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This page last updated 13 August 2006  

an essay for Anglicans Online
13 August 2006

Ecclesia Semper Reformanda
So It Goes

Part 1

The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.

“The Church always needs reforming” is the motto of our full-communion partners, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And a fine one it is. The Church always needs reforming, as Archbishop Laud’s ever-relevant collect prays: “Where [the Church] is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it.” One wishes that this prayer were less needed, but it has never been so, and certainly continues to be in the present state of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

The first part of this column will attempt to describe where The Episcopal Church is at present with respect to its inner life and the wider Communion, and try to provide some analysis of what needs to happen next. The second part will attempt to point out resources overlooked perhaps in grappling with the complexity of our present situation. I will argue overall that prior to engaging in a Covenant process with the Communion that defines what we share in common as Anglican Christians, something similar needs to happen within TEC itself. As we bid farewell to one Presiding Bishop, and a new Presiding Bishop begins her ministry, I want to speak encouragement and hope for us, based more than anything else on the hope we share in Christ.

We must admit that we are at a very odd place at this moment in the process to include gay and lesbian people as full members of the church. Officially our teaching on sex and marriage remains unchanged: “the teaching of the Episcopal Church is that physical sexual expression is appropriate only within the lifelong monogamous ‘union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind’” (A104 General Convention 1991). Nevertheless, we also elected, affirmed and consecrated a partnered gay man to the episcopate in 2003. At the same 2003 Convention, we also gutted a proposed resolution that would have authorized the creation of rites of same-sex blessings, although the measure almost passed at both the 1997 and 2000 Conventions. Now it will at least 2015 before we have official rites, if then.

So a partnered gay or lesbian can be a bishop of the church, but he or she cannot get the union with his partner blessed in an official rite of the church. And nowhere can one find an official teaching that explains this peculiar situation.

Is it any wonder that people around the world are asking us to explain ourselves?

It is worth reviewing how we got here. In 1976, the General Convention proclaimed that gay and lesbian people are indeed fully members of the Church — they “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” (Resolution A-69). The logic of this comes from the heart of the Gospel:

1.) The church is for sinners (Mt. 9:12-13 and parallels).

2.) “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3: 22-23).

3.) Ergo, the church is for all people and cannot exclude any category of people from membership.

The same Convention drew the obvious conclusion for American society, calling upon the government to guarantee civil rights for gays and lesbians. If gay people are “children of God,” then they too are, in Jefferson’s classic phrase, “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Since 1776 the government’s role among others has been understood as guaranteeing these rights, and so the Convention was again making a uncontestable statement. In light of the violence which is still directed against gay people to this day in the United States, this resolution continues to have a strong claim upon all of us.

Since 1976 The Episcopal Church has been trying to understand and live out the implications of these two resolutions mean for the life of our church.

In 1977 Bishop Paul Moore of New York ordained a partnered lesbian, Ellen Barrett, to the priesthood. This caused a great row, but did not result in any real action against the bishop. Meeting in Port St. Lucie, Florida, shortly thereafter, the House of Bishops passed a strong resolution against homosexuality and yet refused to censure Moore.

The 1979 Convention voted to exclude “active homosexuals” from ordination, rejecting a report of a Joint Commission on the Church in Human Affairs that suggested that ordinands be judged on the wholesomeness of their life rather than on sexuality. 21 bishops signed a protest to that resolution, saying it contradicted the support promised to gay people by the church in the baptismal covenant.

Since then, the process is more difficult to track. In 1985, the Convention tried to launch a church-wide dialogue about gay people in the church, in order to help them get the “full and equal claim” to acceptance in the church that the 1976 resolution claimed. This proceeded by fits and starts, with a few dioceses like Newark beginning processes for recognition of same-sex couples and ordination of partnered gays. In 1989 Bishop John Spong of Newark ordained Robert Williams, only to remove him shortly thereafter. In 1990 he authorized his then-assistant bishop, Walter Righter, to ordain Barry Stopfel to the diaconate.

