General Convention deals gracefully with difficult issues, expresses eagerness to 'go and do mission'

Episcopal News Service. August 6, 1997 [97-1901]

(ENS) Many of the deputies and bishops arrived July 15 in Philadelphia for the 72nd General Convention of the Episcopal Church with some apprehension, troubled by predictions that their meeting would be messy and contentious.

When they left town 10 days later after a gathering described by some as "irenic," most expressed satisfaction that they had dealt responsibly, even gracefully, with the major issues -- the election of the 25th presiding bishop, approval of a new relationship with the Lutherans, clarification of the place of women in the priesthood and the role of gays and lesbians in church life, adjustment to the church's structure, and revision of discipline procedures for bishops.

"I kept waiting for something to explode. It never did," said Pamela P. Chinnis, who was re-elected unanimously to her third term as president of the House of Deputies. And the newly elected presiding bishop, Frank Tracy Griswold Im of Chicago, noted in a closing press conference that he was relieved that the "catastrophic fantasies" that preceded the convention were never realized. "This is a convention that is bursting at the seams to go and do mission," said Byron Rushing of Massachusetts. Bishop Charles Duvall of Central Gulf Coast added, "We are tired of the two ends of the theological spectrum dominating -- we'd like the center to set the agenda for ministry and mission."

Helping to set the convention's positive tone, the House of Bishops quickly approved the Concordat of Agreement that calls for "full communion" with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) on the opening day and with only a handful of objections. The House of Deputies followed two days later with an equally enthusiastic endorsement.

Prof. J. Robert Wright of the General Theological Seminary in New York, one of the principal authors of the agreement, called it "the most important ecumenical decision our church will make in this century."

The Concordat must be considered by the ELCA, meeting in Philadelphia in mid-August, where it faces some stiff opposition. Yet Lutheran observers at the General Convention expressed cautious optimism that it would pass with the necessary two-thirds majority, launching both churches on an era of close cooperation in mission, clergy-sharing and joint consecrations of bishops.

Avoiding some landmines

The two issues deemed most likely to derail the convention -- a clarification of women's ordination, and the blessing of same-sex unions -- evoked strong feelings during open hearings and in floor debates but were resolved in what someone called "true Anglican fashion." In close votes that reflected the church's continued divisions over sexuality, the houses addressed certain practical and pastoral concerns of its gay and lesbian members, but stopped short of endorsing preparation of a blessing rite for unions.

By a single vote in each order, the House of Deputies turned down a resolution that would have directed the Standing Liturgical Commission to develop such a rite. Later, both houses agreed to direct the commission to study the issue further and to present a preliminary report in 1999.

Another successful resolution cleared the way for the Church's Medical Trust to offer optional health benefits for domestic partners of clergy, but a similar call to extend pension benefits to domestic partners failed in the House of Deputies by a narrow margin in a vote by orders.

On the closing day, the convention passed a resolution that acknowledged the "diversity of opinion" on the "morality of gay and lesbian sexual relationships," yet apologized "for years of rejection and maltreatment by the church."

Access of women to priesthood in all dioceses

Twenty years after the church opened all orders of ministry to women, the General Convention made it clear that the canon is mandatory. While the four bishops in the church who continue to oppose women's ordination will not be forced to ordain women themselves, they have been placed on notice that they must provide for the ordination and licensing of female clergy to serve in their dioceses.

The resolution was broadened, however, to state that no members of the church could be denied access to ordination or deployment "on account of their sex or their theological views on the ordination of women."

In a sign that the issue remains contentious even with the canonical changes, Bishop Jack Iker of Ft. Worth, one of the four bishops, said in testimony before the ministry committee, "I believe that the canons hold the church together. But I think unjust canons, that violate conscience, must be rejected, resisted, and if necessary, blatantly disobeyed. I don't think in Anglicanism you can legislate conscience. In fact, I think it is a sin to try to force people to violate their conscience."

Griswold elected to take church into new millennium

Halfway through the convention, 214 bishops gathered behind closed doors at historic Christ Church to elect a new presiding bishop to succeed Bishop Edmond Browning, who will complete his 12-year term at the end of the year.

Griswold, a native of Philadelphia who served his whole ministry in the Diocese of Pennsylvania before he was elected bishop of Chicago in 1987, was elected presiding bishop for a nine-year term on the third ballot. For the first time, when the name was presented to the House of Deputies for affirmation, the vote tallies also were announced.

In what emerged from the start as a two-person race, Bishop Herbert Thompson Jr. of Southern Ohio led Griswold by a vote of 89 to 86 on the first ballot before Griswold pulled ahead on the second ballot and received 110 votes to 96 for Thompson by the third.

The vote among deputies to confirm the vote was nearly unanimous, with only a few dioceses voting against the selection. When Griswold was brought to the convention center to greet a joint session, he said that "the presiding bishop belongs to all" and, taking a line from Roman Catholic bishop Dom Helder Camara of South America, said "My door, my heart, must be open to everyone -- absolutely everyone."

In his first press conference, Griswold said that he saw himself as an orthodox Anglican "with the breadth to live with ambiguity and contradicting perspectives and stay grounded."

