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Anglican Leaders Demand U.S. Church End Gay Unions

February 20, 2007 at 6:35 PM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: The dispute within the world’s third-largest Christian denomination over same-sex unions and gay clergy escalated sharply yesterday.

Meeting in Tanzania, leaders of the Anglican Communion called on the U.S. Episcopal Church to state explicitly by September 30th that it will bar the blessing of same-sex unions and stop consecrating openly gay bishops. Otherwise, it risks further isolation from the 77-million-member Anglican Communion.

The Episcopal Church, with just 2.4 million members, is the small but affluent American branch of Anglicanism. In an eight-page communique, the Anglican bishop said, “The Episcopal Church has departed from the standard of teaching on human sexuality by consenting to the Episcopal election of a candidate living in a committed same-sex relationship and by permitting rights of blessing for same-sex unions.”

The Episcopal Church does not officially endorse the blessing of homosexual unions, but some 10 percent of its 110 dioceses do perform same-sex blessings. The archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said Episcopal priests should not be blessing rites that violate Anglican teaching.

THE MOST REV. ROWAN WILLIAMS, Archbishop of Canterbury: The teaching of the Anglican Church remains that homosexual activity is not compatible with scripture.

MARGARET WARNER: The gathering in Tanzania was the latest attempt to heal a long-simmering rift between the Episcopalian leadership and more conservative Anglicans over issues related to homosexuality. The tensions boiled over in 2003, when Gene Robinson, an openly gay man living with his partner, was elected bishop of New Hampshire.

GENE ROBINSON, Bishop of New Hampshire: I have it in my mind that the best way I can help gay and lesbian persons is by being a good bishop.

MARGARET WARNER: Church conservatives were further angered last year, when Katharine Jefferts Schori, who supports same-sex blessings, was elected as the U.S. church’s first female presiding bishop.

Yesterday, she did not say how the U.S. church would respond, but said, “There is awareness that these issues are of concern in many provinces of the communion.”

At least two dozen of the roughly 7,200 Episcopal parishes in the U.S. have split off to place themselves under more conservative bishops in other countries. This Newport Beach, California, church joined the Anglican Church of Uganda. Others that have split, like the Truro Church in Fairfax City, Virginia, have made claims for ownership of church property.

Church leaders at the Tanzania meeting agreed to create a special new vicar to help oversee other U.S. Episcopal churches opposed to same-sex blessings and the consecration of gay bishops.

Late today, Bishop Jefferts Schori issued a statement saying, “What is being asked of both parties is a season of” what she called fasting, “from blessing same-sex unions and consecrating bishops in such unions on the one hand, and from transgressing traditional diocesan boundaries on the other.”

'A very serious time in the church'

Rev. Susan Russell
President, Integrity USA
I think the greater challenge we face has much less to do with gay and lesbian people or bishops or blessings, but how we're going to be church together.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on yesterday's action and what it means for the U.S. Episcopal Church, we get two perspectives. They come from Canon Kendall Harmon, the chief theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, and Reverend Susan Russell, a priest at the All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California. She is also the president of Integrity USA, a group that advocates for gays and lesbians in the Anglican community.

And welcome to you both. Canon Harmon, beginning with you, how serious a challenge is this to the Episcopal Church in America?

KENDALL HARMON, Episcopal Diocese, South Carolina: Margaret, it couldn't be more serious. The Episcopal Church was already given an ultimatum by the Anglican Communion in 2004 in the Windsor report. And there were three things asked of us.

And this meeting in Tanzania was a meeting to evaluate those three responses. And effectively what the leadership of the communion says is, "We're going to give you one very last chance. You're in the penalty box. And we have two things that we asked you to do that we don't feel that you have done. And we're giving you until September 30th to do it. And if you don't do it, we don't want to do this, but there's going to be a further severing of our relationship with you as a communion."

So they're asking the Episcopal Church, they're imploring the Episcopal Church to do the right thing and to come back to teaching in accordance with scripture and Anglican history, and they're doing it with a very short time frame.

