Bishops and Deputies Clash, then Concur on Women's Ordination

Episcopal News Service. September 7, 1994 [94138]

Michael Barwell

Caught between an attempt to reassure traditionalists of their place in the Episcopal Church and the impatience of those who bristle that women are still denied ordination in a handful of dioceses, the 71st General Convention faced the most serious impasse of its 10-day meeting just hours before it was scheduled to adjourn.

After the dust settled, deputies and bishops adopted resolution C004s/a directing both supporters and opponents of women's ordination to engage in dialogue, while officially recognizing both theological positions for the first time.

In a series of parliamentary skirmishes over two days, the ordination issue simmered in both the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops, threatening to boil over and scorch people on all sides of the issue. The debate was sparked by the disagreement between the bishops and deputies about forcing implementation of an 18-year-old canon on women's ordination. In a lopsided vote by orders, the deputies staunchly defended their belief that the canon (Title I.8.i) guaranteeing access to ordination for both men and women should be implemented and not simply "addressed" as proposed by the bishops.

The shift of emphasis from "addressing" to "implementing" touched off a prickly debate among the bishops, many of whom clearly resented pressure from deputies to force a resolution of the impasse. Clinging to a fragile collegiality crafted during the past three years, the bishops failed to avoid confrontation, and found themselves lost in a thicket of parliamentary maneuvering.

Traditionalists take their gloves off

Frustrations over the issue forced the traditionalist bishops to take their gloves off. "I am deeply offended. I am angry. I feel that I have been misled, betrayed and sold out by a process that's been going on for several days now," said Bishop Coadjutor Jack Iker of Fort Worth, whose consent process was nearly derailed over his opposition to the ordination of women.

Turning to members of the Episcopal Women's Caucus in the gallery, Iker said: "Sisters, I respect you. I love you. I'm willing to dialogue with you and listen to you." But he quickly added, "I am tired of being put down, called a sexist, and denied the respect as a bishop of this church that I hold a theological position based on scripture and theology, not based on misogyny. "How dare you?" Iker fumed. "What is this dialogue to be about if I'm not to be given an equal footing with you, that I hold a theological conviction as you do? I am tired of being intimidated by a radical feminist agenda for this church." He charged that a dialogue according to the deputies proposal would be "a farce and hoax."

In a moderate but equally determined tone, Bishop Keith Ackerman of Quincy (Illinois) said that the ordination of women was "a litmus test" that threatened his ordination as a bishop last year. Ackerman said that he, too, was "tired of being dictated to and put down," because of his position on the issue. He said that the House of Bishops should be more interested in unity than legislation. "Don't legislate me out," he pleaded.

Bishop William Wantland of Eau Claire charged that the deputies' changes "clearly say to me -- and thousands more like me --[that] there is no place in this church, you do not have a legitimate theological position, and the sole purpose of dialogue is to implement what one side has already determined will be universally so." He warned that he and others could be forced to leave the church "as a matter of conscience."

Women's supporters respond

In the face of the growing resolve of the traditionalist statements, bishops who support the ordination of women found themselves caught in their own crisis of conscience.

"I am not drawing a line," said Bishop Douglas Theuner of New Hampshire. "I really believe that my responsibility to all my sisters and brothers is that of love and pastoral care. I also believe that I must act according to my conscience, and that perhaps finally in this event, what I believe to be true is more important that what I believe to be politic."

Bishop Vincent Warner of Olympia went further. "In trying to honor the conscience of others I find myself compromising my own conscience." Although he offered an expression of compassion for traditionalist bishops, Warner said that he would "not walk away from my support of the women of the church whom I stand beside."

As the wrangling escalated, Bishop Jeffery Rowthorn of the Convocation of Churches in Europe drew a comparison between the ethnic cleansing in Serbia and what he said were attempts to impose "doctrinal cleansing" in the House of Bishops.

Expressing the impatience of many bishops who felt cornered by convention debates that leave little "wiggle room," Bishop Robert Moody of Oklahoma said, "Well, if there's no more wiggle room, then you've got to stand up and be counted." Oblivious to the press of time -- and at one point even wondering if the deputies were still in session -- the bishops struggled through a forest of amendments, counter-amendments, substitutions and perfections to the deputies' proposal.

Clearly exhausted, and after a dramatic call for prayer by Iker, the bishops amended the deputies' resolution in an effort to satisfy traditionalists who said that they were on the verge of being pushed out of the church. In their amendment to the deputies' resolution, bishops said that both opponents and supporters of the ordination of women to the priesthood "hold a recognized theological position in this church."

Two traditionalist bishops in dioceses that do not ordain women will be appointed by the presidents of both houses to a committee that will continue the dialogue on "how the canon can be implemented in every diocese of the church." [See full text of C004s/a below.]

Deputies amused, but not amused

Waiting for the bishops to complete their debate brought the House of Deputies to a stand-still. Deputies milled about, wandered in and out of the convention hall, chatted with neighbors, and occasionally tossed paper airplanes.

One deputy suggested the bishops be treated like cardinals cloistered to elect a pope." After 10 days, if there is no decision, their meals are reduced to bread and water," he said.

When word finally came from the bishops, the deputies heard one protest on the resolution before voting. The Rev. Ruth A. Meyers of Western Michigan read an impassioned statement that chastised the bishops for failing to assert that "the stated position of this church is that ordination to the three orders of bishops, priests, and deacons is equally open to women and men. I am disappointed that after 18 years the bishops are not able to recognize this very basic fact."

But the deputies immediately halted debate and accepted the revisions without comment and promptly adjourned until 1997. Non-discrimination language approved

In related matters, deputies concurred with the bishops' action to open access to ordination to all without discrimination. Resolution D-007/a assures that no one will be denied access to the selection for ordination because race, color, ethnic origin, sex, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, disabilities or age.

Bishops approved an identical resolution at the 1985 and 1988 General Conventions, but the resolutions were defeated each time by the lay deputies in a vote by orders.

An amendment to remove "sexual orientation" from the sentence failed. Deputy William Doubleday of New York clarified that sexual orientation did not imply approval of sexual practices. "I would hope that this church would be clear that if it has differences it is around the area of behavior, not around orientation." The concurrence passed without a vote by orders.

Deputies and bishops also passed a resolution using similar language in a more general statement on non-discrimination that says "no member of this church shall be denied access to full participation in the life, worship, and governance of this Church because of race, color, ethnic origin, sex, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, disabilities or age, except as otherwise specified by these Canons."

Full text of Resolution C004s/a:

Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, the 71st General Convention reaffirms the existing canon, Title III.8.i, guaranteeing both men and women access to the ordination process in this Church and be it further Resolved, This General Convention recognizes that women are not ordained to the priesthood in all dioceses at this time; and be it further Resolved, this General Convention acknowledges that those who support and those who oppose the ordination of women to the priesthood and Episcopate each hold a recognized theological position in this Church. Resolved, That the Presiding Bishop and the President to the House of Deputies, in consultation with two bishops, whom they shall designate, from the dioceses where such ordinations do not occur, appoint a committee to promote dialogue and understanding and to discuss how the canon can be implemented in every diocese of this Church; and be it further Resolved, That the following shall be among the matters discussed: 1. Opportunities for full access for women to the ordination process in this Church; 2. Opportunities for ordained women to carry out their ministries in every diocese of this Church; 3. Opportunities for congregations that desire the ministries of ordained women to have access to them in every diocese; 4. Opportunities for those persons who oppose the ordination of women to have access to the ordination process and to carry out their ministries in every diocese; and be it further Resolved, That this committee shall report to the interim meeting of the House of Bishops in 1995 and subsequently to the Executive Council.