My Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Yesterday, The Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies concurred with the House of Bishops to adopt a resolution which authorizes provisional use of the rite “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant” starting Dec. 2 (the first Sunday of Advent). The vote was not a close vote in either house (Bishops, 74% - Deputies, Lay, 76% and Clergy 78%). The resolution, liturgy, and commentary can be found beginning on page 184 in the Blue Book. (The convention made some slight revisions to the version of the rite included in the report.) Clergy will need the permission of their bishops to provide this rite, so its use will vary from diocese to diocese.
Many will be upset or even angry about this decision. Many others will be grateful for the new opportunities for ministry that will be made possible by this decision. Still others will not have strong feelings about it one way or the other. Who could be surprised by these reactions? After all, our Church is made up of “all sorts and conditions” of people!
Whatever your response is to this decision, I offer the following pastoral perspectives.
Let’s be humble. – Arrogant condemnations of those who disagree with you and gloating about a decision in which your viewpoint “won” do not honor the gospel or build community among Christ’s followers. Remember that we have promised, with God’s help, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself,” and to “respect the dignity of every human being.” Think about these things and ask God to give you a humble response.
Let’s be generous. – Operate out of the assumption that your neighbor who feels compelled to comment on this decision does so out of the purest of motives. They may even think they are doing you a big favor by pointing out the error of the ways of those with whom you worship. They may sincerely believe that this guilt by association could imperil your spiritual well being. They may want to put you on notice that they may have to avoid contact with you in order to protect their own righteousness. Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith; “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. The second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hand all the Law of the Prophets.” God has given you enough love to share with all your neighbors and there will still be plenty when you give it to them in this context. You can afford to be generous!
Let’s be unapologetic. – Our neighbors, especially those in other communions, may say things that cause us to feel defensive, insecure, afraid, or embarrassed. We may feel that they have a leg up on us in their particular understanding of scriptural or doctrinal truths. You may choose to simply smile, say nothing, change the subject, or simply walk away. Or, you may feel that you need to debate with your neighbor. If you do feel a need to debate the topic at hand, take the time to prepare yourself. Study, consult reliable sources of information, use your mind to the fullest extent. Also, be prepared to feel that you have “lost” the debate at the end of it. Strongly held convictions, such as those about human sexuality and politics, are often based in emotion with a veneer of information. Your attempts to erase emotions with logic will probably not be successful. Whichever response you choose, you do not have to apologize for The Episcopal Church, which has not come to this decision quickly or without enormous prayerful consideration.
Let’s be missionaries. – In general, we Christians are not at our best when we engage in hair-splitting debates over theological, moral, or ecclesiastical differences. We are at our best when we listen together for God’s Word, when we kneel together to be nourished at God’s Table, and when we roll up our sleeves to make God’s grace manifest in the mission field at our doorstep. There are people in that mission field who are waiting for us to be sent out to do the work God has given us to do.
Let’s be inclusive. – My own views on the topic of human sexuality, especially about the full inclusion of gays, lesbians, and transgender brothers and sisters in the life of the Church, were formed and shaped over time. I have searched the scriptures, sought the wisdom contained in the Church’s teachings through the ages, considered what we’ve learned through reason over time, spent time with those whose lifestyle and orientation are different from mine, listened to those whose viewpoints differ from mine, and prayed. In forty-one years of ministry, I’ve been asked to bless same sex unions only three times. Because of my respect for the canons of the Church and my ordination vows, I have never complied with those requests. I have obeyed my Bishops and I will continue to do so wherever I may be.
That said, I believe the decision of the General Convention was the right decision. If given the opportunity when serving under a Bishop that authorizes me to exercise my ministry in this way, I will do so with a glad heart. I will welcome the opportunity and it will be a privilege to provide a ministry I have long thought we should offer to those who wish to live in life-long covenant relationships.
Let’s move forward. – I have heard people say that this decision marks the end of The Episcopal Church. I prefer to believe it is the beginning of a new era of missionary opportunity for The Episcopal Church. We now have added a new way of opening those red doors to people whom we have marginalized. Add this decision to how this Church in years past expressed itself in the face of slavery, child labor, women’s right to vote, racism, ordination of women, and a host of other issues for which there were people whose opposing views were bolstered by scriptural and theological arguments for maintaining the status quo. Add this decision also to the changes we have already made to the orthodox teachings of the Church on human sexuality – specifically, allowing birth control and authorizing the remarriage of divorced persons.
Let’s join hands. – Some of you who read this will not agree with me. I understand that there are others in the worldwide Anglican Communion who will have trouble with these views. Diversity of opinions is normal and natural in life in general and in the Church in particular. There is nothing we can do to change that. I cannot compel anyone to believe or act as I do. But we can strive in good conscience to live a life that embodies God’s love so that God’s love will make it possible for us to pursue reconciliation at every level. Our unity in this Church is not now nor has it ever been based on everybody agreeing on everything. Our unity comes from our common prayer and common pursuit of a world where there is more justice, peace, and love.
In his sermon “A Catholic Spirit,” a wise Anglican, John Wesley, cited a story from the Hebrew Scriptures (2 Kings 10) that involved two men, Jehu and Jehonadab, who were so zealous that they slaughtered those who differed with them. Yet they overcame their individual prejudices and found common ground. When Jehu met Jehonadab coming toward him, he said, “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?” Jehonadab answered, “It is.” Jehu said, “If it is, give me your hand.” So he gave him his hand. Jehu took him up with him into the chariot. He said, “Come with me, and see my zeal for the Lord” (2 Kings 10:15b-16 NRSV). In so many ways, it is a strange text for Fr. Wesley to use as a basis for a sermon about the necessity of universal love. Nevertheless, he sees in the words of Jehu the essence of how that love works among us when we have our inevitable disagreements. So, I say to my brothers and sisters who agree with me and those who do not, “If your heart is like mine, give me your hand.” Christians can accomplish a great deal more for the reign of God on earth with our hands joined than with our hands raised against each other. As catholic Christians, we don’t have to agree on everything in order to “walk in love as Christ loved us.”
Let’s be who we say we are. – We really have nothing to fear about this decision. We have every reason to rejoice as we learn to live into the new opportunities it presents. We can hold up our heads and with humility, generosity, and without apology, we can do even more than ever to manifest God’s love. We are stewards of important, life-transforming work that God wants accomplished specifically through our Church. We are Episcopalians! And, as someone has pointed out, there is no asterisk on those signs that say, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!”
P.S. HERE is the song in my heart today and HERE is a poem by my friend Ron Starbuck for further reflection on how God's love can help us be Unapologetically Episcopalian as we live into the opportunities that will result from this monumental decision.