Two Minds in One Episcopal Body

Article ID: JAE446 | By: Douglas LeBlanc

This article first appeared in the News Watch column of the Christian Research Journal, volume29, number5 (2006). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

In the Episcopal Church’s three-decade discussion about homosexuality and the church, conservatives and liberals alike have often said that the debate is about far more than sex. Most conservatives have held that the sexuality debate is really about theology—specifically how both sides understand God, the world He created, the meaning of sin, the nature of redemption, and the authority of Scripture over each Christian’s life. Liberals generally have held that the sexuality debate is not about theology or the authority of Scripture, but about power—specifically the efforts of privileged, heterosexual, and white men, primarily, to preserve their power over everybody else.

At the church’s 75th General Convention, which met in Columbus, Ohio, on June 13–21, 2006, Episcopalians’ theological divisions became clearer than ever. This convention was charged with responding to the broader Anglican Communion regarding the decisions of the 74th General Convention, which met in 2003. That convention confirmed the election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as the Bishop of New Hampshire, and said that local churches are “within the bounds of our common life” when they bless gay couples. Anglican leaders across the world protested these decisions, declaring the communion between their churches and the Episcopal Church to be impaired or broken.

“I believe that what we have is one church with two minds,” said Bishop Charles Jenkins of Louisiana during a central debate at this year’s convention. Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of Nevada, who was elected this year to be the church’s presiding bishop for the next nine years, took the image further, comparing the church to conjoined twins.

“Some parents have to wrestle with the decision of trying to separate or not trying to separate those twins. They operate with the assumption that it is wrong to attempt to separate those twins unless both can live full lives,” Jefferts Schori said when addressing the convention’s clergy and lay deputies. “This creature, this body of Christ, is not wholly one and not wholly two.”

Jefferts Schori’s metaphor was not surprising considering her background in science. She earned a Ph.D. in oceanography in 1983, and worked in that profession until entering seminary in the early 1990s. The real surprise was hearing the newly elected presiding bishop, who has expressed consistently liberal convictions in the sexuality debate, acknowledge the depth of the church’s divisions.

For some conservatives, Jefferts Schori not only was acknowledging the problem, but was part of the problem, both in her unprecedented election and in her theology. Bishop Jack Iker of the Diocese of Fort Worth (Texas) asked the Archbishop of Canterbury for “alternative primatial oversight” soon after Jefferts Schori’s election. (Iker’s diocese does not ordain women as priests.) In the weeks after the convention, another six dioceses made requests similar to Iker’s, mostly because of Jefferts Schori’s theology or because of the convention’s decisions. The convention highlighted the ways in which conservatives and liberals differ in how they speak about the persons of the Holy Trinity, how they understand revelation, how they define evangelism, and how they worship.

Mother Jesus? Jefferts Schori disturbed conservatives on the final morning of the convention, in her first sermon as presiding bishop-elect, by comparing Jesus’ crucifixion to a mother’s giving birth. “That sweaty, bloody, tear-stained labor of the cross bears new life. Our mother Jesus gives birth to a new creation—and you and I are his children,” Jefferts Schori said.

Jefferts Schori later told the Washington Post that such language is “straight-down-the-middle orthodox theology,” citing the precedent of medieval mystics, including Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila. She suggested that her critics are guilty of idolatry. “All language is metaphorical, and if we insist that particular words have only one meaning and the way we understand those words is the only possible interpretation, we have elevated that text to an idol,” she told Alan Cooperman of the Post. “I’m encouraging people to look beyond their favorite understandings.”

Jefferts Schori’s sermon itself, however, soon became the subject of varying interpretations. Liberal Episcopalians, like the bishop, saw the message as a harmless reassertion of language used by mystics. Conservatives saw it as a deliberate provocation.

The bishop’s language was enough to send the Rev. David Roseberry of the 4,500-member Christ Episcopal Church in Plano, Texas, out of the doors of the denomination he has served as a priest since 1983. He plans to take his congregation and its buildings with him, and so far his bishop, James Stanton of Dallas, has been cooperative.

Roseberry, who has worked for theological reform within the church since the early 1990s, had gathered signatures from more than 1,000 priests in the weeks before the General Convention. Roseberry and the priests who signed his petition pleaded with the convention to reaffirm the church’s historic teachings about sexual morality. Addressing an open hearing during the convention, he referred to those priests and the estimated 22,490 years of service they represented. “Can you hear me now?” Roseberry said.

Roseberry stayed on through the duration of the convention. Hearing Jefferts Schori’s sermon, however, convinced him that the sexuality debate was part of an inescapable theological package in which the majority of bishops and other decision-makers in the church believe. “When the presiding bishop-elect had a chance to build consensus, she chose to interweave the cross with radical feminism. It seemed Gnostic,” said Roseberry, who added that he’s aware of Julian’s writings.

An Impersonal Holy Spirit. Jesus was not the only person of the Trinity who was the subject of unconventional language at the convention. Deputies—laypeople, deacons, and priests elected to attend the triennial gathering—often invoked the Holy Spirit as the driving force of the church’s changing teachings regarding homosexuality.

Louie Crew, an openly gay deputy from Newark, New Jersey, spoke against a resolution that asked the church not to approve any new bishop “whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church.” Both sides understood the coy language of that resolution to mean withholding approval from any bishop involved in a same-sex relationship.

