MANY RESPONSES to last week’s decision by the Episcopal Church’s General Convention to allow (again) the possibility of gay bishops and same-sex blessings, have spoken of schism. Worse, some suggested that the Convention’s decisions were deliberately provocative.
Nothing could be further from the truth. As one of a number of international visitors at the General Convention, I witnessed the care and thought with which laity, clergy, and bishops deliberated on these issues. As the dust settles, we can ask more soberly: why did the votes go the way they did?
The primary reason must be the Episcopal Church’s genuinely democratic polity. Bishops, clergy, laypeople, dioceses, and church agencies can all submit resolutions. In the first few days of the Convention, committee hearings on these resolutions are held at which anyone can speak, even visitors: you just sign up and if there is time you are called.
Then the committees shape those resolutions and bring them to the House of Deputies (clergy and laity combined) and the House of Bishops for debate on the floor before any vote is taken. There is an enormous respect for due process, combined with a genuine sense of openness to where discussion and the Holy Spirit may lead.
Speaking to visitors from other parts of the Communion I realised that we were all — especially those from the Global South — struck by this democratic polity. Jenny Plane-Te Paa from New Zealand, a member of the original Windsor Group, spoke to this when she was invited to address the House of Deputies last week: “One of my deepest regrets (one that I know is shared by other Commissioners) [is] that, as members of the Lambeth Commission, we were never fully apprised of the full facts of your polity and, in particular, of the limits to the power of the office of Presiding Bishop.”
She continued: “As a result of that crucial gap in knowledge and understanding, it is my belief that the very unfair, in fact the odious myth of ‘The Episcopal Church acting (in the matter of the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson) with typical unchecked US imperialism,’ was more readily enabled and abetted to grow wings and fly unchecked for way too long across the reaches of the Anglican Communion.”
THIS General Convention allowed representatives from the Episcopal Church to speak up about the reality of its life and mission and counter that “odious myth”. In the case of resolution D025, which effectively enables the Church to consider the possibility of gay bishops again, two additional special hearings were held before it was debated in either House.
Any who cared to speak were given the opportunity to testify about how B033 (the 2006 resolution widely interpreted as a moratorium on gay bishops) had affected their churches.
Most spoke about the ways in which their congregations were both genuinely inclusive of gays and lesbians and deeply engaged in mission to other parts of the world, their church members visiting parts of the Global South, especially Africa, to help build wells and orphanages, and provide food and shelter. Others were giving generously to that work.
These testimonials challenged the false dichotomy that says the Episcopal Church has to choose between relations with the rest of the Communion and full inclusion of all peoples in their own churches and church orders. The speakers reminded us, too, of how much work the Episcopal Church does, often quietly and unsung, to build up the global Anglican body.
What was also striking about these testimonials was the number of young people who spoke. The Episcopal Church is not going grey in the pews. It is a Church that has young people engaged and involved at all levels. It is, therefore, a Church that will thrive and grow into the future — and that cannot necessarily be said of other Churches in the West.
And those young people have an enormous passion for mission. In a forum on global economics, in which the Archbishop of Canterbury also participated, we heard from young people involved in work to stop environmental degradation in rural communities in America, in ministry with the native peoples of America, and in malaria prevention in Africa.
And, for the vast majority of that younger generation, the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people is a no-brainer, a non-issue. To go against full inclusion would be to offend their sense of the gospel — God’s good news to all people — and affect their Church’s capacity for mission.
That is what General Convention confirmed: that the Episcopal Church has to be true to its own mission and theology. In recent years, we have heard about how, for example, the Muslim context of Nigeria affects the Anglican Church there, and we have been asked to heed that. But we haven’t heard so much about our own contexts, even though the survival and growth of Anglicanism in the West depends on taking those mission contexts seriously.
The Episcopal Church has faced up to this. We would do well to heed this lesson in our own Church of England.
Canon Shaw is Dean of Divinity and Fellow of New College, Oxford, and Canon Theologian of Salisbury Cathedral.
‘We were reminded of how much work the Episcopal Church does, quietly and unsung, to build up the global Anglican body’