Note--this post is a reworking of an article I wrote for the South Bend Tribune three years ago. I'll follow it with a post about the recent General Convention in Columbus and relations with worldwide Anglicanism.
For the last year I've been very much a marginal Episcopalian--a "Christmas and Easter man." I work the swing shift at the Amtrak ticket office in Normal Illinois--midday on Friday, mornings on Saturday and Sunday, and Monday and Tuesday evenings. And the Episcopal churches in Bloomington and Normal don't have evening services, except for Christmas and Easter. When I do attend church, it's usually at Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, which is within walking distance of my apartment, and offers a Saturday afternoon vigil mass.
When I became an Episcopalian more than a quarter century ago, I was very much an active parishioner. I have served as an acolyte, a lector, and as a member of the vestry (that’s Episcopal for church council—traditionally it met in the room where the liturgical garments, or vestments, were kept).
I had all the enthusiasm of a convert, which I was. The Episcopal Church was within the Catholic tradition, but was also open to change. Every three years, the church holds a general convention, in which representatives of the laity and clergy meet to decide the issues of the national church.
In 1976, three years before my confirmation into the church, the General Convention, meeting in Minneapolis, approved the ordination of women to the priesthood and introduced a new Book of Common Prayer. The fact that it had been willing to make such momentous decisions attracted me to the denomination.
The church went out of its way to accommodate those who could not accept the church’s decision. Bishops who would not ordain women did not have to, so long as they allowed a neighboring bishop to perform the ceremony. The new Book of Common Prayer introduced services in modern English, but gave congregations the option of using the traditional Prayer Book language, such as the following:
“Hear what the Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
That brief, elegant summation of a Christian’s duty can be found only in the older, (Rite I) version of the Eucharistic liturgy. Had the church refused to compromise with conservatives, we would have lost it as a part of the service.
Three years ago, the General Convention met again in Minneapolis, and made two controversial decisions. It voted to confirm the selection of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as Bishop of New Hampshire. And it agreed to permit American dioceses to continue offering blessings for same-sex unions.
Many Episcopalians, including Bishop Edward Stuart Little of South Bend, were and are adamantly opposed to the convention’s decision. I believe the convention made the right decision. Bishop Little and his allies are sincere and decent Christians, with whom I disagree on this issue. I supported the decision largely from personal experience. When I worked at Amtrak's Chicago call center, many of my co-workers were gay or lesbian, and I had come to respect them. I believe that same-sex partners are entitled to a legal recognition of their partnership, and that a church blessing of such a commitment is appropriate. Sexual orientation, at least according to the most recent science, appears to be determined more by genetics than environment.
I also spent eight years in the Diocese of Chicago, where gay priests were almost the norm, and where there had been at least one gay bishop. Not openly gay, of course. And that was the problem. There was an environment of hypocrisy and deceit which was, to put it mildly, unhealthy for a Christian church. Priests, who were often married and with children, carried on affairs with gay lovers, to the detriment of both their ministry and their families.
“Were there no legislative items on the table in Minneapolis,” wrote Bishop Little in a “pastoral word” explaining his vote against Robinson’s confirmation and the blessing of same-sex unions, “I could easily maintain a holy silence as I walk the pilgrim’s journey with gay and lesbian Christians, allowing God to sort things out in his own wondrously surprising way.”
Bishop Little is a man I admire and respect. But a “holy silence,” maintained by people without the integrity of an Edward Stuart Little, can degenerate into “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
And it’s just possible that God is sorting things out “in his own wondrously surprising way” in the wake of the General Convention. Bishop-elect Robinson, interviewed after his return to New Hampshire, said that he “had any number of people come up to me and say, my son or daughter is going back to church for the first time in years.”