Reflections on General Convention in Columbus and the Consultation at St George’s, Windsor

I’ve spent the last two days at St George’s House, Windsor, participating in a Consultation organised by the Bishops of Chelmsford and Liverpool. For the previous week, I had been at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Columbus, Ohio.

Resolution 161

I returned home on Tuesday evening to news reports of the voting down of Resolution 161. The Resolution includes language urging the church to refrain from electing or consecrating bishops whose “manner of life poses a challenge to the wider church” and for bishops and General Convention 2006 to refrain from authorizing official rites for blessing same-sex couples.

The resolution was defeated on Tuesday by the combined votes of the conservative right wing of the Episcopal Church and those following the argument of Integrity that there should be no restriction on the election of bishops who are lesbian or gay, nor restrictions on blessing committed gay relationships. The conservative diocese of Fort Worth voted alongside the liberal diocese of New Hampshire.

Conservative Kendall Harmon argued that the resolution should be voted down because it did not conform sufficiently to the language of the Windsor Report. Susan Russell, President of Integrity, argued that the resolution “manages … to balance the unity of the Anglican Communion on the backs of gay and lesbian people by urging the church to refrain from allowing any of them to respond to the Holy Spirit’s call to the episcopate AND to apologize to them for the new one they were getting ripped by the church they’re trying to serve,” and that it furthermore violated church canons prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in discernment processes for church ministries.

The right wing wants the Episcopal Church to fail to respond to Windsor in any meaningful way so that this failure can be used against the Church by other members of the Communion in a bid to exclude it. Although there seems to be a majority interested in embracing the language of “considerable caution” and the “urge to refrain”, the voting system makes it difficult to pass the resolution as now framed. There is great resistance to using the language of the Windsor report itself.

Commitment to Communion or provoking a split?

At General Convention, I talked with a very wide range of people. They included the Primate of Japan, the Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, David Virtue, David Anderson, Andrew Carey, John Patterson, chair of ACC, Kenneth Kearon, General Secretary of the ACC, Bishop Gene Robinson, Louie Crew, Jim Rosenthal, Jonathan Petre, Stephen Bates, and others. Every evening I joined Susan Russell, president and Michael Hopkins, past president and about 80 members of Integrity at their daily debriefing.

With some exceptions, all these people were deeply committed to the future of the Episcopal Church within the Anglican Communion and were not anxious about the future of the Communion nor of the Episcopal Church‘s continuing place within it.

The conservatives (English, American, some African, Southern Cone, Indonesian, Sydney conservatives) have been arguing for and trying to provoke a split for many years now. They hold to a fantasy that there can be a “traditional” (but in my view no longer authentically Anglican) Communion which excludes the majority of the Episcopal Church. It would also exclude the majority of the Church of England as well as Australia (except the diocese of Sydney), Brazil, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, Wales, and others.

The Archbishop of York testifies

The Archbishop of York contributed his testimony to the hearing on Wednesday evening to the committee considering the Windsor report resolutions. He expressed a similar perspective to that expressed by Bishop of Durham, and people immediately felt they were being talked to as troublesome children by the Head Master. They wanted to know what right he thought he had to come and lecture them in this way.

He was limited to a minute and a half, but ignored the red card when it was raised and continued to speak for several more minutes. All around me people were shocked. They murmured that the microphone should be turned off and he should be told he had exceeded his time. Every other speaker graciously if sometimes reluctantly accepted the time limit. A minority may have agreed with his views and his tactics but the majority were deeply offended by what he said and what he did. I found it embarrassing and was surprised that someone I hold in respect could have been so badly briefed or made such a miscalculation.

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali – and is Rochester going to split?

Bishop Michael seems to have attended General Convention as the guest of the Anglican American Council. The AAC is already so detached from the Episcopal Church of the United States, and by implication, from the Anglican Communion, that is holds an independent service every morning during General Convention at the same time as the Convention daily Eucharist. The Convention service is attended by between 5,000 and 10,000 people, varying each morning; the AAC service by a couple of hundred. The American Anglican Council is the dissident group, the fringe group, the minority, expressing views which are barely traditionally Anglican in tone and content.

The bishop of Rochester preached at the Anglican American Council service on Friday evening, “held in a modest, windowless room at Nationwide Arena“ and presided over by Bishop Peter Beckwith of Springfield, Ill. The numbers attending were variously described as between 80 and 200.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Michael Nazir-Ali made a series of statements that expressed a minority view and an extreme perspective.