And they're also doing it with a significant amount of challenge to the structure of the Episcopal Church in the process, which one could argue is unprecedented in Anglican history. They're making a lot of structural suggestions as to how things here should be different while this final seven-month process is going on.

MARGARET WARNER: Reverend Russell, do you see it as that serious a challenge, that really the American Episcopal Church is now, quote, "in the penalty box"?

REV. SUSAN RUSSELL, President, Integrity USA: I don't know if I'd use that analogy, but I agree we are in a very serious time in the church. From my perspective, the American Episcopal Church has now been very strategically and very intentionally painted into a corner by those in the American church who have been advocating for a schism for many years.

And we're now faced with what I would call a Sophie's choice of having to choose our vision of the inclusive gospel over our inclusion in the communion. It's a profoundly un-Anglican way to make decisions, given that historically we have been a people of God who have not required common belief in order to be in communion with each other.

So I think the greater challenge we face has much less to do with gay and lesbian people or bishops or blessings, but how we're going to be church together. I think that is really under attack by the radical religious right, who is willing to split this church if they can't recreate it in their own image.

Addressing differences

Kendall Harmon
Diocese of South Carolina
[T]he difficulty here is that Anglicans believe in the importance of tolerating differences, but Anglicans also believe in boundaries. Otherwise you can't have any community to discuss differences in.

MARGARET WARNER: Canon Harmon, why can't different views of these two issues -- that is, whether to bless same-sex unions or allow priests who are in same-sex unions to become bishops -- why can't both be accommodated in the Anglican Communion?

Is this rooted in faith? Is it a question of -- well, I don't want to characterize what Reverend Russell said -- but is it more sort of political and cultural? What is the nub of the inability of different views on this issue, these two issues, to coexist?

KENDALL HARMON: Well, the difficulty here is that Anglicans believe in the importance of tolerating differences, but Anglicans also believe in boundaries. Otherwise you can't have any community to discuss differences in.

And the crucial point to make here is, there's different kinds of differences. And it's interesting that this is the topic of debate here, because in the Windsor report this specific subject is addressed. And in one section -- it's paragraph 89 -- what they say in there is, in the New Testament, there are certain kinds of differences that actually Christians can't tolerate, because it's not part of what it means to be a genuinely Christian community.

Two examples they use are sexual behavior and lawsuits of one Christian against another. And it's interesting that, in this communique, both lawsuits and sexual behavior are things that the primates are talking about.

So the reason is because there are different kinds of differences, and the majority of the communion sees these differences as not the kind of differences that can be tolerated.

Explaining the minority position

Rev. Susan Russell
President, Integrity USA
We believe that lives lived in holiness, and fidelity, and mutual respect transcends the orientation of the people involved in the relationship.

MARGARET WARNER: And yet, Reverend Russell, you said that you think the idea of not being able to tolerate these differences is somehow in conflict with what you said was the essential nature of the Anglican Communion. Explain what you meant.

REV. SUSAN RUSSELL: Well, absolutely. I mean, if we look at the historic roots of who we are as Anglicans, we have the same DNA. We come from the Church of England, which was formed out of the crucible of the English Reformation, and had at one point to decide whether it was going to be Catholic or whether it was going to be Protestant.

At a time when people were burned at the stake over such significant and foundational theological divide, the Anglican Church and the Church of England found a way to be both. And that's the heritage we've carried up until now.

The fact is, the American church does hold a minority opinion on the blessing of same-sex unions and the full inclusion of all the baptized in the body of Christ. We know we maintain a minority opinion, but we maintain that that minority opinion is a leadership opinion, in much the same way that we've held a minority opinion on whether or not women should be bishops or women should be priests.

Historically, the rest of the communion has come along on that issue. We believe that lives lived in holiness, and fidelity, and mutual respect transcends the orientation of the people involved in the relationship. We believe God blesses those relationships, and so should the church.

MARGARET WARNER: Canon Harmon?

