Bishops Continue Search for New Style of Leadership at Meeting in Panama

Episcopal News Service. October 7, 1993 [93168]

At their annual meeting in Panama, the bishops of the Episcopal Church continued their search for a new style of relating with each other -- and tested that style in reacting to drafts of pastoral teachings on two of the most difficult issues facing the church, racism and sexuality.

After visiting the Panama Canal and a welcoming new bishops on September 24, Panama's Bishop James Ottley welcomed the 137 bishops at the opening session by stating that this first meeting of the house outside of North America was "a powerful witness and a sign of partnership," and came at a particularly appropriate time since the Episcopal Church was celebrating 140 years of contributions to the life of Panama.

In moving the house towards its agenda, Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning reminded the bishops that since the 1991 General Convention in Phoenix had exposed some deep rifts in the house, the bishops had "made a covenant to be in relationship in a different way." He quoted from a statement at the 1992 special session of the house at the Kanuga Conference Center in North Carolina when the bishops said, "We resolve to define ourselves primarily as a community of prayer, worship and biblical and theological reflection in which to give and receive one another's gifts, and to seek God's will for our lives and our work as the servants of the church."

In keeping with the style they developed at Kanuga, the bishops met around 15 small tables for prayer, Bible study and discussion.

Browning warned that in dealing with the issues of racism and sexuality "we are going to have our comfort level tested." While the bishops came with "different points of view, concerns and gifts" and "different understandings of why we are on this road anyway," Browning said that the bishops also had some basic agreements. When bishops talk about building community, he contended, it is "in the deep sense of koinonia [community], not in the cozy sense of backslapping camaraderie."

In an effort to protect the developing sense of community, Browning announced that the planning committee had decided to close even the plenary sessions to staff and the press.

Beginning with the personal

The racism committee used an overview of the Episcopal Church's relationship with its ethnic communities and a personal inventory to pull bishops into a deeper discussion of the issue before moving on to a draft of the proposed pastoral teaching.

"We made a conscious attempt to enter into the realities of racism without just giving a document for reaction," said Bishop Ed Lee of Western Michigan, co-chair of the committee. He said that by "holding our own feet to the fire" and by sharing personal experiences in small groups, the committee hoped to provide a model for dioceses and parishes to address the issue of racism.

The pastoral teaching is part of an emphasis on racism over a time period covering three triennia beginning with Phoenix, observed Bishop Arthur Williams of Ohio, the other co-chair of the committee. He said that the reaction to the draft made it clear that it still needed clearer definitions of racism, bigotry, bias and prejudice. While admitting that some bishops think the issue has been adequately dealt with already, Williams said that he and the committee were "excited about what has happened here, convinced that the church is ready to address the sin of racism." He gave much of the credit for that to the work in small groups.

Sexuality issues continue to divide

The same small-group technique was used to approach the sexuality issues. "The committee sought a way to help the church continue the dialogue, rather than draw lines that would divide us," said Bishop Richard Grein of New York, chair of the committee, in discussing its approach. Like the racism issue, Grein said that the bishops were trying to model a new approach in their small groups. "We worked very hard, listened to one another -- and that's what we hope the church will do," he said.

In a plenary address to bishops, Dr. Julian Slowinski, a noted sex therapist from Philadelphia, encouraged them to focus on "sexual health, rather than on sexual sins."

"The pressure for those in authority to move towards certainty is enormous," Slowinski said. "These times are fraught with issues that tempt us to respond reflexively rather than reflectively," he added.

Slowinski said that the Judeo-Christian heritage has received a "legacy of conflicted understanding of our sexual nature." He encouraged the bishops to view the question of sexual ethics from an incarnational approach. "A sexual theology, as opposed to a theology of sexuality, asks the question, 'What does our experience as human sexual beings tell us how we are to read the scriptures, interpret the tradition, and attempt to live out the meaning of the Gospel?'"

Speaking openly about sexuality

Before the bishops adjourned to small-group discussion, Slowinski urged them to speak to one another with the goal of self-understanding. "We as a church and individuals are people who have difficulty speaking frankly...and clearly about sexual matters," he said. "We were not raised to speak openly about sexuality -- our own, or others. How then can we expect to be able to...speak openly and plan a pastoral teaching of such importance? In plain American language, how can we understand where we are coming from when we try to talk openly about sexuality?" he asked.

