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an essay for Anglicans Online

Resolution D039: Why All the Fuss?
By the Right Reverend Pierre W. Whalon

13 August 2000

Much has already been written about Resolution D039, entitled "Human Sexuality: Issues Related to Sexuality and Relationships." It was the fruit of a special joint committee (Number 25) of the General Convention appointed by Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and Pamela Chinnis, President of the House of Deputies, to deal with issues of sexuality before the Convention. (The text of the final resolution appears at the end of this article.)

According to reports emanating from a meeting held in Amsterdam in late July, the Archbishops of Rwanda and Singapore have instructed their "missionary bishops," Chuck Murphy and John Rodgers, to sally forth into the field. These gentlemen are to grow new Anglican churches from the old "apostate" one. Both Archbishops signed the Primates’ Oporto agreement that this wouldn’t happen. Their reported rationale for abrogating it is that they are no longer in communion with the Episcopal Church. The reason is the evidence of the failure of the Episcopal Church to "repent," with D039 as Exhibit A.

In this country, however, advocates of same-sex blessings are bemoaning their defeat. Katie Sherrod, writing in the current issue of The Witness, tries to comfort them by claiming that D039 at least moved the church in their direction. Stephen Noll is claiming the same thing in his analysis posted to the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry website, arguing from the opposite perspective. Bishop John W. Howe of Central Florida has come under fire from conservatives for his role in the development of D039, and his vote for it.

Note how this is in the best tradition of American democracy. In last month’s column, this writer described the peculiar polity of the Episcopal Church as a "synod of the Catholic Church in America." In other words, we have reformed the Anglican type of catholicism according to American democratic ideals of government. D039 (and the reactions to it) are a good example of this in action. Its first seven points passed by a significant majority. The last part of the resolution, which would have authorized the preparation of rites for same-sex blessings, was defeated.

The whole resolution, including this last, was sent out of committee over the objections of opponents of same-sex blessings, like Bp. Howe. But the bulk of it received the support of committee members across the board, and eventually, the Convention itself. The reason is not that they approve of unmarried couples. Bp. Howe, for instance, requires his clergy to explain in detail the counseling given to cohabiting couples seeking permission for re-marriage (this writer is canonically resident in Central Florida). Those seeking approval of same-sex blessings argue that such couples need the benefits of marriage, including fidelity and monogamy, and assert that gay promiscuity is no more acceptable than straight fornication.

Like congressional bipartisan committees, Committee 25 was looking for common ground. On the various moral issues of sexual behavior, they could not find it at first. The resolution explicitly acknowledges this situation, echoing resolutions of previous General Conventions affirming that deep differences exist among Episcopalians in matters sexual. However, the pastoral issue of the proliferation of unmarried couples in the United States—gay and straight—provided impetus for affirming those aspects of sexual morality to which Episcopalians still agree. Thus unmarried couples, though not in line with the church’s traditional teaching, are to be supported, not driven out. From this "prayerful support," the church can then hold such couples accountable to the deep values of matrimony. These include fidelity, monogamy and mutual respect, and the rejection of abuse, exploitation, and promiscuity. The resolution makes clear that all members of the church—married, single or "other"—are required to live out these values.

Moreover, the resolution explicitly says that all Episcopalians regardless of their position have a place in the church and in the conversation around controversial issues. This is hardly surprising, since Committee 25’s membership was in that respect a microcosm of the church.

So the committee and the General Convention upheld the common ground that Episcopalians share in sexual morality. Casual sex is condemned, as are exploitative and abusive sexual relationships. The values of Holy Matrimony are upheld, even for those couples who are unmarried. Implicitly, this strongly encourages them to get married.

So why the hue and cry?

The first reason is obvious. Gay couples are among the unmarried, by definition. They cannot be married, for there is no rite available to them—and Convention has continued to deny them that rite. Supporters of same-sex blessings equate the denial of liturgical rites with the denial of civil rights to gay Episcopalians. So they are unhappy with D039 passing without moving forward on the creation of a special rite for them. Supporters of the traditional position, on the other hand, are unhappy because D039 does not explicitly condemn homosexual sex. By asking for prayerful support of gay couples among others, it seems to them to endorse gay sex. On the other hand, by calling for the acknowledgement of the traditional teaching in future deliberations, as well enjoining all Episcopalians to live out the values of matrimony in sexual relationships, the resolution seems to uphold the tradition.

The reality is that D039 is a political compromise, a "bipartisan effort," so to speak. As such, it is somewhat ambiguous by nature. If you want to be an Episcopalian, then you agree to be governed by our peculiar form of synodical government. In other words, sometimes patently political compromise will have to do, for the time being. Purists of the Right and Left have never found this congenial, whether in secular American politics or Episcopal ecclesiastical government. The rest of us, acknowledging the reality of sin, can never be satisfied in the long run with political compromises serving as doctrine. But compromise in the short term is necessary in the form of government we have chosen. This fact has caused much misunderstanding in Anglican provinces with a more authoritarian structure in the past, and is apparently continuing to do so.

