The seventy-sixth General Convention of the Episcopal Church made headlines last week for moving forward on same-sex blessings and officially opening its doors for partnered homosexuals to serve as priests and bishops. Stacy Sauls, the Episcopal bishop of Lexington and a close associate of the presiding bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori, argued that it was long past time to do it: Over thirty years ago, he said, the church had placed pastoral compassion over Scripture, tradition, and the teachings of Jesus to permit remarriage after divorce, and it would be nothing less than hypocritical for the church not to do likewise for gay and lesbian people.
There is a certain logic to this, of course. If we’re going to set aside the teaching of Jesus for ourselves, shouldn’t we do the same for others? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” as someone once said. According to Bishop Sauls, this was the most important point he made at the convention. Arguably, it was the most important point anyone in attendance made. The Episcopal Church has now, quite definitively, decided to step out on its own, away from Scripture, tradition, and the rest of the Anglican communion. It was a bold and brave step, for with it the church has decided that it is now a church that takes its own counsel, answerable only to God. No doubt it was a matter of prayerful discernment and conscience for many, and no doubt many will shy away from drawing out the full implications of their decision. But the implications are there nonetheless. It is a brave new thing for the Episcopal Church, a brave new church on its own in the world.
The two key resolutions, D025 and C056, were passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses of the convention, the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops. The first resolution, D025, effectively gave dioceses the green light to elect bishops in partnered homosexual relationships, thus overturning the commitment of the 2006 convention to “exercise restraint” in doing so. The second resolution, C056, committed the church to develop rites of blessing for same-sex unions with the goal of bringing draft versions for approval at the next convention in 2012. In the meantime, the resolution encouraged dioceses to develop and use rites of their own, with the expectation that such on-the-ground experience will be of value in creating a set of official, churchwide liturgies in the near future.
As such, the two resolutions represent a clear and purposeful departure from the requests made of the Episcopal Church by the rest of the Anglican communion, as expressed repeatedly by all of the official bodies of global Anglicanism over the past several years. Contradicting requests for a moratorium on bishops in same-sex relationships, Resolution D025 asserts that “God has called and may call” persons in such relationships to all of the ordained ministries of the church. And, in the face of requests not to authorize public rites of blessing for same-sex unions, Resolution C056 explicitly calls for their development and authorizes bishops to perform them on a trial basis in their dioceses. It is, in short, a clear victory for those such as Bishop Sauls who have argued for the national autonomy of the Episcopal Church and the need to move forward regardless of Anglican communion requests.
That is, at least, the straightforward interpretation of the resolutions, as understood by media outlets such as the New York Times (“Episcopal Vote Reopens a Door to Gay Bishops,” “Episcopal Bishops Give Ground on Gay Marriage”), the BBC (“US Church Drops Gay Bishops Ban”), Reuters (“Episcopal Vote Widens Anglican Split”), and the Washington Post (“Episcopal Bishops Can Bless Gay Unions”). It is, additionally, how they were understood by Anglican bishop N.T. Wright (“The Americans Know This Will Lead to Schism,”), conservative groups such as Fulcrum and the Anglican Communion Institute, and the ECUSA gay rights lobby, Integrity. Susan Russell, the president of Integrity, celebrated achieving a “clean sweep” on their legislative goals, and justifiably so.
But be that as it may, the official organs of the Episcopal Church have insisted that no matter what it might look like to everyone else, actually nothing much has changed. The two ranking officers of the church, presiding bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori and House of Deputies president Bonnie Anderson, wrote in an open letter to Rowan Williams that “nothing in [Resolution D025] goes beyond what has already been provided under our constitution and canons for many years.” By that, they mean to say that since church canons already stipulate that the ordination process is open to all persons regardless of sexual orientation, and since Resolution D025 asserts that future bishops will be considered by following canonical guidelines, they have done nothing new. The 2006 resolution, they note, asked for restraint in granting “consent” to the election of partnered homosexual bishops, and since the new resolution does not mention consent, this has not actually been overturned.
If that sounds like a distinction without a difference, that may be because it is.