Episcopal Leaders Reject Proposal for Same-Sex Union Liturgy

The New York Times, Aug. 6, 2003

MINNEAPOLIS, Aug. 6 — Only a day after approving the election of the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop, prelates of the church tonight rejected a proposal to begin writing an official liturgy for the blessing of same-sex unions.

In an atmosphere of tension and protest within their ranks, and weary from days of debate over whether to approve the bishop-elect, the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson, the bishops here at the Episcopal Church USA convention seemed eager to create no further controversy, division or pain. They said unity — or at least agreeing that they did not yet agree on what their religion says about homosexuality — would be better.

“This is best because those of you who have reached a further point of clarity can continue to do what you think is right in your area,” said Bishop Gethin Hughes of the Diocese of San Diego. “For many of us who are still struggling,” he said, there will be more time for sorting through the issues and coming to some answer together.

So by voice vote, the bishops instead overwhelmingly approved a weaker resolution regarding the treatment and pastoral care of gay and lesbian Episcopalians. It included a provision recognizing that some members of the clergy were already performing blessings for gay couples in some dioceses around the country. Leaders of Integrity, an alliance of gay church members, said the provision would for the first time signal to bishops that they had the broader church’s permission to allow same-sex unions in their dioceses if they choose to.

The resolution still requires approval on Thursday by the House of Deputies, a body of both lay and clerical members. But that approval is expected, and the Rev. Michael W. Hopkins, the president of Integrity, said of the vote today: “This is a major step forward. There has never been an explicit statement that acknowledges that bishops can do it.”

Still, the bishops rejected the most far-reaching and controversial proposal: creation of rites, to be included in a liturgical book, that would have blessed the unions of gay and lesbian couples. Some here said the rejection was not surprising at the end of a day marked by messages of protest by those upset with the approval of Bishop-elect Robinson to lead the Diocese of New Hampshire.

Some of the protests were small, others more dramatic. A dozen people wore ashes on their foreheads, as a sign of penance and mourning. A few wore black armbands. Some seats on the floors of the two decision-making bodies — the House of Deputies and the smaller House of Bishops — stayed empty all day.

A few blocks away, about 300 opponents of approving Bishop-elect Robinson, some 20 bishops among them, prayed together in a worship service at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In the pews, several people wept. Some spoke of the decision as a death.

“I feel betrayed,” said Dorothy Spaulding, 74, a church member from Virginia. Mrs. Spaulding said she did not know whether she would go to church this Sunday or, if she did, whether she would put anything on the collection plate.

“We have a lot of gays in our parish,” she said, “and most of them are nice people. They are still living in sin.”

Some at the convention said it was time, after nearly 30 years of debate over such questions, to open up the church, loudly and clearly, to gays. But Mrs. Spaulding and others said the choice of Bishop-elect Robinson and any official blessing for gays was in conflict with church teachings and threatened to split the United States church, which has 2.3 million members, and the broader Anglican Communion, with more than 75 million people around the world.

“We’ve been dealt a grave blow,” Bishop Robert W. Duncan of the Pittsburgh Diocese told the somber congregants gathered at the Westminster church. “How do we go forward and forth? I want to suggest to you, you already know the answer. It’s one word, five letters. Jesus.”

Meanwhile, as Bishop-elect Robinson was introduced on the floor of the House of Deputies — a standard gesture after bishops-elect win confirmation — many of the 800 people present stood to applaud.

But soon afterward one member of the house, Dr. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of the Diocese of South Carolina, walked to a microphone and, as more than 20 others filed in behind him, read a statement rejecting Bishop-elect Robinson’s approval. Half a dozen people dropped to their knees to pray.

“This church will never be the same again,” he said.

As many as two dozen people said they were staying away from the convention floor for the day, leaving Minneapolis or, at least in one case, resigning from the House of Deputies.

“We have violated our own constitution, so I am doing what I was called in my own heart to do,” the Rev. David H. Roseberry of Plano, Tex., said after walking off the floor of the House of Deputies, turning in his resignation letter to the leader of his delegation and sending a note saying goodbye to his diocesan leader in the House of Bishops. “What has happened is incredible. This is not the only body that is listening. There are 70 million Anglicans listening around the world.”

The Rev. Canon Ephraim Radner, a deputy from Colorado, also left. “It is with profound sorrow and trembling reluctance,” he told the House of Deputies, “that I inform the house of my conviction that this convention’s action of consent to Canon Robinson’s election as bishop in this church is unconstitutional.” Saying he was “no longer a representative to anything,” he left the building.

Despite the protests, meetings went on. On the floor of the House of Bishops tonight, Otis Charles, retired bishop of the Utah Diocese, pleaded with his colleagues to create a liturgy for gay unions. He was once a closeted gay bishop, he said, and told his colleagues the truth about 10 years ago.

He recalled the pain of hearing similar debates then, when he was still closeted. “I and every other gay and lesbian person was diminished,” he said. “I come now to this moment, and I find that it is still the same experience.”

Although few dioceses around the country have sanctioned same-sex blessings on their own, such ceremonies are quietly being conducted in many more, Bishop Charles said. “They’re already doing it,” he said. “They would like to have the same dignity that each one of you have.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday August 7, 2003.
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