In the aftermath of a tense Anglican Primates (provincial heads) meeting in Tanzania, under-fire Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church in the United States has briefed the community of people who work at the denomination's Centre in New York on how oversight will be offered to a church divided on issues of sexuality and biblical interpretation.
Speaking on 23 February 2007, Bishop Schori said that the new structures asked for by the Primates in Dar es Salaam, and the clarifications they wanted about the Episcopal Church’s stance on blessing same-gender relationships and partnered gay and lesbian priests becoming bishops, can be a “container” in which the Anglican Communion can continue to discuss issues that many would still rather avoid.
She told the gathering that the Episcopal Church is called to ensure that the conversation about the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church continues in the Communion, reports the Rev Mary Frances Schjonberg, national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service (ENS).
“It is part of our mission as a church,” Bishop Jefferts Schori declared. “This conversation that has been going on for at least 40 years is not going away. God keeps bringing it back to us.”
The Episcopal Presiding Bishop, who has faced personal attacks from hardliners since her election to lead the church at its General Convention last year, said that she understands that some people feel that the primates’ recommendations are a “hard and bitter pill for many of us to talk about swallowing.”
But, she said, worldwide attitudes about the inclusion of gay and lesbian people are changing and “I don’t expect that to end. We’re being asked to pause in the journey. We are not being asked to go back,” she commented. “Time and history are with this Church.”
Bishop Jefferts Schori said: “I ache for the pain that this communiqué is causing to people in our own church who see issues of justice as absolutely central, because I share that view. I also hunger for a vision of the world where people with vastly different opinions can sit at the same table and worship at the same table because I think that eventually that is how all of us are converted.”
She added that her understanding of the Body of Christ is that “none of us can say that we have no need of you.” She acknowledged that “we don’t always like the people God gives us.”
The “low point” of the Primates’ Meeting came, Jefferts Schori said, when one primate equated homosexuality with pedophilia and another said he couldn’t see why the Anglican Communion should study homosexuality if it doesn’t need to study murder.
“We have a very, very long way to go in raising awareness so that reason can become an equal partner in the discussion with scripture and tradition,” she said. “I think that that is one of the gifts that this church has to give to the world.”
“The reality, I believe, is that the Archbishop of Canterbury will respect whatever the primates decide, whether or not that accurately reflects the polity of the Anglican Communion,” Bishop Jefferts Schori remarked.
She continued: “I don’t know if our church is ready to say to the rest of the Communion what’s been asked of us. I don’t know that,” she said. “I do know that if we’re removed from a place where we can speak to the rest of the Communion, we’re going to lose that advantage of being there at the table to challenge views like that.”
The value of continued conversation, especially conversation with gay Christians, is that people are then faced with the incarnational reality of something that up until that point had only been a theory, she said. Often, she said, conversion happens.
In the Anglican Communion there are member provinces that more or less agree with the Episcopal Church’s stance that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are full and welcomed members of the church, Bishop Jefferts Schori said, and some who are “very close” to being able to agree. Then there is a “vast group” who do not see the question as their “defining issue.”
And there are “a few neuralgic places in the Communion that have discovered that this is their defining issue – I think with encouragement from some people in our own Church,” she added.
During a question-and-answer session following her statement, the Presiding Bishop explained that the primates’ plan for a primatial vicar is similar to one she and other bishops proposed in November 2006 — with the addition of an accompanying supervisory pastoral council.
“What is different is a structure of accountability,” she said, but she called that structure “manageable,” noting that she would appoint some of the council’s members and must consent to the choice of the vicar.
She said that a “saving grace” of the primatial vicar proposal is that it would eventually end the incursion of other primates into the Episcopal Church USA.
She said that the House of Bishops can answer the requests made by the primates. Those include stating that they will not authorize official rites for same-gender blessings, and will not consent to the consecration and ordination of partnered gay or lesbian people as bishops “unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the Communion.” (Those requests echo recommendations in paragraphs 143, 144 and 134 of the Windsor Report.)
While the bishops can indeed agree to do those things, Bishop Jefferts Schori said, “whether they have the will to do that, I don’t know.” Very few of the bishops are interested in acting “unilaterally,” she added.
Their decision will not come during the House of Bishops meeting that begins on 16 March 2007 at Camp Allen, outside of Houston, Texas, she predicted. They will discuss the communiqué in March, as will the Executive Council, which meets from 2-4 March in Portland, Oregon. The Executive Council convenes again in June 2007 and the bishops will meet again in September in a previously scheduled gathering, before the 30 September deadline for a response set by the primates.
In between, Bishop Jefferts Schori said, efforts are underway for conversations about the communiqué to be held this summer in dioceses around the US Episcopal Church. Those conversations will be meant for the bishops to hear what is being said among the people of their dioceses and for the bishops to teach about the nature of Anglicanism.
She said that gay clergy have asked her in the last six months “when, when” they will be able to fully offer their gifts to the church as bishops. “I have not been able to answer,” she said, adding that the Episcopal Church “has a choice ahead of it.”
But “I don’t believe that this church has any will or desire to abandon you,” Bishop Jefferts Schori told a Church Center staff member who said he was speaking to her, in part, as a gay priest.
“I know where my heart lies and it’s in a divided place,” she said, explaining that she hungers to affirm the place of gays and lesbians in the church and she hungers to “see this body reconciled... In my better moments, I firmly hope and pray that these things are not diametrically opposed.”
“I fully recognize that this is a heavy time for most of us, but what better way to start Lent? I think it’s a time for us to slow down, to rest in God—which is the only place we can rest—and to realize that we’re not deciding today,” she concluded. “Whatever we decide, God will continue to be God and this church will continue to be engaged in mission.”