Greenbelt Interfaith News
    U.S. Feature

    July 31, 1997

    Summer Conventions '97
    Episcopalians (ECUSA)
    By Heather Elizabeth Peterson

    Denomination: Episcopal Church.
    Convention: 72nd General Convention.
    Date: July 16-25.
    Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
    Hot issues: Homosexuality, women's ordination, ecumenical agreement.

    Whether it is seen as a denomination of godly moderation or as a church too muddle-headed to make up its mind, the Episcopal Church continues to venture cautiously into the issue of homosexuality. At its triennial convention, ECUSA voted to extend health insurance to domestic partners, but refused to give pensions to domestic partners. The denomination voted to apologize to homosexuals for the church's mistreatment of them, but refused to authorize the development of rites to bless same-sex unions.

    Episcopalians' continued disagreement over matters of human sexuality was apparent in the testimony for and against the same-sex blessings. "We are not attempting to subvert the sanctity of marriage," said the Rev. Jane Garrett, supporting the resolution. "Far from it. We are asking to join in the support of the sanctity of marriage through full participation in it."

    Other delegates, though, felt that more time was needed to discuss the theological reasons for same-sex blessing, and said that the church committee that had studied the issue had not given a clear indication of whether such rites should be developed. Passage of the resolution fell one vote short in both the lay and clergy divisions of the church's legislative body; because of this, the church's bishops did not vote on the matter.

    The director of communications for Integrity, the church's gay and lesbian organization, said that his group remained hopeful after the defeat. "We really do feel good about the blessing vote," the Rev. Michael W. Hopkins told The Washington Blade. "We couldn't even get this on the floor three years ago; for it to almost pass is astounding."

    Homosexuality was far from the only explosive issue being discussed at the convention. Equally important to Episcopalians was a resolution to make women's ordination mandatory in all dioceses (regions) of the church. Four bishops presently refuse to ordain women or to allow them to serve as priests in their dioceses.

    Among the critics of the resolution were 88 ordained women who signed "An Open Letter to the Church" counselling patience from those wishing to further the ordination of women. One of the signers, the Rev. Margaret E. Phillips of Alexandria, Va., noted that all four bishops were elected after the 1976 decision to ordain women. "They were approved in the proper ways with their views widely known," she said, according to United Voice, an Episcopal newspaper. "It would be an unconscionable act for us to pull the rug out from under them now."

    A lay woman from one of the dioceses that does not allow female priests had a quick response to the letter-signers, according to the Episcopal News Service. "I invite you to stand on your convictions," said Katie Sherrod. "Come live with us in Fort Worth for the next 20 years or so – where, if what you urge happens, you can live out your call for patience by not functioning as priests for the next two decades."

    The resolution passed, along with a second resolution prohibiting anyone from being barred from office because of their views on the ordination of women. Some conservative clergy had complained that seminarians and clergy who opposed women's ordination are being discriminated against.

    The dissenting bishops were not appeased by the second resolution, though. Bishop William Wantland of the Diocese of Eau Claire (Wisconsin) indicated that he would resign; Bishop Jack Iker of the Diocese of Fort Worth (Texas) told the Forth Worth Star-Telegram that he would implement a compromise plan that would allow women to be ordained in a neighboring diocese, but that he would not comply with the first resolution.

    "I believe that the canons [church laws] hold the church together," Bishop Iker told a committee before the vote, according to the Episcopal News Service. "But I think unjust canons that violate conscience must be rejected, resisted, and if necessary, blatantly disobeyed."

    The newly elected leader of ECUSA, Bishop Frank T. Griswold III, is not overly concerned by such disagreements. "The [Christian] Church is destined always to contain within itself different perspectives and different points of view," he told the press. "We need to honor and celebrate the fact that [Episcopalians] do have a core experience of life in Christ . . . that [gives] us the ground that allows us to disagree profoundly and yet still have a sense of being within one community."

    These issues overshadowed what might otherwise have been a controversial resolution on Episcopal-Lutheran relations. With widespread support from the delegates, the Episcopal Church agreed to enter into full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The ecumenical agreement is likely to receive more opposition from the ELCA when it meets in August, but the Rev. Dr. Richard Jeske, the Lutheran co-chair of the committee which drafted the agreement, told the Episcopal News Service that he was optimistic. "I know the Lutherans will go for it," he said, "because after the vote the Episcopalians started singing [Martin Luther's hymn] ĎA Mighty Fortress is Our God.'"

    Related Articles

    World Brief: English Survey Intensifies Anglican Debate Over Gay Ordinations (July 31, 1997)

    Washington Feature: Visions, Not Arguments: Canada's Anglican Primate Seeks Unity and Inclusiveness. "Our assurance and God's plan may not always be on the same track," Archbishop Michael G. Peers told an Episcopal congregation during a recent visit to Washington. In an interview with Greenbelt Interfaith News, the head of the Anglican Church of Canada speaks about better ways for the world's Anglicans to achieve unity and inclusiveness. (July 31, 1997)

    Greenbelt Brief: Vicar of St. George's Testifies at Episcopal Convention (July 31, 1997)

    U.S. Feature: The Quiet Revolution: How a Heresy Trial Has Rocked the Episcopal Church. Last year, an Episcopal bishop was tried for heresy after he ordained a practicing homosexual. Recent events show that Episcopalians continue to be deeply divided over gay issues. (June 1, 1997)

    Greenbelt Brief: Local Lutherans and Episcopalians Learn About Each Other (June 1, 1997)

    Related Links

    Report to the General Convention on the Blessing of Same-Sex Relationships (1997)

    Report of the [Episcopal] Committee for Dialogue on Canon III.8.1 [making women's ordination mandatory] (1995)

    Concordat of Agreement (1996)

    An Open Letter to the Church (1997)

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    ©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson