Why I Voted No
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.
(Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”)
He is our peace, making both groups into one and
destroying the barrier formed by the dividing wall,
the hostility between us. (Ephesians 2:14)
You may have read that in New Orleans on September 25 there was one vote opposed to the adoption of “A Response to Questions and Concerns Raised by our Anglican Communion Partners,” the House of Bishops’ reply to the demands made of the Episcopal Church by the Primates of the Anglican Communion in their February 19 communiquÃ© from Dar es Salaam. That vote was mine. Let me explain.
Like others, I am deeply concerned about, and committed to, the unity of the Anglican Communion and, beyond it, that of the church catholic and ecumenical; the Body of Christ.
But the unity of the Anglican Communion is not based on the uniformity of its thirty-eight provinces, each of which brings to the whole the unique gift of who it is under the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit. We, the Episcopal Church, are not today what we used to be, nor are we what we may be tomorrow.
Today, however, we are a church that endeavors to honor each individual for who she or he is, recognizing that, among other gifts, some are by nature gay or lesbian in their sexual orientation and, furthermore, should be as free as straight persons to make, with the church’s blessing, a life-long commitment of their lives to another.
In this belief, at the 2006 General Convention, I was one of sixteen bishops who voted against Resolution B033 calling upon bishops with jurisdiction and Standing Committees “to exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.”
Howsoever diffuse a connotation may have attended the language of “restraint” then, its meaning was tightened on September 25 when the House of Bishops concurred “with Resolution EC011 of the Executive Council, commending the Report of the Communion Sub-Group of the Joint Standing Committee of the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates of the Anglican Communion as an accurate evaluation of Resolution B033 of the 2006 General Convention.”
The Sub-Group had noted that “by requiring that the restraint must be expressed in a particular way ”“ ”˜by not consenting ”¦’, the resolution is calling for a precise response, which complies with the force of the recommendation of the Windsor Report” ”“ the finding of the Lambeth Commission on Communion published October 18, 2004, in response to problems stemming from the reaction of conservatives to the consecration of the Bishop of New Hampshire. The group also noted “that while the Windsor Report restricted its recommendation to candidates for the episcopate who were living in a same gender union, the resolution at General Convention widened this stricture to apply to a range of lifestyles which present a wider challenge. The group welcomed this widening of the principle, which was also recommended by the Windsor Report, and commends it to the Communion.”
When, on September 25, the House of Bishops adopted this interpretation of B033 and affirmed that non-celibate gay and lesbian persons are included among those to whom B033 pertains, knowing that resolutions are recommendatory, not canonically mandatory, and that therefore compliance is voluntary, I honestly could not promise I would not consent to the election of a gay or lesbian priest to the episcopate.
–(The Rt. Rev.) Charles Bennison is Bishop of Pennsylvania
The House of Bishops went on to “pledge not to authorize for use in our dioceses any public rites of blessing of same-sex unions until a broader consensus emerges in the Communion, or until General Convention takes further action. In the near future we hope to be able to draw upon the benefits of the Communion-wide listening process. In the meantime, it is important to note that no rite of blessing for persons living in same-sex unions has been adopted or approved by our General Convention. In addition to not having authorized liturgies, the majority of bishops do not make allowance for the blessing of same-sex unions.”
I am not party to that majority. Consequently, again because resolutions are recommendatory, not mandatory, and because I could not presume that our clergy would cease from asking me for allowances to bless the union of gay or lesbian couples, I did not feel that in honesty I could voluntarily promise I would deny (though I have on occasion) such requests. Usually, indeed, I have granted permission if the vestry supports the priest in what is proposed, the priest agrees to make the marriage public in the parish, the priest has carried out the usual marriage counseling, and if, in my judgment, the union will prove to be a blessing to the church and the wider community as it usually has long already been.
Because the Book of Common Prayer includes a rubric stating that “for special days of fasting or thanksgiving, appointed by civil of Church authority, and for other special occasions for which no service or prayer has been provided in this Book, the bishop may set forth such forms as are fitting to the occasion,” I provide our clergy with “A Rite of Commitment to a Life Together,” of which I was a co-author in 1996, and ask that they use it for the service.
Despite the bishops stated effort on September 25 to be “clear and outspoken in our shared commitment to establish and protect the civil rights of gay and lesbian persons, and to name and oppose at every turn any action or policy that does violence to them, encourages violence toward them, or violates their dignity as children of God,” and their articulated support of “the Archbishop of Canterbury in his expressed desire to explore ways for the Bishop of New Hampshire to participate in the Lambeth Conference” (although, unlike the rest of us, he has not yet been invited), their mutual agreement to cease from consenting to the election of non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy to the episcopate and from allowing same-sex unions buttresses our society’s homophobia and heterosexism, and effects the very violence they sincerely deplore.
The “Response” equally encourages sexist violence against women by providing an alternative for bishops who refuse to welcome our duly-elected Presiding Bishop into their dioceses. While the Presiding Bishop was magnificent in her leadership of the New Orleans meeting, as she has been through her ministry as our primate this past year, I could not support her plan for episcopal visitors for dioceses that request alternative oversight, commended by the House of Bishops’ “Response,” any more than I could vote for Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO) several years ago as affirmed by the Windsor Report, which with the episcopal visitors’ plan is seen as being consistent.
The most theologically misconstrued and ultimately un-pastoral part of the “Response,” however, comes when, after rightly saying they “deplore incursions into our jurisdictions by uninvited bishops and call for them to end,” the bishops turn around and express their expectation that “the Presiding Bishop will continue conversation with those dioceses that may feel the need for” episcopal ministries other than those of their own bishops, and that she will seek “communion-wide consultation with respect to the pastoral needs of those seeking alternative oversight.” Such actions would, if they occurred, smack of incursions ”“ simply more softly and subtly made.
Before any of the four gospels was written, the Apostle Paul gave definition to “the gospel” of Christian theology over against the influential challenge of Gnostic thought.
Had Gnosticism won, the church would have become a club characterized by like-minded people. In the unlikely event such a church would have had bishops, their dioceses would have been made up of people who agreed with them ”“ about the role of women, the place of gay and lesbian persons, or any passing issue of the day. Their churches would have been homogeneous communities walled off from one another.
But just as the poet knew that “something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Paul understood that in Jesus every “barrier formed by the dividing wall” has been broken down. As it happened, Pauline thought prevailed, making possible a church that would be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic ”“ a heterogeneous church made up of “all sorts and conditions,” a corpus mixtum united not by uniformity of thought or action or feeling, but ultimately and only by the love we know in Christ.
Afraid we may be walled off from the Anglican Communion, and the Communion from us, in New Orleans my beloved episcopal colleagues did not, as some have commented, simply describe where we are now as a church. They built higher and thicker walls. They diminished the rich meaning of the Anglican Communion. They undermined the catholicity of the church.
I voted no because I believe we Episcopalians should be who we are, howsoever unique we may be, and offer ourselves freely as our gift to the Communion. If the Communion cannot accept us as we are at present, we can still humbly offer other gifts others may receive ”“ our companion relationships, our hands-on labor, our financial support, our seminary training, and our daily prayers. Such strikes me as the kenotic approach of self-oblation, self-emptying, to which the gospel calls us.