“It’s a bit like telling Samuel that he must choose only from the first [sons] that Jesse brings out,” said Crew, who served as cochairman of a committee to nominate candidates for Newark’s next bishop. “I speak against this because it attempts to cut the tongue out of the Holy Spirit.” (On June 28 the Diocese of Newark announced its slate, which includes the Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe, an openly gay priest who is in charge of congregational development in the Diocese of California.)

Crew and some other deputies referred to the Holy Spirit as she. Others avoided personal language, instead calling the Holy Spirit it. Most liberal Episcopalians seem unaware that such usage places them in the company of unorthodox sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who consider the Holy Spirit to be an impersonal force, like electricity.

Liberal deputies regularly referred to the Holy Spirit as speaking through the convention’s votes. Some compared the convention to the Council at Jerusalem, which agreed to welcome Gentiles into the early church, or to the Council of Nicaea, which agreed on the doctrines in the Nicene Creed.

“I believe that the Holy Spirit speaks through General Convention as it has in church councils throughout history,” said Lilith Zoe Cole of Denver. She spoke against resolutions that asked the Episcopal Church to show restraint on consecrating gay bishops or blessing gay couples: “These resolutions represent a compromise of the power of the Holy Spirit.”

“The actions of General Convention in 2003 swept down a mighty wall of oppression,” said the Rev. Bradley Wirth of Troy, Montana. “Let us bless such actions of the Holy Spirit.”

Liberals spoke of the Holy Spirit as constantly leading the church into new truth, with an eye toward a never-ending process of liberation. They also spoke of the Holy Spirit as inhabiting, or perhaps even causing, chaos in the church. “The Holy Spirit often works in moments of chaos,” said the Rev. Mark Beckwith of Worcester, Massachusetts, who is now among the nominees to become the next bishop of Newark.

Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, whose approval by the convention in 2003 generated significant chaos in the Anglican Communion, explained the Holy Spirit this way: “It’s that part of God that refuses to be confined and contained in the little boxes we have for God.”

Robinson was the preacher at a convention Eucharist (Communion) sponsored by the organization Integrity, which describes itself as “a witness of God’s inclusive love to the Episcopal Church and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.” Robinson’s sermon, which included passionate calls for Integrity members to love their enemies, expressed liberal Episcopalians’ commitment to the concept of continuing revelation.

“We heard God’s calm and loving voice over the noisy din of the church’s condemnation,” Robinson said about gay and lesbian Episcopalians’ decades-long persistence in church debates. “We don’t worship a God who is all locked up in the Scripture of 2,000 years ago.”

Robinson also quoted from gay author John Fortunato, who described his experience of a personal visit from God. In his book, Embracing the Exile (Harper and Row, 1982), Fortunato wrote that during the visit, “God smiled and said quietly, ‘How can loving be wrong? All love comes from me.’”

The notion of continuing revelation is not limited to Integrity. Frank Griswold, who in November will complete his nine-year term as the church’s 25th presiding bishop, has frequently suggested a foretaste of continuing revelation in Jesus’ words at John 16:12–13: “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come” (NIV).

No prominent leader of liberal Episcopalians has yet observed how this notion of continuing revelation places the church in the theological company of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Uncommon Prayer. More optimistic Episcopalians have argued that, whatever the church’s theological conflicts, Episcopalians at least could gather around the Communion table and the poetic rites of the church’s Book of Common Prayer. The stormy reception of Jefferts Schori’s first sermon, however, suggests that Episcopalians’ differences followed them straight into the exhibit hall set aside for the daily Eucharist.

The differences manifested not only in the language of the sermons given during those daily celebrations, but also in the varying reactions of participants to the published texts that accompanied the Eucharist. Congregations in the Episcopal Church’s more liberal regions consider the opening words of the Eucharist patriarchal (and therefore oppressive) because of two words: his and kingdom. Most of the Eucharistic texts at the convention, consequently, reflected this assumption and relied on alternative rites authorized by previous conventions; when the texts reflected the more conservative 1979 Book of Common Prayer, however, many bishops and deputies simply ignored them.

The Rev. Lorne Coyle, a conservative priest from Vero Beach, Florida, explained the phenomenon in a message distributed across the Internet:

I told my group on day one that I would stay [with them] if they all agreed to abide by the order of worship as printed. I would abide by the language of the experimental liturgies if they would abide by the language of traditional liturgies. They did, and I did. But at the tables around me, when I heard the celebrant say, “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” and expected the normal response, “And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever,” I instead heard it changed into “And blessed be God’s reign, now and for ever.” Common prayer fled before politically correct prayer.

Coyle also wrote that those who planned the convention’s liturgies essentially restored the curse of Babel by trying to appease everyone present. “The morning Eucharists included Scripture read in Italian, Mandarin, Spanish and Navajo, among others. One day’s sermon was entirely in Spanish. While an English translation was always included for those, the same was not true of a number of songs, some in Spanish, some in Chippewa, and so on.…I speak Spanish comfortably, but by using it in worship I found myself listening more to my pronunciation than to the Holy Spirit. The overall effect may have blessed some present, but it mostly served to emphasize our divisions, not our oneness in Christ.”

The months ahead will offer early indications of whether there is still enough oneness in Christ to hold together a church with two minds.

— Douglas LeBlanc

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