The second reason for some people’s dissatisfaction with D039 is the very idea that members of "their" party sat down with "the enemy" and came to some agreement. Ideologues of the Left and the Right treat openness to working with others as tantamount to treason. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold’s "jubilee style" was clearly designed to subvert that type of thinking, to prevent it from hijacking the convention. Identifying common ground and inviting all factions to embrace it is a critical first step to making our peculiar synodical government work, never mind getting on with the mission of the church. D039 is a good example of this strategy in action on the most divisive issue of the day. It is no surprise therefore that it has become the focus of so much anger. As some members of his party pillory Howe, Griswold gets scorched by his own

Even as a compromise, however, D039 has some strengths. It does circumscribe the debate around sexuality, restricting it to marriage and excluding sexual activity outside of marriage or a marriage-like relationship. This is a step forward, forbidding to all the casual approach to sex that is prevalent in the culture. Yet the best aspect of D039, perhaps, is not immediately obvious. It seeks to provide a "safe and just structure…for mission." In other words, its focus is the mission of the church. For the sake of that mission, it calls for allowing unmarried couples to feel welcome and supported in the parish, instead of rejected, told to "get right" before they can become members. After they have made or renewed the baptismal covenant, then they can be held to account for their relationship. In other words, we have chosen to preach the Gospel before we preach the Law. So far, this is quintessentially Anglican. On the interpretation of that law, we are still struggling to understand where gay couples fit in. But D039 enjoins us to put the mission of the church first, before presenting unmarried couples with our particular party’s take on them.

Furthermore, inscribing the argument about the morality of gay sex within the overall mission of the church is the right way to proceed. The church’s mission is not to do justice. Justice for all is the business of all. Nor is the church’s mission about teaching other moral principles. All human beings are required to choose good and reject evil. Obviously, Christians are to be the salt of the earth and the leaven in the dough of society in pursuing the just and moral vision of human life that is part of the Kingdom of God. We have always had disagreements about how to pursue that vision. That we are to pursue it has never been in question.

But it is not why the church exists. The Catechism presents a Pauline version of the church’s raison d’être: "…to restore all people to unity with God and each other through Christ" (BCP 855; also 2 Cor. 5: 18-21). Matthew’s version is that we are to make disciples of Jesus among all nations by baptizing them and teaching them all that Jesus has commanded (Mt. 28: 19-20). Then there is the simplest version of all: "Go into the world and preach the Gospel" (Mark 16: 15). The reason the Church exists is to do what we promise in the baptismal covenant: "to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ" (BCP 305), so that all who hear and believe may be reconciled to God, baptized into the life of the Trinity, and then share with us in Christ’s eternal priesthood (BCP 308). Those who respond to this News and allow themselves in turn to be sent must deal honestly and humbly with the moral imperatives that being a disciple of Jesus entails. For all its ambiguity (a sign of the times), D039 exhorts us in its small way not to get sidetracked from the business that we have all agreed to be about.

This brings us back to "missionary bishops," angry gay folk, and miffed conservatives. It is understandable that Rwanda and Singapore, with their more authoritarian traditions, may misunderstand the doings of the American synod, with its political compromises. But let them clearly see that the Episcopal Church in its own way is—despite what they are being told—trying to be about the mission of the church, as evidenced among other things by this past convention. We acknowledge that we have been faithless in the past, and that we may be wrong now, but we are doing what we can to be disciples of Christ. Rwanda has enough of her own tragedy, including bishops removed for complicity in genocide. Why look elsewhere for more missionary work to do? Singapore’s church should focus on the serious questions of justice in their own society before being too quick to judge others. And all of us need to remember that Jesus warned about being so concerned about the speck of sawdust in another’s eye that we ignore the log in our own.

As for us Episcopalians, there has been too much distraction from the mission of the church in the past several decades. We have now the General Convention’s 20/20 Vision before us, to double the size of the church by the year 2020. Only focusing on the mission of the church will enable us to reach that goal, and still be an authentic Christian communion. Resolving civil rights issues or teaching orthodox sexual morality is not doing the mission of the church, though these are most certainly a consequence of it.

Disciples of Jesus have a more stringent law laid upon us than that of choosing good and avoiding evil, to which all people are accountable. Beyond this, Jesus has commanded us to love one another as he has loved us. What will it profit a gay activist to be willing to die for the rightness of the cause, without this love? What will right doctrine, shorn of this love, be worth? We all know the answer: nothing. Nothing at all, but destruction. Practicing defiance for its own sake or fomenting schism is loveless, and seriously sinful. These blunt the mission of the church and give the lie to the Good News we profess. Nothing good can come of violating the New Commandment. The common ground we all share is the love of God through Christ in the Spirit. Let no one try to cut that out from underneath us.

Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this essay. You can write to him at

Resolution D039: Human Sexuality: Issues Related to Sexuality and Relationships

Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the members of the 73rd General Convention intend for this Church to provide a safe and just structure in which all can utilize their gifts and creative energies for mission, and be it further

Resolved, We acknowledge that while the issues of human sexuality are not yet resolved, there are currently couples in the Body of Christ and in this Church who are living in marriage and couples in the Body of Christ and in this Church who are living in other life-long committed relationships, and be it further

Resolved, We expect such relationships will be characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God, and be it further

Resolved, We denounce promiscuity, exploitation and abusiveness in the relationships of any of our members, and be it further

Resolved, this Church intends to hold all its members accountable to these values, and will provide for them the prayerful support, encouragement and pastoral care necessary to live faithfully by them, and be it further

Resolved, We acknowledge that some, acting in good conscience, who disagree with the traditional teaching of the Church on human sexuality, will act in contradiction to that position, and be it further

Resolved, that in continuity with previous actions of the General Convention of this Church, and in response to the call for dialogue by the Lambeth Conference, we affirm that those on various sides of controversial issues have a place in the Church, and we reaffirm the imperative to promote conversation between persons of differing experiences and perspectives, while acknowledging the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of marriage.

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