While the General Convention 1991 was trying to put the 1985 dialogue decision back on the rails, opposition to these developments was gathering. Ten bishops decided to put the process to the test by bringing charges against Bishop Righter in February 1995. These charges were that Righter had violated his ordination vows to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the church, by teaching knowingly and advisedly a false doctrine (that partnered gays and lesbians were not unfit for ordination), and putting his teaching into effect by ordaining Mr. Stopfel. A Court of Review for the Trial of a Bishop decided that there was no substance to the charges, a point to which we shall return below. This had the effect of giving permission to bishops to ordain partnered gays to the diaconate and priesthood.

Despite the Righter verdict, the question of same-sex blessings continued (and still continues) to be unresolved. Nevertheless, both resolutions D039 (GC 2000) and C051 (GC 2003) acknowledged that there exists a significant rift between the official traditional teaching of the church (which technically remains in force) and the understanding and practice of many members of TEC. Furthermore, these resolutions allow the rift to continue in the interest of further conversation and development.

Meanwhile, some of those who unequivocally continue to support the traditional teaching turned to the wider Anglican Communion for vindication. While conservatives generally have been poor lobbyists in their own church, they turned out a strong effort at Lambeth 1998. The gathering of all Anglican bishops, meeting every ten years, has been numerically dominated by the global South since 1988. Virtually ignoring a nuanced report on human sexuality, the Lambeth bishops overwhelmingly approved a resolution that “homosexual practice is incompatible with Holy Scripture.” Most of the resolution dealt with pastoral responses to gays and lesbians, which has been subsequently disregarded on all sides in the ensuing debate about it. This resolution became the cudgel with which to attempt to pound TEC into submission.

A group calling itself “the Anglican Mission in America” (AMiA) got two primates, assisted by two retired TEC bishops, to ordain two American priests as “missionary bishops” for the United States early in 2000. Some legal tussles for control of parish properties ensued, with AMiA congregations forced to leave their properties. Moreover, then-Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey refused to recognize the legitimacy of the two AMiA bishops, supported by the Primates’ Meeting in Porto, 2000, which dramatically cooled that movement. Nevertheless, the gauntlet was down. Schism in TEC with the support of a few primates was becoming a reality. This had the effect of forcing people to choose sides.

Having to choose sides often means in the United States deciding which side of a lawsuit one is on. While most attempts to wrest property and endowments away from Episcopal dioceses have failed, every bishop (including this one) must now keep one eye on the legal situation. (At Convention 2006 one major concern for the bishops was that language adopted by resolution not weaken their positions in future or pending cases.) Not to mention the hard feelings inherent to an incipient schism. This of course has increased the latent anger and distrust underlying the rift between the two sides.

By the end of 2003, the process begun in 1976 had come to a strange place indeed. On the one hand, twenty-six years after Paul Moore had ordained Ellen Barrett, Gene Robinson had been ordained bishop. In light of the Righter verdict and the growing rejection among the bishops of the 1979 prohibition on such ordinations, this should seem like a natural development. And yet, the church’s teaching on sexuality remained officially that sexual love was to be restricted to within marriage between a man and a woman. The Lambeth resolution had received support from many TEC bishops. The House of Bishops Theology Committee, representing a broad spectrum of opinion, had stated very clearly to the March 2003 bishops’ meeting that there is no consensus on sexual morality and that no new action should be taken. By action of Convention, same-sex blessings were to be tolerated as an exploration at the local level, but official sanction of them had been explicitly denied.

Three years later, the situation remains fairly unchanged, as far as the church’s teaching is concerned. The big development, of course, was the Lambeth Commission on Communion which created the Windsor Report in 2004. A large part of the General Convention 2006 was to reply to the exigencies of the Report, so that the rest of the Anglican Communion could know where TEC stood. (Consideration of the matter of the Diocese of New Westminster and its approval of a rite of same-sex blessing was also part of the Commission’s mandate.)

The Report explicitly sets aside the whole matter of gays in the church. Its focus is exclusively the process by which The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada came to their decisions: “…it appears to the wider Communion that neither the Diocese of New Westminster nor the Episcopal Church (USA) has made a serious attempt to offer an explanation to, or consult meaningfully with, the Communion as a whole about the significant development of theology which alone could justify the recent moves by a diocese or a province.” (para. 33)

I have given a very brief sketch of that process. At the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Nottingham, England, in June 2005, our delegation presented a text entitled “To Set Our Hope on Christ.” It presented a clear argument to justify our actions. However, the text did not have a chance to be officially approved by either General Convention or the House of Bishops.

