The American Episcopal church’s General Convention meets every three years to elect officers, adopt a budget, enact canon law, and pass lots of resolutions. With 250-plus in the House of Bishops and 900 clergy and lay delegates in the House of Deputies, it constitutes one of the largest bicameral legislatures in the world.

It is no accident that the Episcopal church’s governing structure resembles the organizational format of the United States government. Many of the church fathers who gathered in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in 1789 to forge a constitution for the new church were also present when the U.S. Constitution was drafted two years earlier. Having disposed of a king, the American Episcopalians decided against an archbishop. The titular head of the new, democratic, church (which retained spiritual ties to the mother Church of England) would be a presiding bishop.

When the Episcopal convention returned to Philadelphia in July of this year, the bishops and delegates found themselves struggling to find ways to maintain unity in the face of deep divisions on sexuality, women in the priesthood, and religious authority. Episcopalians go at it vigorously at conventions: four newspapers, two on the ecclesiastical right, one on the left, and one the church’s official publication, are published and distributed each day, and the Internet carries hundreds of pages of commentary and news (Father John H. Gill, an Episcopal priest who surfs the Net with the grace of a California collegian hitting the big waves, helped me gather that material). Dozens of groups-gays, lesbians, prolifers, pacifists, conservatives, liberals, racial and ethnic organizations-set up booths and lobby the voters.

This year the divisions were so severe that the Committee on the State of the Church drew up a pledge that most delegates signed, promising to avoid using “pejorative labels” including “apostate, homophobic, heretic, and fundamentalist.”

In this contentious setting, the bishops and deputies took, or almost took, some dramatic steps:

On the ecumenical front, the 2.4-million member Episcopal church approved a concordat with the 5.4-million member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America calling for the recognition of each other’s clergy and sacraments, and permitting the creation of joint congregations. The agreement, not a merger but certainly a high order of intercommunion, sailed easily through a convention that was clearly more interested in other issues than in crossing t’s and dotting i’s on matters of apostolic succession (which Episcopalians claim to possess and which Lutherans would acquire only as new ministers undergo the Episcopal laying-on-of-hands). At the Lutherans’ August convention, the concordat narrowly failed to get the two-thirds vote needed for approval.

On the ordination of women, all dioceses have been ordered to make it possible for women to gain ordination to the priesthood and the opportunity to serve parishes. The church began ordaining women priests in 1976 and consecrating women bishops in 1989, but the bishops in 4 hold-out dioceses (of the church’s 110 dioceses) refuse to ordain or deploy women priests, and women with vocations are sent elsewhere. These bishops now have three years to comply; one has announced he will retire later this year; another, Bishop Jack Iker of Fort Worth, Texas, says he will “resist,” inviting disciplinary action.

A resolution instructing the church’s liturgical commission to prepare ceremonies for blessing same-sex unions for inclusion in the book of occasional services was narrowly defeated in the House of Deputies. The measure failed by only one vote in both the clerical and lay orders. Given a rule that split delegations are counted as “no” votes, the “ayes” actually had a numerical, though not a legislative, majority. Extension of health benefits to domestic partners of clergy and to lay employees of the church passed; a move to do the same with pensions failed.

On social justice and human rights, the convention spoke out forcefully for decent wages, against unbridled downsizing, against welfare cuts, and in support of persecuted Christians and other religious groups abroad. The bishops narrowly avoided embarrassing themselves when a “sense of the house” resolution urging the United States not to “interfere” in Russia’s internal religious affairs was withdrawn after they learned that Boris Yeltsin had vetoed a bill restricting the rights of Catholics and Protestants.

The bishops elected Bishop Frank Griswold of Chicago as presiding bishop for nine years. Bishop Griswold, by all accounts a scholarly and even-tempered man, is a traditionalist in worship and a liberal on social questions. He was one of seventy-four bishops who signed a 1994 statement authored by Bishop John Spong of Newark, the church’s outspoken radical bishop, in support of the ordination of gays and lesbians and the blessing of same-sex unions. Bishop Griswold has been a leader in Anglican-Roman Catholic talks.

What will the future bring the Episcopal church? It depends on whom you talk to.

To the ever-liberal Bishop Spong, the future is bright. The church, he said, “is moving in the right direction,” and within another convention or two, he expects “everything I have fought for all my life” to come to fruition.