Early reaction to Griswold as the new presiding bishop ranged from effusive to "wait and see." Many cited Griswold's ability to listen carefully to divergent sides and his eagerness to serve as a reconciler. Conservative bishops, however, pointed to his liberal voting record on some of the most difficult issues.

Bishop John Howe of Central Florida pointed to the "almost equal split" on many of the "hot-button questions," including the election. Griswold's "first order of business [is] reaching out to those on the other side of the great divide. If he does not do that, it is hard to see how these two constituencies will continue under one roof."

On the eve of the election, the convention received news of the death of Bishop John Hines at the age of 87. Hines served as presiding bishop from 1965 to 1974, a particularly turbulent time in America. Browning, a close friend of his predecessor, said that Hines was "a model of what it is to reflect the courage and compassion of Christ."

Browning urges church to stay together

In his last speech before a joint session of convention (full text in News Features), Browning stressed his unswerving commitment to a church that is inclusive, compassionate and dedicated to confronting injustice. "The gospel is always the same," he said. "The imperatives don't change."

He also called for continued commitment to healing the church's divisions over full participation of women and over inclusion of gays and lesbians. "There are serious differences in this hall today," he said. "But hear me again: For the sake of the gospel, we must stay in fellowship, read Scripture, pray together, break bread together, and discern God's will for us, together."

In a celebratory evening marked with memories and tributes from friends, family and colleagues, Browning was reminded of the impact his ministry has had among Anglicans around the world. In his honor, the bishops have created a fund for a proposed pilgrimage of young people from the Episcopal Church here and in Japan to Pearl Harbor, Okinawa, Hiroshima and Nagasaki next summer.

Restructure proposals get limited response

Settling back into their agenda, the bishops and deputies faced a daunting set of proposals for new ways to organize the church's business and ended up opting largely for the status quo. The role of the presiding bishop, which the structure commission had recommended changing, was left essentially the same, though it was clarified. As "chief pastor and primate," the presiding bishop will continue to be responsible for providing "leadership in initiating and developing the policy and strategy of the church."

As chair of the Executive Council he serves as chief executive officer with "ultimate responsibility for the oversight of the work of the Executive Council in the implementation of the mission and ministry of the church." The convention agreed to the creation of a new position of an executive director, accountable to the presiding bishop, to serve as chief operating officer.

The convention did adopt several resolutions streamlining the committee and commission structure of the national church. And they adopted a proposal for a new unified budget which combines the organizational and program functions of the church as "two sides of a coin," according to deputy Marge Christie of Newark. "One side is who we are and the other is what we do."

Flat budget for the triennium

News on the financial front was sobering but hopeful. "We stopped the bleeding," said Treasurer Stephen Duggan after the convention adopted a "realistic" budget of $114 million for the next triennium, anticipating income from dioceses of $78.7 million. The income is based on an asking of 21 percent of each diocese's income, with a $100,000 deduction for support of the office of diocesan bishop. Last triennium the program budget was based on an anticipated income from dioceses of $87.6 million but fell short by almost $10 million.

Duggan said that the cooperative process of putting together the budget "bodes extremely well about where we are going." He said that he was tremendously encouraged by the discussion in the House of Bishops that showed a renewed commitment to stewardship. "It is clear that the bishops are ready to provide leadership on the issue," he said.

Vincent Currie of the Diocese of the Gulf Coast, chair of the Program, Budget and Finance Committee, said that the flat budget does not provide new money for mission. The retention of money at the diocesan level, either to protest national church policies or to support local ministries, may continue, he admitted. "People are still tempted to keep their money where they can see it, so it is our task to convince them that they should support programs at the national level," he said.

Disciplinary canons for bishops

Following revisions it made in 1994 in disciplinary canons affecting clergy, the General Convention adopted sweeping changes in the disciplinary process for bishops.

Like priests and deacons, bishops accused of misconduct or a violation of church law will now be subject to temporary inhibition, investigation by an independent body, and charges by victims or relatives of victims.

The 1994 convention approved more than 100 amendments to the canons, establishing uniform procedures for ecclesiastical courts, protecting due-process rights of accused clergy, extending the types of persons who can file charges, and removing bishops from the presentment process.

For doctrinal offenses, the changes make it more difficult to bring a presentment against a bishop by requiring a "statement of disassociation" signed by 10 bishops. Even then, a presentment must have the approval of one-third of the bishops in order to proceed.

Other actions
  • The convention approved a plan for four dioceses in Central America -- Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Panama -- to join with the autonomous diocese of Costa Rica to form a new Province of Central America.
  • In a flip-flop vote on a perennial issue -- whether retired bishops should retain their right to vote -- the bishops finally conceded that the vote should be limited to bishops with jurisdiction. The House of Deputies, however, cited respect for elders and age discrimination in handily defeating the resolution from the bishops.
  • In an equally surprising vote, the House of Deputies turned down the opportunity to join the bishops in the election of the next presiding bishop. Deputy Thomas Chappell of Maine said adoption would change the dynamic of the election from a collegial one to a more public campaign.
  • In the wake of the attempted heresy trial of Bishop Walter Righter for ordaining a non-celibate deacon in 1990, the convention agreed that doctrine is based on Scripture, the historic creeds and the Book of Common Prayer.
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