It is in this sense, in particular, that I can accept Archbishop Rowan Williams’ declaration in his essay The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican that General Convention 2006 made only an “incomplete” response to what the Windsor Report requested of us. Clearly, the Convention did as best we could, given the difficulty of trying to craft a reply by legislation in one of the largest and most unwieldy governing bodies known.

It is worth clarifying what, actually, General Convention did in considering the Windsor Report requests. We reaffirmed in the clearest terms our commitment to the Anglican Communion, to being in communion with Canterbury, and we committed ourselves to the Windsor process (A159). TEC apologized for being insensitive to the consequences of our actions upon Anglicans elsewhere in the world (A160). Members of TEC who are not in agreement with this action shall continue to be offered effective alternative episcopal oversight if they can no longer accept the oversight of their diocesan bishop (A163). The Convention also commended the Windsor Report itself to our members, and promised to engage “fully and openly” in the “listening process” proposed by the Report (A165). We also agreed with the concept of an Anglican Covenant and pledged to engage in a process leading to the elaboration of it (A166). Rowan Williams’ call for the creation of such a Covenant immediately following the Convention thus received an endorsement in advance.

We also passed what is in effect a moratorium on further consecrations of partnered gays for the time being (B033). Finally, although the Convention was not able in the final analysis to address by legislation the issue of same-sex blessings, several resolutions to legitimize them were defeated. As the 2003 Convention had denied the elaboration of rites for these blessings, and further attempts to create them were defeated in 2006, this should be considered enough of a response to Windsor at this point. A legislative assembly of over one thousand voting members is a cumbersome thing indeed.

It is fair to say, based on the objective evidence, that The Episcopal Church is in compliance with the requests of the Windsor Report. Considering the extraordinary nature of Convention in general, and the specific agenda of people at either end of the spectrum to ensure that Convention reject these requests,[1] it was a remarkable achievement.

One observation about our process as a whole is that the issues of the sacramental validity of gay unions and the acceptability for ordination of people in such unions have become somehow separated. Processes within the House of Bishops have determined the latter, as we moved from the 1977 ordination of Ellen Barrett to the priesthood through the Righter hearing to the approval of Gene Robinson’s consecration. This happened essentially without any significant theological agreement within the House. On the other hand, the question of creating a rite of same-sex blessing has remained an open one because the General Conventions and its various interim bodies have failed to agree upon a theological development that would validate such a rite. While the politics of our process is essential to understand where we are now, what is needed is some sound theology.

To return to the Righter verdict, which I would claim is a pivotal moment in our process, it is important not only to note the substance of the verdict, but also those of its minority reports.

The presenters chose these grounds to make their case: when the church decides doctrine, a bishop may not publicly teach in opposition to it, nor act in a way that contradicts it. The defense countered with a proposition that is elegantly simple: there is no doctrine in any authoritative source that specifically forbids the ordination of a partnered gay person. Resolutions of General Convention and the House of Bishops are purely recommendatory.

In the majority opinion, the judges of the Court of Review of a Trial of a Bishop invoked a concept associated with the British New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd: “core doctrine." By this they mean the essence of the earliest preaching or kerygma about Jesus. Through “controversy,” this doctrine came to be enshrined in the creeds, which in turn form one of the bases of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, along with Scripture, the dominical sacraments, and the historic episcopate. This core doctrine cannot be changed. On the other hand, didache, or doctrinal teaching, is liable to change, and indeed has changed over the years (remarriage after divorce, for example). This includes the moral teaching of the church as well as ecclesial discipline. At present, the question of the suitability for ordination of partnered gays is open to question. Therefore, the Court ruled, Bishop Righter did not violate either the “core doctrine” or the discipline of the church and so the presentment had no substance to place before a trial court.[2]

There were two dissents from the ruling. The lone voice for the presentment, Bishop Andrew Fairfield of North Dakota, laid out a brief built on arguments from the Scriptures and the marriage service in the Prayer Book to show that indeed, the matter at hand was an instance of doctrine and not merely discipline. The other two dissenters, Roger White and Donis Patterson, agreed “technically” with the verdict but offered caveats which I think still deserve attention.

