House wrestles for two days to find right words

27 September 2007

by Pat Ashworth in New Orleans

Getting stuck in: the Bishop of Atlanta, the Rt Revd Neil Alexander. The Bishops spent a day working on housing projects in New Orleans, and brought a gift of $1 millionELO/Matthew Davies

Getting stuck in: the Bishop of Atlanta, the Rt Revd Neil Alexander. The Bishops spent a day working on housing projects in New Orleans, and brought a...

THE ASSEMBLED PRESS in New Orleans had its first glimpse of what the Bishops were working on when a draft appeared on Monday morning. It was almost instantly derided by many for its verbosity and lack of teeth.

Later in the day, we were told to ignore it as a work that had been superseded. Nevertheless, a section of the draft made it into the final statement, expressing the Bishops’ solidarity with the people of New Orleans, and their “passionate commitment” to maintaining full participation in the councils of the Anglican Communion.

Expunged from the later statement was a description of their dialogue with members of the Joint Standing Committee (JSC), which, with Dr Williams, shared in their deliberations. The Bishops reiterated the “great difficulty for some in continuing effective mission and ministry in their own cultural contexts” as a result of actions taken at General Convention. They had heard “that we as bishops have sometimes failed to communicate in ways that are sufficiently clear and unambiguous”.

The Bishops had also heard from the JSC “an expression of concern that we have blurred the distinction between the canonical authorisation of public rites of same-sex blessing and the allowing of services of blessing for pastoral reasons. We heard . . . that there is a growing understanding on the part of others in the Anglican Communion that our polity places limitations on our ability as bishops to act independently on some issues. We also heard that many remain frustrated by their view that we as bishops have not always found ways to provide clear and definitive leadership.”

None of this appeared in the final statement, and it seems that few of the bishops present liked it. The Bishop of Texas, Dr Don Wimberly, said frankly: “I didn’t like it at all. . . They’re now trying to look at a couple of other resolutions from the Camp Allen group — hopefully some of that will make it.” Essentials were the cessation of same-sex blessings and an agreement not to elect any more gay bishops, “and then look at the whole issue of providing alternative primatial oversight for some of our more conservative dioceses”.

Back went the Bishops into session. It took two hours longer than expected before three spokesmen — the Bishop of Los Angeles, the Rt Revd J. Jon Bruno, the Bishop of Atlanta, the Rt Revd Neil Alexander, and the Bishop of Puerto Rico, the Rt Revd David Andres Alvarez — emerged to talk to the press.

Throw away the preliminary draft, was the advice from Bishop Bruno: bishops worked more effectively when they did not start with a blank sheet of paper. “If you managed to get your hands on that, we’re well past that, and I wouldn’t believe anything it said.”

The Bishops described it as “a very productive day with good conversation”, and one in which enormous progress had been made in building “a very strong and broad consensus”.

Bishop Bruno described the House as “a passionate group of human beings . . . working hard to be articulate and clear about what we’re saying: people of integrity and strength who respect each other’s decisions.

“We really do intend to come out of this meeting with a statement that will speak clearly to the Communion and clearly to members of the Episcopal Church.”

They insisted that all ideas were on the table; the Presiding Bishop had invited bishops to contribute documents or proposals, so that the final statement would be reflective of everyone.

Asked whether a fudge might be the outcome, he promised “clear and straightforward answers. It would be up to others to judge the adequacy of the answers.” He “thought fudge was something you ate”. Bishop Bruno dealt curtly with an allegation that the Episcopal Church was expected to split by the end of the year. “I don’t have that information,” he said.

Bishop Alvarez said, “We’re addressing precisely that issue, recognising the controversy around it, but while we are very clear that we have very hostile people who aren’t in agreement, that doesn’t mean at all that we can foresee a significant breakaway or division of the Episcopal Church.”

Bishop Bruno added that the Anglican Communion had proved over and over again how tough the fabric of its common life actually was. “We’re a tough bunch; we’re faithful to the mission and ministry of Jesus; and, at the end of the day, I believe the Anglican Communion will find a way forward together.”

There would be no reversal of decisions taken at General Convention. Bishop Bruno said: “I don’t believe we’ll ever turn back the clock in that sense. . . As for are we going to withdraw our support of gay and lesbian people in the Church, no, we’re not. They’re fully enfranchised members of our body. Are we going to do anything that will exacerbate this situation? No, I don’t think that we will, and we’re waiting to see how our response will be received.”

Bishop Bruno concluded: “The most important thing is that no one walks away from this table; that we all listen to one another and hear one another. When we shut the door on our relationships, we shut the door on our lives and the abundance of God in our lives.”

In the event, apart from the Bishop of Pittsburgh and one or two supporting bishops, no one did walk away. The deliberations over the final drafting, expected at noon on Tuesday, took the Bishops through to the late afternoon. When they did appear, they were said to be unanimous.

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