Episcopalians talk about sex (yet again)

This is a longer version of a report I've written for The Living Church. I post it here because it's another piece of evidence that the Episcopal Church's conflicts are growing more intense rather than slackening. -- Douglas LeBlanc Windsor Report Haunts Conference

For a gathering designed to focus on best spiritual practices rather than on sex, the first of two Going Forward Together conferences spent considerable time on sex.

Going Forward Together met on Oct. 24-26 at St. Michael and All Angels, Dallas, and was scheduled again for Nov. 7-9 at the Cathedral of St. Philip, Atlanta. The Dallas meeting attracted about 200 participants, and Atlanta's meeting had at least a third more registrants, said the Rev. Mark Anschutz, the rector of St. Michael's and one of the gathering's organizers.

Every plenary address at the Dallas meeting touched on the Windsor Report, which the Lambeth Commission on Communion released one week earlier. Several workshops referred more directly to global Anglicanism's debate about sexuality, in tones ranging from patient to angry.

The Rt. Rev. Mark Dyer, the Episcopal Church's sole representative on the 17-member Lambeth Commission, provided Going Forward Together's most direct reflections on the Windsor Report. Dyer covered the highlights of the report's findings, sometimes adding his own observations and pleas.

While describing the Bishop of Hong Kong's persistent efforts on behalf of women's ordination decades earlier, Dyer applied the example to today's debates on homosexuality. "My sisters and brothers, we can do it right," he said.

Dyer reiterated the report's finding that the Episcopal Church did not consult Anglican's instruments of unity before consecrating Gene Robinson as a bishop or giving greater freedom to dioceses wishing to bless gay couples: "There has been no consultation -- none whatsoever, I'm afraid to say."

He also stressed the Windsor Report's rebuke of bishops from outside the United States who try to establish parallel jurisdictions in the Episcopal Church. "We clearly say to them they have no place doing what they're doing if they want to remain in the Anglican Communion," Dyer said.

Dyer referred to the report's recommendation for caution on whether Robinson should attend any pan-Anglican gatherings, including the next Lambeth Conference in 2008. "A number of provinces have said -- and we're praying for change so we can go forward together -- that they will not attend if he does."

He said the commission's goal is that the whole Anglican Communion can walk in greater unity by the next Lambeth Conference.

Dyer said he expects the report will receive a favorable response from the majority of primates when they meet in February. He referred to Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria obliquely, saying that "one primate somewhere is upset with us." Dyer's deadpan remark prompted laughter.

"He's a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary," said Dyer, who teaches at VTS. "And he lives in Nigeria."

In the opening plenary address, the Rev. Michael Battle of Duke Divinity School described the conference as "an act of pro-active reconciliation," but added that "reconciliation is more of an atmosphere in which we live than it is one act."

Battle rooted his understanding of reconciliation in what he descried as God's intention to save everyone. "How can you be in heaven, in which you are complete, knowing that someone is in hell, suffering forever? God's love for us is such that God would leave heaven," he said.

"Believe it or not, God has already reconciled us," Battle said, while speculating that some people "need the idea of hell to experience heaven."

"God's will is to bring together that which is disparate, that which is irreconcilable," he said. "If we seek only that which is like ourselves, we create a wasteland, we create an island, we create a museum."

Plenary speaker Phyllis Tickle, a former religion editor for Publishers Weekly, said the United States and Canada have both been shaped by the Scottish Enlightenment, which marked a clear break from the Reformation.

Tickle said the Windsor Report confirms that the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada are operating on shared theological assumptions, and that those assumptions rankle Anglicans in the Third World. Tickle discouraged Episcopalians from expecting Third World Anglicans to see Christianity in the same way: "That's unfair and it's unreasonable and it ain't gonna happen."

Even so, Tickle said, modernity is a treasure that Episcopalians should cherish and preserve for a future expression in global Christianity.

Tickle described how Christians in their teens and 20s and 30s do not share modernism's concern with historicity. "If you want to stop an Episcopal cookout cold, you need only ask, 'Do you believe in the Virgin Birth?'" she said to robust laughter.

She illustrated younger generations' approach to such questions by quoting a 17-year-old from Atlanta: "I absolutely believe in the Virgin Birth. It's so beautiful that it has to be true whether it happened or not."

Tickle referred to this approach as orthonomy. "The new authority is the beauty of the thing," she said. Under orthonomy, people will choose those ideas that contribute to music, poetry, and beauty.

The Rev. John Westerhoff echoed Tickle's theme in his plenary address. Various Christian churches have emphasized goodness, truth, or beauty, Westerhoff said.

"In our tradition we chose beauty -- beauty as the way to find goodness and truth," he said. "We have avoided being a community founded on doctrine. For us, orthodoxy is right worship and praise rather than right doctrine and behavior."

While plenaries remained fairly moderate, anger emerged in some workshops. The Rev. Tom Ehrich, a syndicated religion columnist who led a workshop on parish conflicts, described conservatives as bullies.

"We have got to stop letting the bullies win," Ehrich said. "When people start talking about biblical truth and waving it as a cudgel, stand up to them. There is no single biblical truth. You can read the Bible and prove anything."

In another workshop, the Rev. William Sachs of the Episcopal Church Foundation's Global Anglicanism Project said he would "dispel the myth that African Anglicanism is a conservative monolith that has risen in rock-ribbed opposition to the Episcopal Church."

He cited three examples from Tanzania to dispute this notion: a youth group in which only one person mentioned homosexuality; a children's choir that welcomes Muslim children but does not pressure them to be baptized; and Bishop Valentine Mokiwa of Dar es Salam, who warmly greeted Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold on the same day that his province denounced the actions of General Convention.

Sachs quoted Mokiwa as telling Griswold, "We have our views and we're not going to change our views, but we also have our relationship with you. Your grace, we must struggle and pray together."

On the week of the Windsor Report's release, the BBC quoted Mokiwa as saying, "We are calling on homosexuals in the church to stop what they are doing. It's unbecoming and it is sin."

"They're not preoccupied with demonizing the Episcopal Church," Sachs said of the Anglicans he met while helping conduct 200 interviews in Tanzania. "They're very curious. They tend to think we're drowning in money and maybe moral confusion."

Sachs gave several minutes to Sandra Swan of Episcopal Relief and Development, who said that only Uganda has declined funds it previously had accepted from her agency.

Several members of the Diocese of Dallas expressed anger toward their bishop, the Rt. Rev. James Stanton, for saying that African Anglicans do not want money from Episcopalians. One priest recommended that Swan look into a lawsuit for copyright violation because of the similar name chosen by Anglican Relief and Development.

The conference closed with a panel discussion. The Rev. Roger Ferlo, who served as a deputy to General Convention in 2003, described what he experienced as he watched the bishops vote on Gene Robinson's confirmation as a bishop-elect and then chant "Ubi Caritas." Most deputies softly chanted along with the bishops, Ferlo said, then left the hall in silence.

"I felt like I had been to a funeral," Ferlo said. "There will be a resurrection, but the death has to be acknowledged. I think it was the death of an old way of doing church."

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