To Bill Hawkins, a conservative layman from Arkansas, the church supports a process that weakens society when it caters to gays and lesbians. “We’re not immune to what has troubled past societies when homosexuality runs uncontrolled,” he said, adding that if “inclusivity” is a goal for church liberals, why not “include” those who would limit the role of women (a role Hawkins himself “welcomes and rejoices in”)?

Barbara Neff, an alternate lay delegate from Texas who is liberal (and therefore, she adds, not a representative member of that delegation) thinks time for accommodating the antiwomen contingent may have run out. “It’s time to tell them: ‘This is the way it is, you’ll have to learn to live with it,’” she said.

The Reverend J. Douglas McGlynn, a conservative priest delegate from Pittsburgh, believes that the terms of debate in the church have shifted radically. “We’re no longer in a struggle of evangelicals against Anglo-Catholics,” he said, alluding to the classical “high-low” split. “It’s now a question of orthodoxy against revisionism.” Conservatives, Father McGlynn reports, are organizing and entered this convention ready to do battle in a way that, in the past, only liberals knew anything about.

Hanging over the debates on legislation and resolutions is the question of the seat of authority in the Episcopal church. Liberals, like Bishop Spong, want to submit tradition to the test of modern understanding on questions like gay and lesbian rights. We have found, he said, that “homosexuality is not a chosen, it is a given,” and, in that light, biblical proscriptions are culturally limited. The church must admit it does not possess perfect knowledge any more than it did when it suppressed Galileo and discriminated against blacks and women, Bishop Spong said.

To Bishop James Stanton of Dallas, president of the conservative American Anglican Council, biblical faith and morality are at stake. The council’s organizing statement pledges to “strengthen people of biblical faith, who stand for Jesus Christ amidst the challenges of contemporary culture and false teaching in the church.” Bishop Stanton helped bring unsuccessful heresy charges against retired Bishop Walter Righter for ordaining a practicing homosexual.

This blend of Bible-centrism and sexual conservatism drew the fire of Bishop Edmund Browning, the retiring presiding bishop, in his parting convention address:

I’m a traditionalist because I treasure and believe in the ethos of Anglicanism. As Anglicans, we discern God’s will through Scripture, tradition, and reason. However, some have chosen to embrace biblical literalism instead of our Anglican tradition. History tells us biblical literalism was used to support both the practice of slavery and the denigration of women. We have moved past slavery and we are moving past the oppression of women. It is time to move past using literalistic readings of the Bible to create prejudices against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Biblical literalism may be someone’s tradition, but it’s not our tradition and it’s time we came home to our Anglican roots.

Browning’s statement angered many at the convention who accused him of not living up to the pledge they had all signed against the use of “pejorative language.” Bishop William Frey, former dean of the Trinity Episcopal School for the Ministry, observed that Anglican evangelicals, who would be regarded as biblical literalists today, led the fight to end slavery in the British Empire. Retired Bishop Alden Hathaway of Pittsburgh accused Browning of violating his own principle of inclusivity by trying to exclude those who “strongly value the biblical text.”

Yet despite this and other dust-ups during the the convention, the general consensus is that Episcopalians weathered this one with their customary civility intact. “The sense of negativity and hostility was considerably diminished at this convention,” said Bishop Spong. “The convention was a lot gentler and kinder than I expected,” said Suffragan Bishop Walter Dennis of New York. “This convention was extraordinarily civil compared to others I’ve attended,” said Father McGlynn. “I had a feeling things were much more congenial than the last time around,” said Barbara Neff. “This convention was not as acrimonious as previous ones,” said Bill Hawkins.

But not everyone was pleased. Peter Toon, a conservative writing in the daily published by the Episcopal Synod of America and the Prayer Book Society, observed acerbically that the “growing presence of the nice God has been the primary reason for the new niceness between Episcopalians.... The God of niceness does not see human beings as sinners and is never angry at them.”

Another view, expressed by both the liberal Barbara Neff and the conservative Bill Hawkins, is that, after a decade of battles over sexuality, Episcopalians are just tired of fighting over the issue. This was perhaps best illustrated when the convention voted to support a minimum wage of $7.50 an hour and family health benefits for all workers (this from what used to be called “the Republican party at prayer”). Deputy Russell Reno of Nebraska declared: “Let’s send a message that the Episcopal church is concerned about more than just sex, sex, sex.”

Antonio Ramirez, a retired labor union editor, is a church warden at Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church in New York City.

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Published in the 1997-09-12 issue: View Contents
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