The New Orleans Statement by the US House of Bishops has generated a wide and contradictory spate of explanatory letters and speeches from the American bishops to their dioceses. While the Primates ACC Joint Standing Committee’s report of Sept 30 argues the New Orleans statement complied with the primates’ request for a moratorium on gay bishops and blessings, liberal and conservative bishops in the US are united in saying it promised no such thing.
Speaking at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral on Sept 30, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said the US Church was ”˜not going backward’ on gay rights. “All people, including gay and lesbian Christians and non-Christians, are deserving of the fullest regard of the church,” she said, noting the New Orleans statement was part of a larger conversation leading to the full inclusion of gays and lesbians into the life of the church.
Pennsylvania Bishop Charles Bennison told his diocese he had voted against the New Orleans statement because he would not honour the gay bishop ban. The 2006 statement by the US General Convention to withhold consent for new gay bishops had been ”˜recommendatory, not canonically mandatory,’ meaning that ”˜compliance is voluntary’ he said. “I honestly could not promise I would not consent to the election of a gay or lesbian priest to the episcopate,” Bishop Bennison said.
Nor would Vermont honour the gay blessing ban. On Sept 28 Vermont Bishop Thomas Ely explained that the bishops had stated that “the majority of bishops make no allowance for the blessing of same-sex unions. Of course that means some bishops do” permit gay blessings. Bishop Ely said: “I am one who makes allowance for such blessings, and I intend to continue the current pastoral approach we have in place in the Diocese of Vermont for the blessing of holy unions.” He added that this was ”˜clearly addressed and understood in the House of Bishops’ and that gay blessings would be permitted.
Writing in the October issue of his diocesan newspaper, Washington Bishop John Chane stated that while his diocese did not yet have an official rite for the blessing of same-sex unions, the New Orleans statement would permit same-sex ”˜blessings to continue in the diocese’.
On Oct 9 the Bishop of New Hampshire Gene Robinson stated the Primates-ACC Joint Standing committee had ”˜misunderstood us’ when it reported the American House of Bishops had ”˜declared a
moratorium on all such public Rites’ of same-sex blessings. “Neither in our discussions nor in our statement did we agree to or declare such a moratorium on permitting such rites to take place,” Bishop Robinson said, adding that while it may be true of some dioceses it “is certainly not the case in my own diocese and many others.”
Bishop Robinson said that he had urged the Bishops’ statement ”˜be reflective of what is true right now in the Episcopal Church: that while same-sex blessings are not officially permitted in most dioceses, they are going on and will continue to go on’. He stated that he was unhappy with the final statement that said a ”˜majority of Bishops do not sanction’ gay blessings. This ”˜implied that a minority do in fact sanction such blessings, and many more take no actions to prevent them’. It was a ”˜mistake’ not to ”˜come right out and [say] so’.
The conservative bishop of San Joaquin John-David Schofield agreed with Bishop Robinson that the New Orleans statement was “neither [a] prohibition nor [a] restraint.” It merely turns a ”˜blind eye’ to the issue.
The Bishop of Dallas, James Stanton, was more sanguine than Bishop Schofield about the statement, stating the deliberations surrounding the report had been the most open and frank in his 15 years as a bishop in debating the topic. “But the final result, I must confess, is disappointing to me. I do not believe the answers requested by the Primates have been given. I do not believe we have moved very far ”” if at all ”” from where we were before this meeting in terms of the assurances sought,” he said.
The majority of US Bishops did not believe “our decisions as a House might be wrong and at any rate ought to be subject to the advice and concerns of our Communion brothers and sisters.” The final statement, he observed, was an admission that the centre could not hold and that the Church was ”˜walking apart’, Bishop Stanton concluded.
In a letter to the clergy of Central Florida, Bishop John W Howe stated he had voted against the final statement, saying it did not ”˜fully comply’ with the Primates’ requests ”˜but we came much closer than I ever thought we would’. The Bishops had made a “distinction between ”˜public Rite’ and ”˜private blessings’,” he said. Public rites would not be authorised, but there was ”˜an implicit acknowledgement that in some places private blessings are still being offered’, Bishop Howe wrote.
“In our failure to do all that the Primates asked of us I was unable to vote for the Bishops’ Statement, but I was grateful to see a far higher level of concern for the unity of the Communion evident throughout our meeting than I have ever witnessed previously,” Bishop Howe said, adding
“whether or not that level was high enough remains to be seen.”
–This article appears in the Church of England Newspaper edition of October 19, 2007, on page 7