By Jim Naughton
The 76th General Convention of the Episcopal Church is likely to pick up where the 75th General Convention left off, with attention focused squarely on one particular piece of legislation—Resolution B033. That bill, pushed through on the final day of the 2006 convention under unusual parliamentary circumstances, was meant to ensure the Episcopal Church retained its place within the Anglican Communion, and has been widely interpreted as a de facto moratorium on the consecration of bishops in same sex relationships.
When the legislative committees of the House of Deputies and House of Bishops convene in Anaheim on July 7, they also will consider numerous resolutions on the blessing of same sex relationships and the development of rites for same sex marriage.
Together, these issues are likely to be the most closely watched – and most passionately argued – of the convention, though they constitute a small part of a legislative agenda that includes the church’s 2010-2012 budget, a new initiative on domestic poverty, a possible revision of the church’s disciplinary canons, steps toward full communion with the Moravian Church and conversation about the proposed Anglican Covenant, which has yet to be released in its final form.
Resolution B033 urges diocesan bishops and standing committees not to consent to the election of a bishop “whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.” The phrase “manner of life” was widely interpreted to include gay and lesbian clergy who lived with a partner of the same sex.
The legislation was written on the night before the convention was to close, amidst rumors of trans-Atlantic arm-twisting by the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Williams was considering whether to invite the bishops of the Episcopal Church to the 2008 Lambeth Conference. Previous attempts to pass similar legislation had failed, but on the final day of the convention, the newly-elected Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, took the unusual step of addressing the House of Deputies. Her popularity, coupled with fears that Williams would recognize parishes and dioceses threatening to break away from the Episcopal Church as the authorized Anglican presence in the United States, led the Deputies to pass legislation that had seemed all but dead the day before.
The bishops of the Episcopal Church, with the notable exception of the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the church’s first openly gay bishop, were invited to the Lambeth Conference. Williams has not recognized the new church founded last month in Texas by members of the parishes and dioceses that broke away from the Episcopal Church and allied themselves with more theologically conservative Anglican churches in Africa and South America. Jefferts Schori and the Rev. Ian T. Douglas of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., serve on the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council, perhaps the most influential body in the Communion. And the church has deepened its relationships with many dioceses in provinces not sympathetic to its acceptance of gay and lesbian clergy and couples.
At the same time, however, the passage of B033 has been interpreted by Williams and other leaders in the Communion as an “agreed upon” moratorium—a phrase used in the report of the Windsor Continuation Group, which was endorsed at the meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in May. Williams has argued that B033 should remain in place until the Communion reaches a “new consensus” on same sex relationships, a consensus few see on the horizon. In the meantime, the number of gay candidates being considered for episcopal elections has dwindled. The Diocese of Western New York recently cited B033 in instructing the committee screening candidates to become its next bishop not to interview partnered gay or lesbian candidates.
Three years after its passage, B033 is unpopular, yet many believe it remains necessary. No fewer than a dozen resolutions to repeal, clarify or supersede the legislation have been submitted to the House of Deputies’ and House of Bishops’ Committee on World Mission. The two houses’ cognate (i.e. similarly named) committees typically meet as one at General Convention, but are not bound to do so. The deputies, many of whom are still smarting from the unusual procedures employed to pass B033, have expressed far more interest in revisiting the legislation than the bishops, who know that Williams does not want the legislation repealed. (The archbishop will be able to reinforce that message in person. He will be attending the General Convention July 8-9 to speak at a forum on the global recession and to give a Bible study.)
Legislation from the World Mission Committee is sent first to the House of Deputies. How the bishops will respond to attempts to repeal or soften B033 may depend on how narrowly the legislation is written. Jefferts Schori has said she does not want to repeal B033, preferring to make a statement about where the church stands now.
One approach that has won pre-Convention support is embodied in legislation from the Diocese of Rochester that “affirms that standing committees and bishops with jurisdiction are not bound by any extra-canonical restraints – including but not limited to the restraints set forth in Resolution B033 passed by the 75th General Convention – when considering consents to the ordination of any candidate to the episcopate.”
If such legislation passes, the questions of whether an openly gay bishop-elect would be approved by a majority of diocesan bishops and standing committees, and whether any diocese would be willing to put its future on hold long enough to find out, will remain open.
The convention also will consider a variety of proposals to move the church toward authorizing either the blessing of same sex relationships or the authorization of a rite for same sex marriage. At its 2003 General Convention, the church passed a resolution recognizing “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.”
The language of the legislation, while not precise, was interpreted in most quarters as granting diocesan bishops the right to exercise a “local option” on blessing same sex relationships. However, Williams, the majority of the primates in the Anglican Communion and the Anglican Consultative Council have endorsed a moratorium on “public rites” for the blessing of same sex relationships. This language, even less precise, has been interpreted variously as calling for an outright ban on same sex blessings, an acknowledgment that pastoral necessity might permit low profile private blessings, and as permitting same sex blessings as long as a ritual authorized by a church or a bishop is not used.
Williams has not definitively dispelled this controversy, however, at a press conference at the end of the Lambeth Conference, he said that “ as soon as there is a liturgical form it gives the impression that this has the church’s stamp on it,” and that he was “not very happy” about American attempts to develop rites.
In May, the Anglican Consultative Council affirmed the report of the Windsor Continuation Group, a panel appointed by Williams whose five members were previously on record opposing the blessing of gay relationships. The report calls for as yet unspecified consequences against bishops, dioceses and churches that authorize rite for same sex blessings.
Resolutions on same sex relationships include: an affirmation that there are no restrictions on a diocesan bishop's authorization of same sex blessings, a request that rites for both same sex blessings and same sex marriage be presented to the next convention in 2012, the authorization of a church-wide study of marriage rites, and a proposal to allow bishops in the six states that permit same sex marriage to adopt the church’s existing rite of marriage for use with gay and lesbian couples.
These resolutions will be considered by the Committee on Prayer Book, Liturgy and Church Music, whose legislation is considered first by the House of Bishops.
The church has repeatedly sought to play for time in managing the conflict between its desire to bless same sex relationships and its desire to remain within the Anglican Communion. Legislation that would immediately change existing policy, therefore, may not fare as well as a resolution requiring final action at a future convention – even if that resolution is more ambitious in its ultimate effect.
(For coverage of the B033 saga as it unfolded, see these 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 items from Daily Episcopalian, and this wrap-up on pages 1 and 4 of the July/August 2006 Washington Window. In reading these dispatches, it helps to be aware that a special commission appointed before the General Convention had proposed a resolution advising the Church to exercise "very considerable caution" before consecrating another gay bishop. This language is weaker than the language of B033, which appeals for a denial of consent.)
Jim Naughton is editor in chief of Episcopal Cafe This article appears in the July-August issue of Washington Window, the newspaper of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.