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Homosexuality and the Episcopal Church (1976-2007)

One central aspect of the Episcopal Church is its emphasis not only on Scripture as a source of authority, but on the equal importance of "tradition" and "reason" in church decision-making and practice. This philosophy is often referred to as the "three-legged stool," and many credit its conception to Richard Hooker, an Anglican theologian from the 16th century.

Yet unlike scripture, tradition and reason are much more subjective terms, affected heavily by culture and context, which helps to make understandable why 77 million Anglican worshippers from all over the world might disagree on an issue as controversial as homosexuality in the church.

Below is a brief collection of major events concerning the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion and homosexuality from 1976 to the present.


  • The General Convention, the governing body of The Episcopal Church that meets every three years, in 1976 voted on two important resolutions concerning gays and lesbians in and out of the church. Yet perhaps more significant was the vote to amend the Canon in order to allow the ordination of women.

    It is important to distinguish resolutions, which are non-binding advisory measures for the church, from amendments to canonical law, which then become officially added to the Constitution by which the church governs itself.

    • Resolution A-69: "That it is the sense of this General Convention that homosexual persons 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-71: "That this General Convention expresses its conviction that homosexual persons are entitled to equal protection of the laws with all other citizens, and calls upon our society to see that such protection is provided in actuality."

    • Resolution B-005: "The provisions of these canons for the admission of Candidates, and for the Ordination to the three Orders: Bishops, Priests and Deacons shall be equally applicable to men and women."

  • On the question of ordination of homosexuals in the church, the Convention created a "Standing Commission on Human Affairs and Health" that was tasked to "study and concern itself with the theological, ethical and pastoral questions inherent in such aspects of human affairs as human health, sexuality and bioethical problems."
  • In response to the resolutions passed by the General Convention in 1976, particularly Resolution B005, which called for the equal ordination of men and women, the House of Bishops met in Port St. Lucie, Florida in 1977 and drafted "A Statement of Conscience," which stated that a Bishop did not have to ordain a female priest or bishop if it goes against his conscience.
  • Interestingly, many Episcopal officials began using this "conscience clause" as reason to allow the ordination of open gays and lesbians in the priesthood.
  • The 1979 General Convention rejected the assessment report put forth by the Standing Commission on Human Affairs and Health, which spoke favorably about the future prospect for the ordination of homosexuals, and passed Resolution A053:

    • "We re-affirm the traditional teaching of the Church on marriage, marital fidelity and sexual chastity as the standard of Christian sexual morality. Candidates for ordination are expected to conform to this standard. Therefore, we believe it is not appropriate for this Church to ordain a practicing homosexual, or any person who is engaged in heterosexual relations outside of marriage."

  • At this meeting, Bishop of Southern Ohio, John Krumm, introduced and 21 other bishops signed a "Statement of Conscience" disagreeing with the Episcopal stance on homosexuality as dictated in Resolution A053:

    • "We who associate ourselves with this statement are deeply conscious of,, and grateful for, the profoundly valuable ministries of ordained persons, known to us to be homosexual, formerly and presently engaged in the service of this Church. Not all of these persons have necessarily been celibate: and in the relationships of many of them, maintained in the face of social hostility and against great odds, we have seen a redeeming quality which in its way and according to its mode is no less a sign to the world of God's love than is the more usual sign of Christian marriage. From such relationships we cannot believe God to be absent."
  • The 1985 General Convention reiterated some of the sentiments expressed in the 1976 conference:

    • Resolution D082: "That the 68th General Convention urge each diocese of this Church to find an effective way to foster a better understanding of homosexual persons, to dispel myths and prejudices about homosexuality, to provide pastoral support, and to give life to the claim of homosexual persons "upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral care and concern of the Church" as recognized by the General Convention in 1976."
  • Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark ordained the first homosexual male to the priesthood living openly with his partner of five years. "My church's leaders recoiled, but the debate raised consciousness and even the attempts to disassociate the leaders of the Episcopal Church from my actions and those of the Diocese of Newark failed to reveal a consensus."
  • 88 Bishops sign "A Statement of Kiononia," affirming support for gays and lesbians in the ranks of the ordained:

    • "We pledge ourselves to ordain only those persons whom the testing and screening process reveals to be wholesome examples to the flock of Christ. But let there be no misunderstanding, our lives and our experience as bishops have convinced us that a wholesome example to the flock of Christ does not exclude a person of homosexual orientation nor does it exclude those homosexual persons who choose to live our their sexual orientation in a partnership that is marked by faithfulness and life giving holiness."

