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This page last updated 14 February 2010
Anglicans Online last updated 26 June 2016

an essay for Anglicans Online
14 February 2010

What We Think We Are Doing
The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.

Back in 2003, when the House of Bishops was considering whether to confirm the election of the Bishop of New Hampshire, I refrained from comment. My office is a peculiar one: I am a “bishop-in-charge.” The jurisdiction of which I am in charge is the Episcopal churches in Europe, which are deemed to be under the Presiding Bishop. The other B-i-c presently active is the diocesan Bishop of Hawaii, who has oversight of four congregations and a school in the Pacific. Like ours in Europe, these are located in territory where there is no existing Anglican province.

When the diocesan bishops vote on episcopal elections, alongside but separately from their standing committee, the Presiding Bishop casts the vote for Europe, along with the Bishop in charge’s Council of Advice, which functions as a standing committee in most instances. [1]

The consequences for our ministry here in Europe after the consecration in New Hampshire were very significant, for we need to collaborate closely with English Anglicans and Old Catholics, as well as Spanish and Portuguese Anglicans, and the historic churches from whom we, as well as the English Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe, rent churches and have various joint endeavors across the continent. Helping our church’s ecumenical officer with representation to other churches was no less difficult. As a representative of our church in those situations, as well as a loyal Episcopalian, I cannot express my personal opinion. But as another similar storm cloud is on the horizon, I want to make sure that my concern is heard.

When I sat with the rest of the bishops in Convention in Minneapolis on the day that our House confirmed the New Hampshire election, I sensed the Spirit was moving. It felt like a holy moment, in other words. But what was the Spirit saying, I asked myself.

We have not finished unpacking the significance of that moment. One thing that has become clear to me is that the equivocations of our church with respect to our gay and lesbian members were being exposed. While I do believe that a case for the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people that rests on faithful arguments from Scripture, theological anthropology, etc., can be made, the fact is that this church has not officially done so. Not that our official theology is deficient, but in fact, we have none, other than the traditional teaching still theoretically in force that love is to be sexually expressed only within the bonds of Matrimony between husband and wife. Of course, there are plenty of theologians writing theologies, lots of people composing liturgies of same-sex blessings, and partnered gay clergy are fairly commonplace. But while there are General Convention resolutions that anticipate such developments, no official teaching backs these actions.

At our special House of Bishops meeting in Salt Lake City in January 2004, I blurted out at one point in the discussion that it is "crazymaking" to allow Gene Robinson to be consecrated bishop, but not to allow Bishop Robinson and his partner to have their union blessed in an official rite of the church. Afterward, disturbed by personalizing the matter, however inadvertently, I apologized to him. He answered that he felt "buoyed up" by my remark, because no one was willing to say that publicly. (Jet lag may have its advantages…)

That was just six years ago. So what was the Spirit doing in Minneapolis on that hot day in late July 2003? In a previous Anglicans Online column [2], I reviewed the history of the movement from rejection to acceptance of exceptions to full inclusion, working out the implications of the 1976 Convention resolution that affirmed that gay and lesbian people are “children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church” (A-69). The stunning fact is that since Bishop Paul Moore ordained Ellen Barrett to the priesthood in 1977 (and was not censured for it), no work has ever been done in any depth that has received the approval of the General Convention to explain why “love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church” include access to marital rites and ordination.

It seems to me that the Holy Trinity had had enough of the “don’t ask–don’t tell” policy that was de facto on the church-wide level up until 2003, and therefore the Spirit introduced us all to the new Bishop of New Hampshire. Now we had to deal with the reality of what we doing, and defend it. Not by some appeal to psychology or endocrinology or genetics, or other contested, ephemeral, and finally dehumanizing “scientific answers,” but some honest-to-God theology, a reasoned argument based firmly on Scripture and the other, lesser resources of the Tradition.

Since 2003, we have as a church done nothing to change the situation. Last summer’s Convention resolution D025 declared what a majority of the deputies and bishops believe, but acknowledged continuing disagreement in the last and rhetorically most significant paragraph. I voted for it because it is primarily a statement of fact (“the majority believes this . . . but . . .”) rather than a theological argument.

We officially affirmed the Windsor Report moratoria on same-sex blessing rites and consecration of other partnered gay bishops at General Convention only three-and-a-half years ago, affirmed again at our House of Bishops meeting in New Orleans in September 2007. (Of course we accepted the third moratorium on setting up alien jurisdictions within our province, and expected compliance,) After the passage of D025, the Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies publicly affirmed in a joint letter that this resolution should not be interpreted as ending the moratoria.

