Ten thousand Episcopalians have gathered in Columbus Ohio to worship, pray and talk together. The scale of the Convention is breathtaking; the Conference Centre is half a mile from end to end, and the daily Eucharist is in a hall large enough to accommodate all the participants. People from across the spectrum of the church are present, from the conservative dioceses such as Pittsburgh and Fort Worth to liberals from Chicago and New York; worship is bi-lingual in Spanish and English; and legislative sessions start at 7.30 a.m and go on late into the evening.
The daily Eucharist is perhaps the most powerful part of the day – particularly as the whole congregation is seated at tables of ten people. After the sermon we are asked to take part in a “Table Discussion” which is extremely effective, creating a mini-community among the vastness of the worship and a palpable sense of unity within the incredible diversity of the Convention.
We are here to extend the hand of friendship from InclusiveChurch, to build networks of friendship and to share our common experiences. Clearly the huge issue for this conference, apart from the election of a new Presiding Bishop, is how the church here responds to the recommendations of the Windsor Report. Episcopalians are aware that “the eyes of the world are upon us” and are deeply aware that what happens this week will affect the future of the Anglican Communion. There is no sense that they are acting lightly, carelessly or without serious thought.
We have met, among other people, Cate Waynick, the Bishop of Indianapolis; Jon Bruno the Bishop of Los Angeles; representatives of Affirming Catholicism USA, Via Media, Claiming the Blessing; clergy and lay people from across the US and beyond. Apart from the generous and open welcome InclusiveChurch receives, there is a strong sense that ECUSA recognises its place as part of the Anglican Communion; the issue, therefore, for this week is how it can square the recommendations of the Windsor Report and the concerns of its conservative members with the strongly expressed determination to support, affirm and encourage the faith and ministry of lesbians and gay men within the church.
But the only point on which there is clarity is that there is no clarity. A Special Commission was set up to draft a possible response to the Windsor report, which has recommended a number of resolutions for Convention to consider. In these resolutions, the church expresses “deep regret” at the pain caused due to its actions and calls for “very considerable caution in the nomination, election, consent to, and consecration of bishops whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.” A further resolution asks the church not to proceed to “authorize public Rites of Blessing for same-sex unions, until some broader consensus in the Anglican Communion emerges.”
The legislative process calls for a Hearing to be held before the introduction of resolutions, which then have to be passed by a majority in the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies (which is made up of clergy and lay delegates from every diocese). The hearing regarding these resolutions was held last night; 1500 people attended and 70 spoke, including Gene Robinson (coincidentally following Robert Duncan the (conservative) bishop of Pittsburgh), Colin Coward of Changing Attitude and the Archbishop of York. While most of the contributions were unsurprising, there was clearly an undercurrent from some conservatives that the present situation cannot continue and that unity is being strained to breaking point.
In other words, the proposed resolutions go too far for some and not far enough for others. A startling and entirely inappropriate intervention from Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, makes this clear. In a paper released to the Anglican Communion Network of (predominantly conservative) bishops a couple of weeks ago and widely publicised just before the hearing, he calls for ECUSA to use precisely the language of the Windsor report in expressing regret and imposing a “moratorium” on the appointment of bishops who might cause controversy; he accuses the Special Commission’s report of duplicity in its use of language and includes scarcely veiled threats should ECUSA not roll over and submit to the Windsor recommendations. While his paper was seized on by some to reinforce their positions, for most it was seen as a unacceptable example of arrogance from the Church of England – precisely the kind of thing guaranteed not to encourage the meeting of minds which is so urgently sought. The Archbishop of York, who is present for the whole week, made similar points but with a great deal more tact.
The resolutions are now to be discussed in detail. There is much to be negotiated. There is a danger is that the substance of the issue – the acceptance of lesbians and gay people – will be confused with the fallout of the process related to Gene Robinson’s appointment. Unclarity on both issues may continue for some while yet. A desire for closure on these issues may not be fulfilled. To be continued……