In an interview following the small-group discussions, Grein said his committee represented a very broad range of opinion on sexuality issues and operated on a consensus style, even though that required a great deal of patience. "We didn't get bogged down in fighting because we didn't come at the issue from frozen positions," he added.

The committee includes six members from the House of Deputies, "the first time we have tried to do a pastoral this way," Grein said. The process seemed to work so well, and the acceptance of the draft by the House of Bishops was so high, that "we will probably do this again," he said.

Because the pastoral will go through several more drafts before it goes to the General Convention in Indianapolis, Grein could not be coaxed into revealing any of its contents or whether it will advocate specific church policies. He said that many bishops expressed surprise and relief that the draft was more than they thought possible and "they were quite excited" with the progress towards some consensus. "But we still have a long way to go," Grein warned.

Bishop discloses that he is gay

As bishops discussed the draft of the pastoral teaching on sexuality, one development since their meeting in Kanuga last Spring added a new dimension to their common life. In a letter prior to the meeting in Panama, Otis Charles, former bishop of Utah and recently retired dean of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, disclosed to his colleagues that he is gay. (See Newsfeatures section for newsmaker profile.)

Charles is the first bishop in any mainline denomination to publicly disclose his homosexual orientation. The Episcopal Church and most other churches have been wrestling with homosexuality for nearly two decades. Yet, there was no open or formal response to Charles's letter in Panama.

"It is hard to read silence," said Bishop Tom Ray of Northern Michigan, "because you cannot read into what people don't say." However, Ray said that he had heard no negative comments regarding Charles's disclosure.

Ray described Charles's disclosure to colleagues as "an historic moment. Our discussion of gay and lesbian issues will be forever changed," Ray said. "No longer will we in the House of Bishops be able to discuss gay and lesbian issues on merely an academic or intellectual level because it is now publicly a part of our own life."

"At one level it was helpful because it intensified for us the need to deal with these issues very carefully," said Bishop Sam Hulsey of Northwest Texas regarding Charles's letter. "It encouraged us to take it seriously and to be present with one another."

The most direct reference to Charles's announcement came on the final evening of the meeting during tributes to retiring bishops. Following a warm tribute to Charles, Suffragan Bishop Barbara Harris of Massachusetts said, "I want to personally thank you for shedding the sunlight of your reality into this house by opening a long-closed door."

Anniversary Eucharist was heart of the meeting

At the heart of the meeting was a Eucharist on September 26 celebrating 140 years of Anglican presence in Panama. Bishops and their spouses led a parade of parishes, missions and marching bands through the streets of Panama City on its way to the anniversary service at the Convention Center.

Most bishops were decked from head-to-toe for the occasion, many of them wearing tennis shoes, most in bright red rochet and chimere complemented by colorful Central American stoles, and a few sporting baseball caps instead of miters. Many in the parade carried purple balloons and several opened umbrellas to shelter them from the blinding Caribbean noonday sun.

Inside, a three-story quilt painted by Panamanian children served as backdrop to the altar. A lively ensemble of xylophone, brass, accordion, organ, and Central American percussion instruments accompanied several choirs in a symphony of music for the service.

Flags representing England, the United States, Panama and the Episcopal Church led the procession, symbolizing the birth and development of the Episcopal Church in Panama throughout the years. Groups of colorfully dressed native dancers, some with incense pots on their heads, joined in procession and later accompanied the gifts at the offertory.

In his sermon, Browning reminded the congregation -- which included the President of Panama, the Roman Catholic Archbishop, and the Methodist bishop -- that the church must address the paradoxes in life, including the wellbeing of individuals and societies. "The tension between the Gospel's power and power politics is always with us," Browning said. "So big a thing as the transformation of the world hinges on so small a thing as the transformation of the human heart," he added.

Province 9 moves toward autonomy

In addition to celebrating the anniversary of Anglicanism in Panama, bishops concentrated on the movement of dioceses in Central and South America toward forming autonomous provinces within the Anglican Communion. Mexico, for example, is in the final steps of the process and will become a province by next year.

