UPDATED: Resolution R-2a was passed this afternoon:
Blessings of Same-Gender Unions Adopted as amended,
text pending final approval Resolved, that the 216th Annual Council of the Diocese of Virginia thanks Bishop Shannon Johnston and the diocesan team for the very fruitful "Listen ... And Be Heard" sessions in 2010, and urges our Bishop to “provide a generous pastoral response" by moving forward with guidelines with regard to public blessings of same gender unions.
The Rt. Rev. Shannon Sherwood Johnston, Bishop of Virginia, spoke to the 216th Annual Council of the Diocese yesterday saying that following the Listening Sessions that the Diocese held during the last fall, the Diocese was going to spend the next year doing education on the issue of same-sex blessings.
He also said that there were many parishes who had already done the theological work and were ready and wanting to move ahead with same-gender blessings. He is prepared to start working with those parishes "immediately" to permit them to do blessings.
From his address:
2011 will also bring the opportunity to carry forward the remarkable work of the listening sessions, entitled “Listen and Be Heard,” that were held across the Diocese during the fall of 2010. The five sessions were open to anyone who chose to attend, with invitations sent through our Virginia Episcopalian newspaper, the e-Communiqué, a letter from me sent to everyone on the Diocese’s e-mail list, and announcements in congregations and at regional council meetings. Just under 800 people attended these events. In order to allow for a sense of as “safe” an environment as possible, and to prevent any stereotyping or assumptions creeping in, we did not require any record of the demographics, such as lay or ordained, gender or age of those in attendance. Likewise, we did not identify the churches represented. All of this reflects an intentional decision to keep the focus on what was said rather than on who said it.
Each one of the sessions began with two questions that focused on the characteristics and meaning of faithful sexuality in the Christian life. A third question then concluded the sessions with reflections on the blessing of same-gender unions in the Church. All discussions were transcribed by a recorder who took down the comments verbatim. The printed document of the responses to the three questions is 247 pages. And, yes, I’ve read every comment–almost 2,000 of them–and have been studying the data in its entirety.
The actual experience of the sessions, and the voluminous data that was collected from them, seemed at the time to be a true watershed event for the Diocese and I am confident that this estimation will prove to be true in the long run. As I noted in my letter announcing the sessions, we do not have a positive history of coming together to discuss controversial subjects. Particularly vicious acrimony and even demonization–from both Left and Right–marked the open forums that followed the 2003 General Convention. Debates at Annual Councils, in many instances, have been personalized and politicized. Happily, the “Listen and Be Heard” sessions last fall showed a dramatic shift in posture, content and tone. There was definitely a premium placed on the role and importance of community. Overall, the hallmarks of these evenings were trust, vulnerability and even intimacy. There was demonstrated–from both Right and Left–a much greater capacity to hear and understand differing points of view than we might expect based on previous experience, not to mention simply respecting and taking care of each other in the mutual sharing.
We also heard from a good number of people who spoke of continuing to struggle with the issues, holding profoundly mixed feelings. And yet, such struggling certainly did not manifest as timidity; there was an accompanying strength and integrity in it all. Many people, not only those who struggle, but even those with clear opinions, spoke of their openness to, and indeed the need for teaching, both at the congregational level and from the larger Church.
All of this should be encouraging for us, whatever your viewpoint, because it is explicitly and patently Anglican. The very DNA of our expansive Anglican dynamic was quite to the fore throughout the listening sessions. By this I mean that we are united in Christ rather than by agreement in issues. The center holds, but this does not mean the maintenance of the status quo or having some sort of balance of power. Rather, our center holds because that center is nothing less than Jesus Christ.
Significant common questions are evident from the comments in the listening sessions with respect to the blessing of same-gender relationships. To put these questions in theological terms, the first concern is the nature of blessing. What is a “blessing?” What does it mean? What does the Church do when it blesses? Is a blessing inherently sacramental? Does the Church bless or does God? Another question concerns the role of the community in a blessing. What part does the assembled community play in a blessing? What is the nature of communal recognition and support afterwards?
There were many comments that reflected various understandings or misgivings about the relationship between the Church and our larger society. Does the Church exercise a prophetic role, leading society to do what is right? Is a new set of cultural norms now leading the Church astray? Is the Church now having to “catch up” with society’s justice? How does the Church appropriately embrace, engage, or accommodate culture?
And, finally, the nature of Scripture is raised. Is Scripture clear in its teachings about same-sex relationships? What is the place of interpretation and contextualization based on scholarship? What does it mean that there are other parts of Scripture (for example, the teachings about divorce and remarriage) that we no longer apply to Christian ethics so strictly?
Obviously, these are all big questions that go right to the heart of the matters at hand. And, just as obviously, these questions are in fact too big to answer in the scope of this address. But, they must be addressed. And address them we will, by means of teaching through various media and in gatherings across the diocese throughout the coming year. After listening in order to determine the lay of the land there is teaching in order to chart our course and understand it. This is an organic process and, I think, a helpful and a hopeful one.
I realize that there are presently clergy and congregations who have addressed these questions of blessing, community, society and Scripture in ways that could be deemed thorough and conclusive. Furthermore, you may remember that I have always affirmed that committed, monogamous same-gender relationships can indeed be faithful in the Christian life. Therefore, I plan also to begin working immediately with those congregations that want to establish the parameters for the “generous pastoral response” that the 2009 General Convention called for with respect to same-gender couples in Episcopal churches. Personally, it is my hope that the 2012 General Convention will authorize the formal blessing of same-gender unions for those clergy in places that want to celebrate them. Until then, we might not be able to do all that we would want to do but, in my judgment, it is right to do something and it is time to do what we can.
The controversy surrounding sexuality must not overshadow the primary matters of mission and ministry in this diocese, some of them groundbreaking. In two weeks I shall ordain the Diocese of Virginia’s first candidates for the vocational diaconate. This historic step is the result of a long and deliberate process that is committed to enriching the Church’s ordained ministry while further empowering and informing the ministry of the laity. I offer thanksgiving for this ancient pattern and gift to the Church.