Below is a letter to the clergy from Bishop Alexander. Those of you who may be interested in what's going on at General Convention, the primary governing and legislative body in the Episcopal Church, the Bishop does a good job of summing everything up.
Sister and brothers in Christ Jesus:
Grace to you and peace in Jesus Christ our Lord!
It is late Wednesday night in Anaheim. We have completed eight of the ten legislative days of the 76th General Convention. I thought I would take the opportunity of a lighter-than-usual evening schedule to write to you and highlight a few matters. If it seems necessary, I will prepare a second communication to you at the end of Convention.
First, let me say that your deputation and bishops have worked faithfully through the Convention. We have two legislative committee chairs among us as well as a number of appointments to major committees of the Convention. Our other deputies have tracked legislation, sought and shared voluminous amounts of information, and have contributed significantly to the work before us. The Diocese of Atlanta is “in the thick of things” at The General Convention!
Secondly, let me share some of the highlights. I share these from my perspective only. Bishop Whitmore and the lay and clergy deputies may see some of this from a slightly different vantage point.
Ecumenical and Interfaith — There have been several important events on this front. The Convention has approved a full-communion agreement with the Moravian Church in America. The Convention has also moved forward our growing ecumenical relationships with the Presbyterian Church and opened the way to further bilateral dialogues. Another significant development is a major position paper on our church's participation and essential witness in interreligious conversations which passed both houses late today.
Church Pension – As you know, the Convention considered a new lay pension plan and a new mandatory denominational health plan. The provisions of these two plans have been well publicized in anticipation of Convention and mammoth amounts of research and background materials have been given to clergy and parishes over the last couple of years. After lengthy conversations, both houses of the Convention passed both measures by near-unanimous votes. In the Diocese of Atlanta, the vast majority of our parishes and the diocese itself is already with Medical Trust, an affiliate of the Pension Fund. The principal thing that we will feel in the Diocese of Atlanta is that our costs should go down measurably. While there are many details to be worked out, before we came out for Convention we began conversations with Medical Trust in the hopes that the Diocese of Atlanta can begin its phase-in of the plans near the beginning of the three-year phase-in period. The sooner we're in the new program, the sooner we will be able to accrue savings and redirect funds to other ministries both at the parish and diocesan level.
Human sexuality – Several dozen resolutions on some aspect of human sexuality were submitted to the Convention by dioceses, parishes, and individuals across the church. The Convention, working through its legislative committees on World Mission and Prayer Book and Liturgy, combined most of these resolutions into two.
The first of these — Resolution D-025 — has been widely reported in the press. The press coverage has essentially said that the Episcopal Church has approved the ordination of gay and lesbian persons. Well, no, this Convention took no such action. What this resolution did was simply to reaffirm our own Canons. Back in 1994, the General Convention created a Canon that opened access to the ordination processes of the church — for all holy orders — to all baptized persons. This has been our canonical position for fifteen years and it is consistent with the baptismal theology of the Book of Common Prayer. Discernment for holy orders is serious business and should be. In the Episcopal Church we take such discernment with the utmost of seriousness. There is no “right” to ordination for anyone. Our Canons are clear that all baptized persons are to have access to discernment processes. Whether any persons actually gets ordained is a much more complicated set of questions. To summarize: the principal thing this resolution does is simply to affirm that when our church makes decisions on who can and cannot be ordained, we will discern those decisions in accordance with our Canons. The Canons on these matters have not changed
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Some will ask, does this ignore the request of the Windsor Report for a moratorium on the election and consent to gay or lesbian partnered priests to the episcopate? Some would say so; I don't think so. I don't find the moratorium concept at all helpful, but unless and until a diocese of the church elects a gay partnered person to the episcopate, and the church gives its consent, there is, practically speaking, a moratorium in effect. And again, the only thing this Convention has said is that when any such decision comes before the church, the decision will be made according to our own Canons. The Convention simply clarified that “state of the question” to those who have been asking. The Convention changed nothing.
A very positive dimension of the resolution was its very strong affirmation of our desire as a church to participate fully in the mission and ministry of the Anglican Communion at every level of the church's life. (On this matter, we are very much ahead of the curve in the Diocese of Atlanta with official partnerships in Ecuador, Brazil, and Tanzania, and less formal but no less important relationships in Honduras, Haiti, Guatemala, and other places.) We also commit ourselves to full financial support of the Anglican Communion. We provide a disproportionally large percentage of the Communion budget and we have committed ourselves to continuing to do so. Let no one question our commitment to the Anglican Communion!
A second resolution – C-056 – is the Convention's response to a large group of resolutions, mostly from dioceses, concerning same sex blessings and gay marriage. At the heart of the resolution are the difficult pastoral needs particularly in those states in which some form of gay marriage or civil unions is the law of the land. There is also the felt need, by many in the church, to work more carefully through the theological and liturgical issues related to the church's pastoral and liturgical response to our members who are living in committed, same-sex relationships. I believe the Convention is looking at this in a creative way. First, we name the “tension” between those parts of the church in which gay unions or marriage is provided for by law and those parts of the church that serve in civil jurisdictions where no legal provisions pertain. Recognizing that tension is important. Secondly, the resolution asks for more theological and liturgical work to be done on the matter and the results of that work be brought to the 2012 Convention. It is impossible to tell at this point what sort of form that work will take. This provision strengthens the resolution, in my judgment, because as a liturgical and sacramental church it is essential to do theological and liturgical work hand-in-hand, and not as separate endeavors. Thirdly, this resolution invites the Anglican Communion to join us in this theological and liturgical exploration. I am confident that this invitation for collaboration will be welcomed by a number of provinces in the Communion. C-056 passed the House of Bishops late in the day on Wednesday and is expected to reach the floor of the House of Deputies on Thursday.
The obvious question is: does this mean the General Convention has “approved” rites for same-sex unions or gay marriage? The answer to that is “no.” What the Convention did was to pave the way for more extensive theological and liturgical work to be done in the upcoming triennium. The next Convention will receive a report that will be both theological and liturgical in scope and will almost certainly contain some “model rites” for the church to consider. The 2012 Convention will have to decide whether to proceed further and, if so, in what manner.
With respect to the Anglican Covenant, the House of Deputies has approved a resolution that commits the Episcopal Church to continued participation in the covenant process that grew out of the Windsor Report. It will come before the House of Bishops on Thursday and will almost surely get the bishops' full support.
A major revision of Lesser Feasts and Fasts to be called Holy Women, Holy Men is also winding its way through the legislative process. The Bishops have approved a resolution for a feasibility study for a new hymnal. . .
. . . and on and on and on . . . with two days to go!
We're tired and getting weary, but this Convention has done good work — and in many cases — very good work. It is very clear to anyone here that our church is strong and vital and about the work of God's mission!
To God be the glory!
+ J. Neil Alexander
The Right Reverend J. Neil Alexander
Bishop of Atlanta