It is my conviction that wherever one is on the spectrum of opinion, to have no theology for full inclusion, while more or less practicing it, is worse than having bad theology. Bad theology cries out for better theology. No theology, however, calls the whole enterprise into question. And here the question of justice, to which appeal is routinely made for permitting blessings and ordinations, applies, but much more widely. It is patently unjust to everyone, including partnered gay and lesbian people, to keep on ordaining them and blessing their unions without providing a theological rationale for changing the church's teaching. This has left Bishop Robinson isolated, making the case on his own, as he does so well with, for example, English evangelicals at the 2009 Greenbelt Festival [3], but without the backing of official teaching of his church.[4]

For a long time, people acted on the basis of making pastoral exceptions. That in itself may or may not have been theologically and pastorally defensible, but as it was never officially allowed, who can tell? But when we began ordaining people in partnered relationships, especially without public liturgical and canonical recognition of those relationships, we had quietly moved into a position of full acceptance, and were unwilling to discipline bishops doing such ordinations. Dioceses were allowed to set up their own policies on a matter of such import. This all became public at Convention 2003, and the world watched.

The Holy Spirit was saying then, “Get real, people.”

It is precisely because we then provided no rationale as a church for this change that we were asked to practice "gracious restraint." It is not that the whole rest of the Anglican Communion disagrees with us—that is simply not true. But even those elsewhere who agree with a full inclusion position do not on the whole support how we have gone about it. While General Convention is the final arbiter of what The Episcopal Church believes, simply relying on bald resolutions and election results does not spell out its teaching. And this is inadequate to the task at hand. Not just to rebut critics inside and outside this church, but for the much larger and more important work of the cure of souls, the pastoring of all the church’s members by the church. None of that has been worked out, except in local ad hoc ways that have not received the acceptance of our only churchwide decision-making body.

The acceptance of African-American people and women for ordination has been a long and tortuous process, which is not over yet. There were false theologies to overcome. The “curse of Ham” theology (black skin as divine punishment for an ancestor’s sin) was taught even at my seminary, Virginia Theological Seminary, in the 1840s. Basing his argument on Aristotelian biology, Thomas Aquinas reasoned that women are imperfectly-formed males. Both of these excuses for subjugation dressed in theological clothes were replaced by biblically sound, Gospel-based theological anthropologies, whose acceptance in the abstract preceded their implementation politically. In the case of full inclusion of gay and lesbian people, the opposite seems to be true in The Episcopal Church. In a peculiar way, political implementation basically has gone before theological acceptance.

This political, non-theological way of going forward is great ammunition not only for the schismatics within our church, and their foreign partners busily violating in deafening silence the third Windsor moratorium on cross-border interventions, but also for those supporters of punitive measures against gays in Africa. It seems lawless. In other words, it gives the appearance that shadowy avatars of some putative "gay agenda" really do rule our church behind the scenes, instead of Scripture and communal Reason, informed by Tradition.

It certainly feels good to sound off against the abhorrent measures being proposed in Uganda and Rwanda and elsewhere [5], but that only makes opposing them even more difficult, especially from within African Anglican Provinces. Engaging claims of their leadership on theological grounds would be more helpful to those gay people in countries like Uganda. When Archbishop Henry Orombi declared in 2005 that there was no room for debate on homosexuality because the Bible had definitively settled the matter [6], where was our response? One thing that is clear is that the Bible definitely has not settled the issue, in fact, hardly touches upon it. Where was our church’s rebuttal of his claim then? Might such an engagement not been of greater support to gay and lesbian Ugandans than the belated outcry and international lobbying today, which only stiffens reactionaries’ resolve?

Finally, I am quite aware that changing a part of the church's teaching may be in error, and that those leaders who lead others astray will fall under God's judgment. I do not expect to get handed one day a millstone with my initials on it fitted to my neck size, so to speak, but those are the stakes, and we need to own up to it. Moreover, as a matter of justice, not to mention love, it is simply wrong, that is, unjust and unloving, to continue as a church to live into a new teaching without giving clear reasons—carefully argued and officially accepted by our own church—for doing so. While justice delayed is justice denied, the global scope of our actions is in fact hindering the acceptance of gay and lesbian people elsewhere.

Some have said that the moratoria will end when we act to end them. Such an action, undefended, would only perpetuate the present anomie, and raise a real question about a “General-Convention fundamentalism”—“the majority voted it, therefore God said it, and that settles it.” Rather, we need to continue to keep "gracious restraint" until we have done the necessary work in order to end it. We do not have to wait for the rest of the Communion to approve our arguments, of course. But it is terrible that we as a church have continued to avoid that work, and all therefore continue to pay a heavy price, both within and without The Episcopal Church. If we go on blessing same-sex unions and consecrating people in those partnered relationships, and yet continue to refuse to do that work, will that mean that we cannot justify our actions? And if we cannot, then what — in God's name — do we think we're doing?


[1] If this all seems odd, I refer you to Canon I.15, an antique (1859) piece of legislation that allowed for the establishment of the first official Episcopal parish outside the continental United States, the Church (now Cathedral) of the Holy Trinity in Paris, France. That opened the door to the wonderfully international presence of The Episcopal Church around the globe. See also Canon V.2.

[4] The House of Bishops will begin engaging a process of theological discussion with a group of scholars in March.

[5] My own protest is found here: http://bit.ly/8Xu7DL


Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at bppwhalon@aol.com.


THE RT REVD PIERRE W. WHALON is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe.