An aggressive campaign by conservative Episcopalians who leaked the contents of a pastoral teaching on sexuality helped to strip the 68-page report of its most controversial elements before passage at the denomination's general convention.
Critics contend the original document would have surreptitiously opened the door to sanctioning the ordination of homosexuals.
In a showdown at the House of Bishops' legislative session on the opening day of the ten-day convention that ended September 2 in Indianapolis, conservative bishops also convinced the majority in the full house to give equal footing to an "affirmation" of traditional teaching, crafted as an alternative to the human sexuality report.
The modernists gained some ground as the convention continued. On the third day of the convention, bishops decided to drop the affirmation from the study document. On the last day of business, bishops voted to spend $8,600 to have two committees study "the theological foundations and pastoral considerations involved in the development of rites honoring love and commitment between persons of the same sex."
A 15-member committee had devised five drafts of the sexuality report in response to a failure to resolve the issue at the denomination's last general convention in 1991. Bishops passed a resolution three years ago acknowledging that "discontinuity" exists between official church doctrine and the real-life experiences of some Episcopalians. This time, the House of Bishops voted to continue to study the issue, but traditionalists were pleased that several liberal elements had been deleted by the time the report passed.
"The fifth draft signaled a substantive change in the teaching of the church," Dallas Bishop James M. Stanton, author of the affirmation response, told CT. "We couldn't let it go unchallenged."
In addition, bishops voted 88 to 81 to downgrade the "pastoral letter"—which would have had to be read from pulpits-to a "study document." The 2.4 million-member denomination has been losing adherents in recent years because of its liberal bent. Entire congregations have left to join other denominations or to become independent.
New York Bishop Richard Grein, chair of the sexuality statement committee, opened debate in the House of Bishops by saying the document "in no way attempts to change the church's teaching." He said it "merely reports the present situation in our culture."
The draft had been leaked to the public by the renewal group Episcopalians United (EU), which charged that the committee had no evangelicals and did not represent the laity. Central Florida Bishop John W. Howe, in a June letter to Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning, said the committee members "are representative of a radical agenda-oriented wing of the church." EU also claimed vague wording in the report could allow bishops to ordain noncelibate homosexuals in good conscience.
Before the convention, Browning unleashed a strong denunciation of EU. But at the opening session, Browning appeared determined to prevent any type of formal church split. By then, 101 of the church's 283 active and retired bishops had signed the affirmation. The two-page document says premarital sex, adultery, and homosexual relations "cannot be condoned by the church," however
Language changes in the sexuality report include deleting "homosexuality" and making "lifelong, heterosexual, monogamous marriage" the "normative context for sexual intimacy." Bishops also approved substituting "husband and wife" for "mature adults" in a section dealing with "chaste, faithful, and committed lifelong unions."
The vote to approve the document, with the language changes, was 108 to 23. "All the changes made were very significant," Howe told CT. Long Island Bishop Orris Walker warned that the amended document would be out of touch with reality. "It ain't going to fly in Brooklyn and Queens."
"The church can't be in a position of doctrine being determined by what happens on the street," responded West Texas Bishop John MacNaughton. Former Colorado Bishop William Frey noted the document "leaves some questioning whether it is possible to sin sexually."
HOMOSEXUALS IN THE CHURCH
A resolution passed at the church's 1979 convention stated that "it is not appropriate" for the church to ordain practicing homosexuals or adulterers.
Even so, in 1990 Newark Bishop John Spong became the first bishop to ordain an avowed homosexual. That action prompted a bishops' vote of 80 to 76 criticizing Spong and declaring ordination of noncelibate homosexuals "inappropriate." While the church has not recognized the possibility of a "local option" to permit bishops to ordain homosexual priests, such action is now quietly tolerated. Michigan Bishop R. Stewart Wood ordained an avowed lesbian to the priesthood a week before the convention.
Integrity, the Episcopal homosexual caucus, which has more than 70 U.S. chapters, expressed "sadness" over the vote and said it does not "express the direction in which the church is clearly moving." About 35 of the 99 dioceses now openly ordain active homosexuals, according to Integrity.
The day after the vote, Spong released a five-page statement, immediately signed by 44 other bishops, saying, "We will continue to relate to these couples with our support, our pastoral care, our prayers, and our recognition, in whatever form is deemed appropriate."
Rio Grande Bishop Terence Kelshaw says he hopes the affirmation and the sexuality teaching vote signal a new proactive approach by conservative bishops.
"Evangelicals in the House have stopped being defensive and have started challenging theological suppositions," Kelshaw told CT. "There has been a conspiracy of collegiality that bishops are not to say or do anything that will rock the church, so people like Spong have gotten away with murder for a number of years.
"Those who want to redefine Anglicanism will come back just as strongly," Kelshaw says. "The war is not over."
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