  • The Standing Commission on Human Affairs of the Episcopal Church issued a report focussing on children and "our sisters and brothers in Christ who find themselves -- among other things -- to be lesbian and gay." While not coming to any definitive conclusions on the ordination of homosexuals, the body urged for the protection and appreciation of homosexuals in congregations. "We have raised difficult and complex issues for the culture and for the Church. They will not be resolved easily or quickly. But we must continue to address them, and we must 'hang in there' with one another while we are discerning where our journey is taking us."
  • Bishop Walter Righter, an assistant Bishop of Newark, is tried for heresy by judges of the Episcopal Church, after ordaining Barry Stopfel, a homosexual male in a sexual relationship with another man, six years earlier as a deacon. The charges were dismissed by the court by a vote of 7-1. More about the trial and church discipline.
  • The Lambeth Conference, a meeting of worldwide Anglican bishops that occurs once a decade. in 1998, issued Resolution I.10 on Human Sexuality:

    Important to distinguish the difference between the General Conventions of the Episcopal Church (U.S.A.) held every three years and the Lambeth Conference, held once a decade, and comprised of all representatives of the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is just one small part. Historically, this body, since it represents a worldwide view, has been more conservative than the Episcopal Church itself.

    • "Those persons who practise homosexuality and live in promiscuity, as well as those Bishops who knowingly ordain them or encourage these practices, act contrary to the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church. We call upon them to repent."
  • The Episcopal General Convention of 2000 votes to acknowledge and protect same-sex couples in the church:

    • "That 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."
  • The Diocese of New Westminster in British Columbia voted to authorize the blessing of same-sex unions within the diocese. The vote was 63% in favor (215 to 129).
  • The Diocese of New Hampshire nominates and the General Convention confirms the consecration of Bishop V. Gene Robinson as the first openly-gay bishop in a same-sex relationship.
  • The Lambeth Commission, a 17-member body created by Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in order to reflect on the growing division inside the Anglican Communion, release the Windsor Report, mandated to "examine the legal and theological implications flowing from the decisions" by the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of New Westminster. More on The Lambeth Commission Report.

    • The Windsor Report highlights that change in the church is possible, as evidenced by the inclusion of women in the priesthood, but stresses that this issue was handled Communion-wide, and followed a proper procedure so as not to take anything for granted.

    • "We particularly request a contribution from the Episcopal Church (USA) which explains, from within the sources of authority that we as Anglicans have received in scripture, the apostolic tradition and reasoned reflection, how a person living in a same gender union may be considered eligible to lead the flock of Christ."

  • Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Frank T. Griswold, issues a 135 page answer to this charge entitled, "To Set Our Hope on Christ (pdf)."
  • The Episcopal Church elects Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as the new Primate, a woman who favors same-sex unions and the ordination of homosexuals.

  • 11 Virginia churches, including some of the largest congregations in the United States, vote to leave the Episcopal Church due to disagreements over leadership and practice.
  • Peter J. Akinola, Archbishop of Nigeria and chairman of the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa, visits Virginia in order to install Bishop Martin Minns as head of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), an offshoot of the Nigerian Anglican church, comprised predominantly of American congregations that broke away from the Episcopal church.

  • The Communique of the Primates' Meeting in Tanzania in February 2007, asks that the Episcopal Church stop issuing a Rite of Blessing for same-sex unions, and will not elect any further members to the Episcopal Order that are currently living in a same-sex union, by September 30th.

  • Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, chooses not to invite Bishop Robinson or Bishop Minns to the 2008 Lambeth Conference. "I have to reserve the right to withhold or withdraw invitations from bishops whose appointment, actions or manner of life have caused exceptionally serious division or scandal within the communion."
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