Episcopalians still arguing over same-sex unions
August 19 2003 12:00 AM ET
A vote at last week's Episcopal General Convention meant to clarify where the church stands on same-sex unions is instead causing confusion in a denomination already torn apart over the role of
gay men and lesbians. Delegates who approved the church's first openly gay bishop disagree over
whether they also affirmed that same-gender blessing ceremonies are consistent with church teaching. Bishop Daniel Herzog of Albany, N.Y., wrote in an August 8 pastoral letter to his parishioners that "no authorization was given for blessing sexual relationships outside marriage." However, Bishop John-David Schofield of San Joaquin, Calif., who was on the committee that drafted the blessings measure, wrote to his diocese that the church "now allows the blessing of same-sex unions" as a result of the convention vote.
The competing interpretations come as Episcopalians and their sister churches worldwide anxiously watch to see if the denomination will split over the confirmation of bishop-elect V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Robinson, 56, a divorced father of two, has lived with his male partner for more than 13 years. Conservatives plan to seek authorization from the global Anglican Communion for a separate North American province as a result of Robinson's confirmation. The 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the 77 million-member Anglican Communion. The archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who leads the communion, has summoned the world's Anglican leaders for an October meeting to discuss international fallout from the convention. Some overseas bishops have threatened to cut ties with the U.S. denomination.
The confusion over the same-sex unions resolution began on the floor of the Minneapolis meeting August 7, when clergy and laypeople took up the measure that the bishops had approved by voice vote the day before. The bishops had watered down the document out of concern for church unity after Robinson's contentious confirmation. They removed language that would have directed a committee to draft a standard ceremony for possible inclusion in an official church prayer book. However, the bishops left intact the following paragraph that has been the source of disagreement: "We recognize that local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions."
Clergy and laypeople, who make up the legislative body known as the House of Deputies, found the language so unclear that they asked a chairman of the drafting committee, the Reverend Francis Wade of Washington, to explain its intent before they voted. Wade said from the floor that he interpreted the measure to mean that individual dioceses conducting same-sex blessings "are operating within the
parameters of the understanding of this church and its doctrine and discipline." Gay advocates claimed a victory, conservatives called it a defeat, and bishops have been disagreeing ever since over who is correct. The Reverend Michael Hopkins, president of the Episcopal gay advocacy group Integrity, argued that the different interpretations partly reflect the rival agendas that emerged after Robinson was approved. "Bishops are posturing one way or another prior to this October primates' meeting," Hopkins said. "Some of the conservatives want to make it seem as extreme as possible to get the result they want. Some of the more liberal bishops have tried to tone it down."
The Anglican Communion has no ultimate authority like a pope, so there is no one to say which view is accurate. Jim Solheim, a national spokesman for the Episcopal Church, called the vague language in the same-sex union resolution "a kind of perfect Anglican solution to a difficult situation." The measure allows local dioceses to continue setting their own policy on whether to authorize the ceremonies. "Those in favor of moving forward on same-sex blessings can say, 'We didn't move forward, but at least we acknowledged that it's happening and it's not wrong,"' Solheim said. "At the same time, conservatives are happy that we did not ask for the drafting of some liturgical rite. And they're