KENDALL HARMON: Well, the crucial difference here is, there are allowances for differences, like Susan said, but the heart of Anglicanism is: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.

And the problem is, there's a unity and an intolerance for difference in essentials, and a liberty about non-essentials. And in Anglicanism, there's always been this historic weakness, which is, what's the difference between non-essentials and essentials? And who gets to decide.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me...

KENDALL HARMON: But part of what's happening, I think people need to realize, is the United States church is trying very hard to unilaterally make this decision in such a way that it affects the rest of the communion. And in a communion which has 70 million to 80 million people, for 2.3 million to 2.4 million maybe, to unilaterally do that, when they've been warned not to, is incredibly detrimental to the family.

REV. SUSAN RUSSELL: Now, Kendall...

The Episcopal Church's response

Kendall Harmon
Diocese of South Carolina
We had an ultimatum in 2004, and we had two years to do this. And we didn't do what we were asked to do.

MARGARET WARNER: May I ask you, Reverend Russell -- let me ask you, just as a practical matter, speaking of deciding, there's little more than seven months away before this deadline. How will the Episcopal Church of the U.S. go about making this decision, how to respond?

REV. SUSAN RUSSELL: Well, that's a very important question, but I do want to respond quickly to the idea that we are acting unilaterally. The American church has never asked the Church of Nigeria or Uganda or Rwanda or any of our other Anglican brother and sister churches to come along with us on our vision for where the church should be.

All we've asked to have is our understandings of holy scripture and how we live that out respected.

As far as the charge to the church right now, basically we've been given an assignment we cannot complete. The reality is, in the American church, our bishops do not speak for us, unlike many other churches in the wider communion, say, Nigeria, for example, where the primate is empowered to speak for his church.

In the American church, we make decisions at our general convention, with laity, clergy and bishops all in consultation. To ask us to make a decision of this magnitude for the whole church, on a time frame that only allows our bishops to meet, really sets us up for failure.

They've given us a line in the sand that I don't believe we should cross and I don't believe we can cross, not and be held to the authenticity of our integrity and our leadership in the American church.

Again, I believe it's part of a strategic political move to paint us into a corner, where we have no choice but to choose the gospel or choose the institutional church.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you both...

REV. SUSAN RUSSELL: I'm choosing the gospel. And I think -- I know my congregation, All Saints Pasadena, is going to make that choice, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: So are you saying, if the bishops choose to, as Bishop Jefferts Schori suggested late this afternoon, a season of fasting -- she seemed to be suggesting a moratorium on these activities. Are you suggesting then that churches like yours would break away?

REV. SUSAN RUSSELL: I certainly think that's a possibility we would entertain. But I would also suggest that -- and I just had a chance to read the presiding bishop's statement.

If we're going to ask the church to fast for a season and bear each other's burdens, then perhaps we should fast from all ordinations and from all marriages. The two essential sacraments in the church are baptism and holy communion.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get Canon Harmon's response...

REV. SUSAN RUSSELL: If we can fast from the rest and let the heterosexual community bear the burden, as well, that would be truly bearing each other's burdens.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Canon Harmon, how do you interpret what the bishop said? And what do you think the consequences of that are?

KENDALL HARMON: Well, let me make these two quick points. Seven months is a short deadline. And I think Susan and I agree on this. I think actually, pastorally, it would be a mistake for the bishops to do this.

The whole church needs to speak, and this is a vital time. You can call a special general convention, and I think we need to give real thought to that because it's such an important moment.

But can I also point out, we already had an ultimatum, Margaret. We had an ultimatum in 2004, and we had two years to do this. And we didn't do what we were asked to do.

And we really should already be under significant discipline, but the international leadership is being very, very patient. They're not backing us into the corner. They're trying lovingly to give us one last chance because they don't want us to go.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Canon Kendall Harmon and Reverend Susan Russell, thank you both.

REV. SUSAN RUSSELL: Thank you.

KENDALL HARMON: Thank you.