ECUSA passes a watered-down response to the Windsor Report and sets itself on a collision course with the Anglican Communion
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COLUMBUS, Ohio- Memo to new Episcopal Presiding Bishop-elect Katherine Jefferts Schori: Don't bother packing your bags; it appears you and most of your fellow bishops won't be invited to the next Lambeth meeting of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
The full fallout from actions and inactions at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) last week in Columbus, Ohio, is still unknown. But one thing seems clear: Despite desperate last-minute maneuvers and arm-twisting at the convention, the church failed to pass the test for remaining in the Anglican Communion.
The crisis had its origins in a long drift away from biblical authority and traditional Anglican teaching, according to many conservative bishops and other clergy. In the every-10-years Lambeth gathering of the world's Anglican bishops in 1998, the majority adopted a tenet that said homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching. But in 2003, ECUSA approved the consecration of priest Gene Robinson, a divorced and long-time partnered gay, as bishop of New Hampshire.
Conservative ECUSA bishops appealed to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Many primates-top archbishops-also expressed displeasure. They instructed Canterbury to form a Lambeth Commission on Communion to deal with the issue. The Commission released what became known as the Windsor Report. It spelled out conditions ECUSA would have to meet to remain in the Communion. Among them: an affirmation that it wanted to remain in the Communion and would abide by a consensus of Anglican teachings, an expression of repentance for allowing the Robinson consecration, and a moratorium on any further such consecrations and same-sex blessings.
ECUSA presiding bishop Frank Griswold, primate of the American church, appointed a special commission to draft a response in the form of resolutions and present it for approval at this year's convention.
ECUSA's legislative convention is structured like Congress, with two houses-a House of Deputies, divided into clergy and lay orders, and a House of Bishops. A committee tasked to shepherd the Windsor response through the houses became mired almost immediately, with committee members rewriting drafts almost from scratch.
Once the resolutions belatedly hit the floor, they were further debated and amended. The resolution intended to deal with the issue of halting same-sex blessings and further consecrations of gay bishops was so gutted that it was defeated by a large margin on the next-to-last day of the convention. The bishops wouldn't get to see it at all.
Bishop Griswold called for a special joint session of the convention the next morning. Meanwhile, the bishops had one of the Windsor resolutions on their docket. He instructed the five bishops from the special committee to have a late-night session to rework the pending resolution into one that would meet Windsor's demands for a moratorium on consecrations.
At the joint session the final morning, he was almost shrill in his call for both houses to adopt the resolution now before them: "Resolved . . . that the . . . convention receive and embrace the Windsor Report's invitation to engage in a process of healing and reconciliation [and] that this convention therefore call upon the Standing Committees and bishops with jurisdiction to exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion."
The bishops rejected attempts by liberals, including Bishop John Chane of Washington, D.C., to water it down further. At Bishop Griswold's behest, Bishop Jefferts Schori reluctantly agreed to appeal for a yes vote. She apologized to gays and lesbians, and told the bishops she was voting yes only on the condition that the non-consent condition was temporary-until 2009.
Both houses voted to accept the measure, although some conservatives voted no on the grounds that it wasn't strong or clear enough.
Bishop Chane gathered some reporters and announced he and about 20 other bishops would ignore the resolution and would vote to consecrate another homosexual.
Leaders of the Anglican Communion Network (ACN), a coalition of conservative churches and dioceses, also held a press conference. Its leader, Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, handed out a statement asserting that the responses to Windsor are "clearly and simply inadequate." He pledged the ACN's allegiance to the Communion and full compliance with its requests.
Archbishop of Canterbury Williams sent a message thanking the leaders for their work. He closed with:
"It is not yet clear how far the resolutions passed this week and today represent the adoption by the Episcopal Church of all the proposals set out in the Windsor Report. The wider Communion will therefore need to reflect carefully on the significance of what has been decided before we respond more fully."
The election of Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, 51, of Nevada, who takes office in November, only muddied things more for the Anglican primates. She was the most radical of the seven candidates running for the office of presiding bishop. A feminist (she referred to "Mother Jesus" in her convention sermon), she voted in 2003 for the consecration of Gene Robinson and attended a worship service at the convention sponsored by the gay caucus Integrity. She has approved same-sex blessings for two Nevada couples (for "pastoral" reasons).
She left a career as an oceanographer, became a priest in 1995, served as an assistant rector of an Oregon church, and catapulted to bishop in 2001. Her diocese is one of ECUSA's smallest, with 6,000 members in 35 congregations and shrinking attendance.
