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By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
On Wednesday, June 21, Episcopalians in Columbus, Ohio decided to close the door a bit on the nomination of additional gay bishops. On the same day in Birmingham, Alabama, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA voted to approve the ordination of gays and lesbians (as well as candidates who express their opposition to the denomination’s overall anti-gay stance) on a case-by-case basis, according to a June 21 report in the LA Times.
In Columbus, the Episcopal Church’s General Assembly bowed to international pressure that has mounted in the wake of the 2003 election of openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson. Conservatives, primarily in Africa, have threatened to break from the worldwide Anglican Communion as a result of the election of Robinson and the church’s practice of blessing same-sex unions. According to a June 21 report by Reuters, “The action reversed a decision made 24 hours earlier when one of two legislative bodies at the 2.3-million-member U.S. church’s triennial convention rejected a similar idea.”
Specifically, according to an online report by the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, the resolution “call[s] upon Standing Committees and bishops with jurisdiction to exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.”
According to the online report, “The resolution is not binding on bishops or standing committees, however it sends a clear signal of the church’s thinking.”
“I think that the idea behind it was to make sure that we stay at the table and stay in conversation with the Anglican Communion. I know from talking to people it was a very, very difficult decision to come to – a very difficult vote to make because it didn’t say specifically that we could go ahead and consecrate new bishops who are gay,” said Karen Bota, canon for communication for the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan. “I think in the interests of staying at the table a lot of people voted for it even though they didn’t agree with it.”
Indeed, Nevada Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who will become presiding bishop in November, told delegates, “I am fully committed to the full inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians in this church,” but said the measure would give the church some time to find a “common mind.”
How much time, however, is in doubt. According to Bota, “The thing is we don’t even know yet how the Anglican communion is going to take it. It’s too soon to tell, so it could be enough or it might not be enough because the language still didn’t ban it [the election of gay bishops]. And, in another move that may anger overseas and U.S. conservatives, the General Assembly rejected a moratorium on developing official prayers to bless the unions of same-sex couples.
While Episcopalians in Columbus were attempting to close the door to gays and lesbians, if only a bit, Presbyterians in Birmingham may have opened it a crack.
According to the LA Times, the new policy “creates a loophole that would allow gays and lesbians to serve as ministers, even though the policy does not endorse gay clergy.”
“In taking this action, some of our folks may now be able to serve in this denomination as they have longed to do. We take hope that this action will be a step on the road to the full inclusion of all people, including LGBT people,” said the Rev. Jane Adams Spahr, Minister Director of That All May Freely Serve. “Given the terms of this General Assembly action, we will work alongside all who seek to serve this church so that no LGBT person called by God is denied by the church.”
Rev. Kate VanBrocklin, regional executive director of TAMFS, told BTL that the church’s regional governing bodies, called presbyteries, will hold the final decision should any local church decide to ordain an openly gay minister, elder or deacon. In other words, whether or not any local church will be allowed to ordain openly gay LGBT clergy will depend on whether its governing presbytery is theologically liberal or conservative. And while there are “plenty” of openly gay Presbyterian ministers in the country, VanBrocklin said, there are as yet none in Michigan. In fact, VanBrocklin said, the Detroit presbytery, once liberal, has been “regressing to conservative in the past several years.”
As for the assembly overall, she said, it was a “very anti-intellectual, very conservative assembly that frankly scared the hell out of me for the future of the church.”
Additional reporting by The Associated Press