Bishop Neptali Larrea of Ecuador, president of Province 9, reported that the autonomy process was "necessary for us so that we will be able to speak with our own voice. Sometimes [the Episcopal Church in the United States] deals with issues and realities that are not really our issues and realities," he said.

However, several questions regarding the autonomy process emerged at the meeting. "What type of partnership will the autonomous province within Latin America and the Episcopal Church U.S.A. have with the rest of the Anglican Communion?" asked the Rev. Ashton Brooks, a member of the Executive Council from Costa Rica who addressed the bishops. Brooks pointed out that the development of the Anglican Communion provinces usually form around national identities. However, for the Latin American dioceses, there are overlapping cultural and national heritages.

Several bishops raised questions about the financial relationship between the new province and the Episcopal Church, especially since autonomy had been a difficult financial situation for the Episcopal Church in Brazil and the Philippines. Others raised concerns that autonomy would separate U.S. Episcopalians from brothers and sisters in Latin America. "I fear for our isolation from you," said Suffragan Bishop Jeffrey Rowthorn of Connecticut.

General Convention looms

It was clear from closing interviews that the Kanuga process took another significant step forward at the Panama meeting. "We walked out of our sessions with a lot of confidence that we would produce something of value to the church," said Browning. At the beginning there was some feeling that the discussions were being manipulated "but we moved beyond that," he said.

"It was a difficult but exciting week," observed Hulsey, chair of the planning committee. "But it has taken us 26 months to get here." He shared Grein's surprise at the level of acceptance of the draft on sexuality, even among bishops he had assumed would object.

During an executive session on the closing day, the bishops dealt with sexual misconduct, discussed guidelines they use in dealing with the issue, and then dealt with specific cases and how to dispel rumors.

"We looked at the dynamics of how we are handling these cases, whether at the national or local level," said Bishop Harold Hopkins, director of the church's office of pastoral development. He said that the details in each cases were too different to suggest similar responses and warned that it was tempting to look at a case through eyes that reflect our own sympathies. "The canons did not anticipate what we are now facing," Hopkins said.

"Of course, Indianapolis is just around the corer and all that we do here points us in that direction," Browning reminded the bishops at the meeting. By avoiding situations that might provoke debate and confrontation some observers have suggested that the bishops might not be ready to uphold their legislative end of the General Convention.

Others were more sanguine. "I feel better about the House of Bishops than ever before," said Bishop Stewart Zabriskie just before catching his flight back to Nevada. "Our relationships are deepening because we are really listening to one another -- and it's making a difference. Some of us have even changed our minds this week," he said.

In addition:
  • In recognition of the contribution of Episcopalians to Panama, President Guillermo Endara awarded Bishop James Ottley the Vasco Nunez de Balboa medal in a ceremony at the presidential palace attended by the presiding bishop and presidents of the provinces. The bishops voted by acclamation to reelect James Ottley as vice-president of the House of Bishops.
  • The bishops adopted a resolution giving consent to the deposition of retired Bishop Donald Davies, formerly of Dallas. In 1992, Davies voluntarily abandoned the Episcopal Church in order to form a new denomination, the Episcopal Missionary Church.
  • The bishops voted to give consent to the elections of four bishops-elect, including the Rev. Mary Adelia McLeod (Vermont), the Rev. Claude Paine (Texas), the Rev. Joseph Doss (New Jersey), and the Rev. James Coleman (West Tennessee).
  • Pamela Chinnis, president of the House of Deputies, told the house she would nominate a person to serve as vice-president for the deputies for the 1994 General Convention in Indianapolis (see related story). Chinnis also reiterated her support for efforts to streamline the legislative process of the General Convention and pledged to cooperate with the House of Bishops in that regard.
  • During the meeting, the bishops' spouses participated in a variety of forums, including Bible study and prayer. A large number of spouses traveled to the interior of Panama to visit two local missions of the diocese.
  • Bishops set March 9-13, 1994, as the date for their next meeting at the Kanuga Conference Center in North Carolina.
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