The first was to point out that the defense based itself on an argument from silence, which is of course the least convincing of arguments. The dissenters pointed out that it is easily turned around: if the Scripture is silent, then there was no basis for Righter’s action. They co-opted a precedent cited by the presenters, the defense, and the majority opinion — the verdict of the only heresy trial in TEC history, the Bishop Brown case. (The then-retired bishop of Arkansas, William Montgomery Brown, wrote a book in 1920 that equated true Christianity with Communism. He also referred to himself as an “atheist.” This led to his trial and subsequent deposition in 1924.) That Court held that “the doctrine of the Church is not formulated in the Holy Scriptures, but is in all cases is to be supported by the Holy Scriptures as interpreted by the Church in its corporate capacity.” Thus bishops may not act independently.

The other important issue the dissenters raised is the weight or value of General Convention resolutions in the Church’s teaching. The usual interpretation is that such resolutions are purely recommendations, unless they involve a change of the canon law or the revision of the Book of Common Prayer. The majority verdict followed this line of reasoning. Again the dissenters quoted from the Brown precedent: “The doctrine of this Church is fixed by the whole Church, acting in its corporate capacity, and not by the individual opinions or interpretations placed upon any documents supposed to contain the Church's doctrine, by any bishop, priest, or deacon speaking individually.” Thus it is incumbent upon dioceses as well, they reason, because each diocese is a part of the church, but not the whole church in itself. They end by urging the church to forego any more legal attempts to resolve the issue, but rather to clarify the basis of its teaching and polity.[3]

Ten years later, one may wonder why I am rummaging about in the footnotes of the verdict. It seems to me that the minority opinion raises the salient issues of teaching and polity in language that now seems prophetic. We have a host of unresolved questions: Does a diocese have the power to act independently of the church as a whole? How and when (if ever) does the church reach an opinion, “acting in its corporate capacity,” that becomes binding on its official agents — bishops, priests and dioceses? And what is our collective responsibility to the other provinces of the Communion?

Besides these polity questions, there is the vexed question of the church’s teaching. While the bishops are supposed to be the “teaching office” of the church, what is the power of the General Convention resolutions in setting the teaching of the church? Is there a “hierarchy” of doctrine, ranging from immutable “core” to “issue du jour”? What is incumbent upon the clergy only to obey, and what is to be required of all, clergy and laypeople?

In particular, the theology underlying the sacrament of matrimony has always been deficient. Not just in TEC, but the Church in general has been theologically weakest, as it were, in its understanding of matrimony. It may be that the reluctance to establish rites of same-sex blessings lies in some intuition that the prior task is to re-evaluate the practice of marriage among straight people. This might lead to some insights that are quite critical of our present matrimonial practice. Moreover, those who support same-sex blessings have significant differences in how they understand the theological meaning of such relationships — and therefore the meaning of blessing them.

On the other hand, denying ordination to partnered gays can be dismissed as an infringement on their civil rights, which bishops acting prophetically can apparently rectify. Yet it should be obvious that our present state of self-contradiction is due to a lack of clarity about the underlying theology — and a need therefore to engage the theologically problem. In order to do that, however, we need to look anew at what binds us together overall.

I have written in another column about the problem of diocesan and provincial boundaries. The metaphor of fractal geometry still intrigues me — the idea that the Anglican Communion has a similarity across degrees of scale in both a negative and a positive sense. Our Communion seems unable to define boundaries for the actions of its provinces. Our own province seems unable to define limits for diocesan action. Our dioceses are patchwork quilts of quite-different congregations, many of whom are at odds over this or that issue.

Conversely, we exhibit similarities at each degree of scale, from our adherence to the Lambeth Quadrilateral as a way of living our faith, the similarities of our Books of Common Prayer and how we regard and use them, our insistence on bishops as symbols of unity and especially the Archbishop of Canterbury, to the habit of according great latitude to inquiry both scholarly and ordinary.

Wippell’s (the English vestment makers) isn’t the only thing holding us Anglicans together, as has sometimes been alleged…

In his document cited above, Archbishop Williams called for a Covenant-making process, which has been received with a lot of the customary “spin” that greets every one of his pronouncements. He quite rightly says that he cannot and should not try to decide for the Communion what its member provinces need to do for themselves. What I hear him to be saying, simply put, is that we examine together as a Communion those things that make us one and see whether we can re-commit to them.

