Sexuality Issues Continue to Provoke Debate

Episcopal News Service. September 7, 1994 [94136]

James Thrall

After 10 days of heated debate about human sexuality, fueled by small group discussions, private conversations and caucuses, the 71st General Convention of the Episcopal Church adjourned having decided the dialogue must continue throughout the wider church. That ongoing conversation will be aided by a new pastoral study document from the House of Bishops, and other materials on sexuality that will be developed for parents and teenagers.

Developed in private meetings over three years and numerous drafts, the pastoral became the focus of both hope and anxiety in the days leading up to the convention. The secrecy of the bishops in preparing the document added to the drama, feeding speculation about its contents. Weeks before the bishops' hoped-for release date on the first day of convention, the conservative group Episcopalians United had leaked the final two drafts, further heightening the tension and earning them a sharp reprimand from Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning.

Called "Continuing the Dialogue: A Pastoral Study Document of the House of Bishops to the Church as the Church Considers Issues of Human Sexuality," or just "the pastoral" for short, the bishops' document served as a touchstone for all other discussions on sexuality. In a surprisingly congenial debate in the convention's opening day, the bishops agreed to commend the document to the wider church.

Conservative bishops push back

Eighteen bishops from Province 7 (composed of 12 dioceses in the Southwest) arrived at convention with a protest statement, signed by a total of 101 bishops. Their one-page "Affirmation" claimed the pastoral was a substantial departure from traditional biblical Christianity and reaffirmed that the only appropriate context for sexual intimacy is within lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual marriage.

Following adoption of the pastoral study document, another statement emerged written by Bishop John Spong of Newark and signed by 55 bishops present at General Convention. It affirmed sexual orientation as "morally neutral," marriage as an "honorable vocation for some of God's people," and "faithful, monogamous, committed" relationships of gays and lesbians as worthy of honor.

After shoring up the pastoral's language on chastity and marriage and downgrading its status from the "pastoral teaching" mandated by the last convention to a "pastoral study document," the bishops first voted to attach the Province 7 "Affirmation" to the pastoral.

In a debate over whether to attach the Spong document as well as the "Affirmation", the bishops finally commended only the pastoral itself without any additions. The two statements will appear in the convention minutes with the names of those who signed each one.

Who is a 'wholesome example'?

Opinion was split on interpreting the pastoral's final position on the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals, particularly in a set of "Guidelines While We Continue the Dialogue" that commits the bishops to ordain "only persons [they] believe to be a wholesome example to their people." In a press conference, Bishop John MacNaughton of West Texas, one of the signers of the Affirmation, called the bishops' vote a clear statement that the decision to ordain non-celibate homosexuals is not a local option. "The answer was 'No,"' MacNaughton said. "We do not have local option. We have never had local option. I wanted some clarity about that and I got it and I am very satisfied with it."

But Browning responded that he sees the dialogue as continuing and open-ended.

"I don't think there is any clear-cut answer to this," he said in a press conference following the vote on the Having approved the pastoral, bishops discharged at least some of the resolutions proposed on sexuality, including several that would have bound clergy by church law to adhere to traditional understandings of sexual behavior. These included resolutions to add canonical prohibitions against blessing same-sex unions or engaging in genital sexual relations outside of marriage. Bishops also discharged a resolution that would have removed "the obstacles to ordination for qualified candidates who are living in committed same-sex relationships." pastoral. "I think what we have tried to seek is an understanding of where we are on these positions."

In the House of Deputies, the pastoral and the bishops' call for further dialogue were mentioned in almost all other discussions of sexuality, though the deputies sent the bishops a strongly worded request that they not use the pastoral as an excuse to side-step other sexuality resolutions. While their authorization was not needed to release the pastoral, the deputies joined the bishops in urging the church to study it by approving the resolution setting up a 12-member committee on dialogue on human sexuality that will include both bishops and deputies (B-012/a).