There was no way the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) could keep its dirty laundry out of sight. Mainstream news media turned out in force to cover the convention in Columbus. Credentialed staff came from 43 secular broadcast and print outlets in the United States, Canada, and Britain. Hundreds of dailies ran wire service stories by Rachel Zoll of The Associated Press. Joining the mix were staff from 117 religious news outlets, many of them ECUSA-related publications.
But this also was the church convention where blog journalism came of age. Some of the biggest and best-known blogs had credentialed staff and space in the ECUSA press room. Most were conservatives keeping their constituencies informed about the skirmishes for ECUSA's soul.
At www.standfirminfaith.com, priest Matt Kennedy, 34, of Binghamton, N.Y., blogged live, keeping thousands of viewers updated every few minutes as delegates and bishops debated and voted.
At Classical Anglican News Net (CaNN), many of the two dozen blog sites it hosts also were treating viewers in coordinated efforts to the latest news developments, interviews, and other features-and allowing viewers to respond.
The best-known and most respected CaNN-hosted blog is www.titusonenine.classic alanglican.net, run by conservative priest and theologian Kendall Harmon of South Carolina. His blog is considered must reading by many bishops and other church leaders.
Combined CaNN traffic mushroomed to 70,000 unique viewers a day, causing server crashes in the final days. Techs hurriedly arranged for alternate servers and backup websites. Stand Firm suffered similar problems.
The largest and oldest blog is a web news service run by veteran journalist David Virtue, a perennial burr under the ECUSA establishment's saddle. He and three other writers posted an average of more than 30 stories daily. His webmaster reported 30,000 unique visitors a day, many from the global south.
Retired Texas conservative Marj Carpenter stood at the microphone, choked with emotion. She formerly headed up the news operation for her denomination, the 2.3-million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and she served a term as moderator of its top policy-making body, the General Assembly, which she was now addressing.
"I'm against the ordination of homosexuals, though I love 'em," she told the 500-plus commissioners, or delegates, on June 20. "But we've been fighting in this ditch for 28 years, and the ditch is getting deeper. It's starting to affect our [church] work . . . and I'm ready to try something else."
The persistent wearing-down tactics of the pro-gay forces in the church had worked. The "something else" she and other leaders at the microphone endorsed was a proposal to allow exceptions to the PCUSA's constitutional ban on ordination of noncelibate homosexuals.
Commissioners voted 298 to 221 to approve the proposal, one of seven crafted over several years by a task force on "Peace, Unity, and Purity" that included some conservatives, among them co-chair Gary Demarest, a minister from Pasadena, Calif. The vote is exempt from ratification by the church's regional presbyteries.
Under the new policy, the constitutional standards for ordination, including those pertaining to homosexuals, remain in place, but a candidate who disagrees with any can declare an objection. The ordaining church or presbytery will then decide whether the standard involved is an essential element of Reformed faith, and if it isn't, whether to tolerate the exception.
Reaction came swiftly.
"When . . . something mandatory is reduced to something optional, it destroys the constitution," asserted Robert Gagnon, a New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Seminary who has written about gay issues and the church.
"The consequences of the decision of this General Assembly throw our denomination into crisis," declared a statement read by Terry Schlossberg, executive director of the Presbyterian Coalition, an alliance of 13 evangelical caucuses representing thousands of church members.
"Many individuals and congregations will conclude from this decision that the PC(USA) has abandoned the historic faith of the church. The decision will be regarded by others in the worldwide body of Christ as profoundly offensive," the groups said.
It "marks a profound deviation from biblical requirements, and we cannot accept, support, or tolerate it. We will take the steps necessary to be faithful to God," they warned.
They indicated they would announce specific steps later, some perhaps as early as this month. Asked by a reporter if schism is inevitable, Mrs. Schlossberg said: "We hope not."
Another group of more than 100 churches, part of a renewal effort known as New Wineskins Initiative, will meet this month to plan action. Some of these churches were poised to walk if the proposed change were approved.
Pastors of 30 of the PCUSA's largest churches recently issued a letter warning against passage of the de facto local-option measure. They feared it would result in more unrest and defections in their ranks.
The financially ailing denomination can ill afford schism. The PCUSA lost nearly 50,000 members last year, and officials estimate the loss of another 85,000 this year.
There may be legal relief for the conservatives. A former member of the PCUSA's highest court suggested the new policy itself is unconstitutional. Among church court precedents, Daniel Saperstein cited this one: "It is not within the power of any governing body [including churches and presbyteries] or judicial commission to declare a properly adopted provision of the Constitution to be invalid."
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