This for me points to a place to begin. We in The Episcopal Church cannot take our place at the Communion level of discussion without some definition and re-commitment within our church to these same things that make us one. It has been said over and over that there are “irreconcilable differences” in TEC, and that we need a schism in order to have peace. But will a schism in fact solve anything? Will TEC grapple with issues it must face, if a schism seems to serve as a phony “safety valve” relieving the tension? Will the new entity have another fate than that of the “Continuing Churches” after the St. Louis Congress in 1977, which promptly split into several smaller denominations?

The answer is no, for history has a nasty habit of repeating itself. No one will emerge unscathed from a schism. The lust for power of certain individuals will be served in the short term, until the inherent instabilities of either fragment re-emerge to wreak havoc. Not to mention the congealing of attitudes into ideologies which will further blind the common minds and harden hearts of the resulting pieces. No schism has ever made the Church stronger, or better, or more faithful — quite the contrary. There is no better argument against the truth of the Gospel and the validity of the Church’s mission than the divisions among Christians — all too often sealed in bloodshed.

In the end, schism may be unavoidable. “So it goes…”[6] But Christians are called to be radical optimists, opposing the Resurrection to the inevitability of death. There is however no glossing over the gravity of our present situation. This writer is aware of how naïve he sounds in saying that schism can still be avoided…

One could say that, given that the average age of Episcopalians is around 57, all this talk about sex sounds suspiciously like an exercise in nostalgia. But in fact, it covers up more basic issues. And until we start again with first things, with appreciating what we actually have in our hands, we cannot ever consider the deeper questions. We have complied as best we could with the Lambeth Process. Like them or not, the 2006 Convention resolutions have bought us a little time to get to work.

We also need some reciprocity so that we can get on with what we need to do.

If Archbishop Williams’ Covenant process is ever to get off the ground, one thing The Episcopal Church absolutely must have is an end to interventions in our province that the Windsor Report requires. Paragraph 155 of the Report is quite clear what is expected:

'We call upon those bishops who believe it is their conscientious duty to intervene in provinces, dioceses, and parishes other than their own:

•   to express regret for the consequences of their actions

•   to affirm their desire to remain in the Communion

•   to effect a moratorium on any further inventions'

And the Archbishop must also rebuff the requests for “alternative primatial oversight” that a few TEC standing committees and bishops (6 out of 110) have made. I asked one of those bishops what such oversight means. He said he really didn’t know. When I pointed out with all due respect that making such a request could be rather neatly seen as a repudiation of ordination vows, he replied that in any event, that was not his intention.

Ecclesia semper reformanda… The slogan is not only a description, but a demand. We need to reform The Episcopal Church. The second part of this column will try to address how we can appreciate what it is we have, so that we can not only make progress on issues presently bedeviling us, but also get back to focusing on the work of the Church: what God has put us in the Church to do.

To Part 2

[1] “…we need to be mindful of the dynamics that have brought us to where we are. Some among us feel that expressions of restraint with regard to the office of bishop demean the dignity of those among us who are gay and lesbian. Others among us may be opposed to expressions of restraint, which would make it more difficult for them to justify their apparent need to establish a separate ecclesial body. Nothing would better serve such purposes than to be able to say that we, because of our action or inaction, have chosen to walk apart from the rest of the Communion. In a strange way, those with very different views are able to vote on the same side of the question.” — Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold's June 21 message to a Joint Session of the 75th General Convention.

[2] The Righter verdict was so problematical that definitions of “doctrine” and “discipline” were included in a revision of the Title IV canons by the 1997 Convention: “Discipline The Discipline of the Church shall be found in the Constitution, the Canons, and the Rubrics and the Ordinal of the Book of Common Prayer.

Doctrine As used in this Title, the term Doctrine shall mean the basic and essential teachings of the church. The Doctrine of the Church is to be found in the Canon of Holy Scripture as understood in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds and in the sacramental rites, the Ordinal and Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer.” (IV.15)

[3] Louie Crew has a helpful webpage with all the relevant texts at

[4] A saying that appears frequently in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 as a commentary on the inevitability of death.


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

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