Blessing same-sex unions an ongoing issue

The bishops did not agree to develop rites for blessing same-sex unions, one of the fundamental issues in the convention's sexuality debate. After two days of debate, they did hammer out a substitute resolution that endorses a study of the theological and pastoral considerations involved in developing "rites honoring love and commitment between persons of the same sex" (C-42/s). The resolution further states that "no rites... be developed unless and until such rites have been authorized by the General Convention." While all liturgies for trial use are subject to General Convention's ratification, Bishop Frank Vest of Southern Virginia pointed out that stating the restriction specifically would allay fears that "we are slipping ahead" of the church on the development of rites blessing same-sex commitments. On the final day of convention, deputies concurred with the bishops with little debate. Deputies and bishops also agreed that gay and lesbian couples need legal rights to domestic benefits, such as health and pension benefits, calling on city councils, state legislatures and the U.S. Congress to approve legislation granting that protection (D-006/a)

In a close vote, deputies did stop short of directing the Church Pension Fund, the primary provider of health insurance to the Episcopal Church, to offer health coverage to unmarried domestic partners.

The Rev. David Jones of El Camino Real explained that his diocese submitted the resolution because it had asked the Pension Fund to include domestic partners but was told General Convention authorization was needed. And E. Kim Byham of Newark argued that consistency with their earlier directive to secular legislatures required taking the same approach within the church. "This house said we have decided intentionally to enter the dialogue on human sexuality," responded the Rev. Edward S. Little of San Joaquin (California), referring to the deputies' decision to commend the bishops' pastoral. "Yesterday we agreed to talk and today we are moving toward a legislative answer to the issues of human sexuality."

In a ballot by orders, the resolution failed by only a few votes in each order.

Non-discrimination upheld

Two resolutions stressed that the church should not discriminate because of sexual orientation in allowing access to ordination or to the general life of the church.

A highly controversial issue in the past two General Conventions, the changes to the canons passed both houses with relatively little debate. In the first, a sentence will be added ensuring that no one will be barred from access to the ordination process because of "race, color, ethnic origin, sex, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, disabilities or age, except as otherwise specified by these canons" (D-007/a).

The same language was lifted for a second, more general statement (C-020/a/s) that says "no member of this church shall be denied access to full participation in the life, worship, and governance of this church" for any of the same reasons.

Deputies concurred with the bishops on a reaffirmation of the 1976 General Convention's statement that "homosexual persons are entitled to equal protection under law with all other citizens" (C-019). The church's Washington Office also was directed to work on behalf of pending or future legislation to assure that protection.

Helping families understand sexuality

A call for educational materials to help families understand and accept children's sexuality and sexual orientation shuttled between the bishops and deputies before finally being approved.

Originally worded to direct the national church's departments of Education for Mission and Ministry and Youth Ministries to prepare materials for gay and lesbian youth and their parents, the resolution (C-026/a) was broadened by the deputies to include all youth. Several deputies argued against the change, pointing out that gay and lesbian youth are several times more likely to commit suicide than other teenagers.

In a sometimes acrimonious debate, bishops wrestled further with the text, leading with a directive that the church "seriously address the issues of youth suicide and runaway/throwaway youth, especially as these result from a conflict over sexuality, sexual identity, and sexual orientation." They also urged congregations and dioceses to use other education materials to assist parents in "caring for their children regardless of whatever their sexuality may be," while still directing the national church offices to develop new materials.

"We all have a common concern for the welfare of youth," said Bishop Steve Charleston of Alaska, expressing some bishops' frustration at the length of a debate that might have forestalled addressing a real threat of youth suicide. The clear discomfort for many bishops throughout, he said, has been concern that the new materials would promote a particular "political agenda." In response, the bishops also passed a mind-of-the-house resolution asking the presiding bishop to ensure that the bishops will have some say in the direction, writing and review of the materials.

Bishop Peter Lee of Virginia urged dioceses and congregations to use materials already available from other sources so that families can get immediate help. "How many children will die before we sit around in Kanuga in two years and look at a document that has been prepared by a two-person staff that is not adequate?" Lee asked. "I would like to challenge our churches to begin now in a way that doesn't subject this to the vagaries of the budget."

Human Affairs report won't be distributed

A controversial Blue Book report on including children and homosexuals in the life of the church did not fare as well.

The report of the Standing Commission on Human Affairs addressed the need for the church to recognize and deal with children and youth at risk, and, in a separate section, specifically underscored the needs of children and adults who are gay and lesbian. Deputies voted to distribute the entire report to bishops and youth ministers. After protracted debate on the last day of convention, the bishops decided by a narrow margin to omit the section on gays and lesbians, and then defeated the whole resolution.

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