* Divisions between liberals and conservatives are so profound that a compromise is no longer possible.
* There are two irreconcilable positions and you have to choose between them.
* The right choice is in line with the Bible and the Church’s teaching down the ages, not some new-fangled religion we have invented to respond to the 21st century.
* Whatever the outcome, the Americans had already become detached from the roots of Anglicanism.
* Nobody wants a split, but if you think you have virtually two religions in a single Church something has got to give sometime.

No compromise, irreconcilable positions, new-fangled religion, two religions in a single Church – the bishop’s use of language is extreme, inaccurate and offensive. He clearly doesn’t want to see any willingness to compromise in the Episcopal Church. Bishop Michael is talking up a split.

His description of the Episcopal Church as having a new-fangled religion because it is willing to ordain and consecrate partnered lesbians and gay men and bless lesbian and gay relationships also applies to the majority of members of the Church of England. I might argue that we in the CofE remain traditional Anglicans in Michael Nazir-Ali’s eyes because we do these things but do them dishonestly and secretly, thinking we are hiding the reality from ourselves. Is Bishop Michael really so blind and naïve that he imagines he sits in a House of Bishops where none are gay or partnered?

Jonathan Petre identifies Michael Nazir-Ali as increasing the pressure on Dr Rowan Williams to take firm action against the American leadership and suggests the point of no return has been passed.

I began to wonder whether Michael Nazir-Ali is sitting on some secret and fantastic plan in which he will lead the diocese of Rochester out of the Church of England the moment a split is announced and seeks asylum in fellowship with the Anglican American Council. This begins to seem no more insane an idea than many others receiving widespread publicity at the moment. Don’t worry, members of Changing Attitude in Rochester Diocese; we will offer you a safe home in the continuing Church of England.

Integrity Eucharist

The Integrity Eucharist is one of the highlights of General Convention. The number of people attending the Eucharist in Trinity Episcopal Church this year, held the same evening as the AAC service, was at least 1,000 and according to Michael Hopkins, as many as 1,500. The preacher was Bishop Gene Robinson. The Church was packed to overflowing, the galleries were laden, the basement full. The worship was passionate, the sermon personal, heartfelt and very emotional. The entry procession included over 100 robed lesbian and gay clergy.

Reactions

* “The Episcopal Church delivered a resounding rebuff to the Archbishop of Canterbury.”
* “The vote increased the likelihood of a schism in the worldwide Anglican communion over the place of homosexuals in the Church.”
* “It leaves the Episcopal Church as having walked apart. We all thought we would get a fudge. What we got was a clear rejection.” (Bishop Duncan of Pittsburgh)
* “Whether the Anglican Communion now descends into a process of formal schism depends entirely on the response of Dr Williams. (Ruth Gledhill in The Times)

The media, the extreme English conservative evangelicals, the American conservatives, the leaders of a number of other Anglican Provinces, and some disenchanted LGBT Christians, want to convince the Church that a split is imminent and inevitable and that the Episcopal Church will end up on the outside. They are putting pressure on Archbishop Rowan Williams in order to achieve the destruction of the Communion and the abandonment of the Anglicanism of Hooker, the middle way and the three-legged stool.

Back to my experience of General Convention and the past two days of Consultation at Windsor between representatives of Changing Attitude, LGCM, Inclusive Church, Anglican Mainstream, Reform, Fulcrum and others. The conversations were calm and confident and Christian. At General Convention I met the American passion for being Christian, the deeply developed and rooted awareness of who they are, what the Gospel means for them, their creativity and energy. At Windsor I met the establishment (we met on Monday during the Royal Garter service in St George’s chapel), Anglican dispassion and calm, a total commitment to stay together and a willingness to take risks to make this possible.

On both sides of the pond, I was among Anglicans who are putting energy into the Gospel, our life together in Christ and our desire for understanding difference and remaining in communion, so far as others allow us the space. Schism is being driven by individuals and groups who are not concerned with Jesus’ desire that we dwell in him, love one another and remain one as he and the Father are one. They are obsessed with Leviticus and Romans (sorry for the language, moderate but non-gay affirming evangelicals) and wish to exclude LGBT people from the Church, unless we conform to their rules and scriptural priorities.

As I have already pointed out, the majority of LGBT Anglicans live in Provinces which wish to exclude the LGBT inclusive Episcopal Church. The movement towards full inclusion is for gay Nigerians and lesbian Kenyans and transgender Indians and bisexual Argentineans as much as LGBT people in the UK or USA. God is revealing to a reluctant Church another group of people that have been and are subject to prejudice and exclusion in the Christian community. We are already baptised members of the Church in every Province, every country, every denomination, and we are not about to be driven out – the Holy Spirit is our guide and protector.
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Event: ECUSA 75th General Convention

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