th General Convention.
In addition, civil union and domestic partnership laws exist in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia.
Despite California voters' rejection of the state's same-gender marriage law, 18,000 such marriages performed before the voters' action remain in force, under a recent ruling by the state Supreme Court, which uphold the voters' decision. The District of Columbia and the state of New York recognize same-gender marriages performed elsewhere.
Three proposed resolutions facing the Anaheim convention would alter the church's canons on marriage to make them gender neutral, which their sponsors argue would reflect changes in civil marriage laws. They say such canonical changes will allow clergy to officiate at same-gender marriages and civil unions. Another resolution would require priests to record civil unions in their parish registers.
Previous efforts to have the General Convention ask for the development of authorized liturgies for blessing same-gender unions have failed, but the 2003 meeting allowed dioceses the option of allowing such rites. A few months before that convention, the communion’s provincial leaders or primates had said that "it is necessary to maintain a breadth of private response to situations of individual pastoral care."
The Anaheim meeting again will face requests for an official churchwide rite. A typical trajectory for the approval of such a rite could run at least six years, including trial use followed by committee and convention approvals.
Beginning that process could have repercussions locally as well as across the communion, Pittsburgh's Simons warned. "I’m concerned that if something like that should happen at this convention that the sort of schism that occurred in Pittsburgh will occur in other dioceses as well."
The former leaders of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and a majority of its members voted last October to leave the Episcopal Church in a series of ongoing disputes over theology and biblical authority, including the church’s responses to human sexuality issues.
Simons is president of the diocese's standing committee, now the ecclesiastical authority in the diocese. The coalition of Episcopalians who remain in the diocese is "mixed theologically," he said.
"There are still parishes that are undecided -- there are people in parishes that are still undecided about where they want to be," said Simons, a seven-time deputy who is the House of Deputies chair the convention's Committee for the Dispatch of Business. "I think that of same-sex blessings would look precipitous and would cause more people to leave."
Those sorts of concerns led to the idea of developing an Anglican covenant to find unity among difference and deal with provinces that make decisions that offend other members of the worldwide fellowship. The idea of a covenant has it roots in the Windsor Report.
Prior to the May meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), many observers expected a final covenant text to be available by convention.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, however, had said that the Episcopal Church needed more time to consider whether it ought to sign onto it.
A small working group appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury has solicited provincial responses by Nov. 13. The working group will meet Nov. 20-21 in London and report to the Standing Committee meeting Dec. 15-18. The Standing Committee is a group of elected representatives of the ACC and the Primates Meeting.
In response to that request, Anderson, Jefferts Schori, and Rosalie Ballentine, the Executive Council member who chairs the council's task force on the Anglican Covenant, wrote to General Convention deputations and bishops June 29 asking for their thoughts on the draft by September 1. The task force and the council will use the comments to formulate a response during its October meeting.
"We believe that this work will best be accomplished in light of work and resolutions passed at the 2009 General Convention, so we are asking that deputations make their responses following convention," the women wrote in the letter.
To guide the requested diocesan study of the Ridley Cambridge draft, the council's task force has developed a four-question study guide.
However, the convention will have to deal with at least one resolution about the covenant. The Rev. Dan Martins and Christopher Wells, deputies from the Diocese of Northern Indiana, and the Rev. Bruce Robison, a Pittsburgh deputy, are sponsoring Resolution D020 that would have the Episcopal Church voluntarily abide by the terms of a covenant as proposed in the current draft.
The proposed resolution also calls for a special task force to consider what constitutional or canonical changes the Episcopal Church would have to make to sign onto a covenant permanently.
The General Convention has never promised to sign onto a covenant.
The ACC's actions in Jamaica do not make his resolution moot, he said.
Instead, they "actually turn up the flame" because, without a final text to for the convention to consider, bishops and deputies have the choice of voluntarily committing to the covenant, he said.
He and his co-sponsors will advocate for the resolution in Anaheim because agreeing to "voluntarily abide by the terms of this covenant for the next triennium" would be "a token of good faith as the Episcopal Church," Martins said. He added that his resolution carried no "promises or commitments beyond that."