By Linda L. Grenz
A reading of press reports about the 76th General Convention might suggest the only topic debated (again) was sexuality – or, more precisely, homosexuality. Sometimes this happens simply because the press does not know much about our history or theology. Unfortunately that often means our members get misinfornmation about why this topic is relevant to our church and why we are devoting attention to it.
Our focus is on inclusion and this is not new – it is something we have been working on for decades. It grew out of the liturgical renewal movement that began to have a significant impact on the church in the early 20th century. The desire to renew the church’s liturgy led scholars to re-examine the church’s worship and theology. Their research and the discovery of previously unknown texts led liturgical scholars to re-vision how we worship.
Liturgical scholars realized the earliest Christians gathered around the dining room table and it is likely that the hosts presided. As membership grew and services became more formal, the order of priests was established to assist the bishop. This led to the clericalization of the liturgy as priests became more central to worship services and laity became mere observers.
The priest became the primary actor, the one who said the liturgy and did the ministry. The people become passive recipients. Their role was to “pay,” “pray” and not “say” much more than “amen” or “and also with you!”
As liturgical scholars began to re-shape the liturgy to make it more participatory, the roles of clergy and laity also changed. This change was driven by another aspect of the liturgical renewal movement – the re-visioning of baptismal theology. In the early church, baptism was a transformative rite of passage. In baptism, one died to one’s old self and rose with Christ to a new life as a redeemed child of God. One’s baptism profoundly changed one, both now and for eternity.
As priests became the primary leader of the congregation, the bishop, who used to lead the congregation, had no connection to the local community. What would be the bishop’s role? One response was to separate the anointing with oil from the rest of the baptismal liturgy. This led to the creation of Confirmation, and the development of a theology that one needed to “complete” one’s baptism by being confirmed by the bishop. The liturgical renewal led the church to move baptism back to the center of the church’s life (vs. a private ceremony) and to restore the anointing to the baptismal rite.
The 1979 Book of Common Prayer wholeheartedly embraced the re-visioned baptismal theology – and emphasized it by adding the five questions that spell out baptismal living after the Creed. Because we believe that how we pray shapes what we believe, it became a means of incorporating this baptismal theology into the life and practice of the church. Those five questions, in particular, led to theorization that baptism meant full inclusion which resulted in the church re-examining the role of laity, of people of color, of women and of children and youth.
The 1960s saw the church take significant steps to support and sometimes lead the effort to establish equal rights for blacks. In the church, blacks were elected to leadership roles.
Women in most dioceses began to serve on vestries in the 1950’s and 60’s. Laity began to read lessons and lead the prayers at the liturgy. The first women deputies to General Convention were seated in 1970 and girls began to serve as acolytes. The 1976 General Convention voted to permit the ordination of women as priests.
Meanwhile, throughout the 1980s and 90s, laity were appointed as Eucharistic Ministers, allowed to administer the chalice at the Eucharist and later to take the Eucharist to the sick and shut-ins. Children were allowed to receive the Eucharist as soon as they were baptized. Youth were appointed to vestries and given voice at diocesan conventions and at General Convention.
In 2003 the General Convention voted to confirm the election of an openly gay man by the Diocese of New Hampshire. It also engaged in a conversation about whether or how to bless the relationships between same sex couples.
Each of these changes was challenging to some members. Each time we changed the liturgy or the rules to include another group of people in a previously prohibited arena, we lost some members who could not reconcile that change with their theology. The latest focus on the inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people grows out of this long history of the church seeking to apply the baptismal theology that says that in baptism we are all transformed by Christ, becoming equal children of God. It is part of the church’s long engagement in the spiritual practice of seeking to be the Body of Christ – the place where all the baptized are equally welcome.
One of the most moving experiences at General Convention was when some deputies and bishops joined the largely Hispanic group of Disney workers protesting Disney’s plan to eliminate health care benefits for many of them. The largest march in Anaheim’s history put the church on the side of those who are poor, often oppressed and living at the margins. But what was remarkable was that when Bishop Robinson, the gay bishop who is the focus of much of our talk about homosexuality, was introduced – the Disney workers burst into applause. It turns out they knew who he was and what he stood for – and they identified with him. You can bet that Episcopal churches in Anaheim are having lots of new Hispanic seekers coming, along with many of our congregations who are finding people who otherwise would not trust coming to church or who are at the margins of society, coming to us. The good news is that those souls are hearing: ALL are welcome at God’s table. And that is worth the cost of struggling through all of these sometimes awkward or difficult changes.
The Rev. Linda L. Grenz is president of Leader Resources and priest-in-charge at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Silver Spring, Md. A version of this article appears in the September issue of Washington Window.