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Article of Faith: The Episcopal Church makes room for all of us

Date: 
July 23, 2009

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WASHINGTON, July 23 — At the recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people was at the forefront of the debates and decisions. The general convention decided to overturn the 2006 moratorium on electing lesbian and gay bishops, recognized a local option for developing liturgical rites to bless same-sex unions and called for transgender civil rights at the local, state and federal levels. What follows is an Article of Faith addressing the growing acceptance and inclusion of LGBT people in the Episcopal Church.

Article of Faith by the Rev. Jay Emerson Johnson, Ph.D.
National Religious Leadership Roundtable

The 2009 triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church delivered some good news to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Episcopalians, which everyone committed to the extravagant welcome of the Gospel can celebrate. A strong majority voted to overturn the 2006 moratorium on electing lesbian and gay bishops, keeping the ordination process open to all, and recognized a local option for developing liturgical rites to bless same-sex unions.

This is good news indeed, but not terribly surprising. The 2006 moratorium was a temporary stop-gap measure, a way to avoid schism in the worldwide Anglican Communion. Very few could imagine that ban becoming permanent or that we would turn back the clock on our history. After all, the Episcopal Church has been ordaining openly lesbian and gay people as deacons and priests in many locales for many years (I’m one of them, ordained back in 1988).

Since 2006, even with that moratorium in place, some congregations left and even a whole diocese tried to secede from the Episcopal Church. Those departures may help to explain this year’s LGBT-affirming votes. More than a demographic shift, however, this year’s general convention reflects a renewed conviction: The unity of the church cannot be bought at the expense of some of its members.

Historically, Anglicans have always tried to steer a “middle way” through controversies. Staying in communion with each other even when we disagree has been an important witness to the Gospel, to the power of grace and love in the midst of diversity. But this year’s delegates to the general convention were no longer willing to sacrifice LGBT people for the sake of unity; Gospel witness cannot be built on exclusion. At the same time, those same delegates also reaffirmed their commitment to and affection for the Anglican Communion; Episcopalians have no desire to leave the wider Anglican world behind.

The tone of these resolutions thus animates my hope for the future of every faith community seeking to embrace the gifts of diversity. As Episcopalians have learned (often with hard lessons), unity does not require uniformity. In fact, struggling with diversity yields far richer gifts and a more compelling witness to the Gospel. By embracing more fully its LGBT members while staying committed to an Anglican Communion where some will not approve, the Episcopal Church can provide a beacon of hope to other communities trying to imagine what it looks like to love people with whom you disagree.

Still more good news emerged from Anaheim, Calif., where the convention delegates met. Less trumpeted in the media but even more significant, in my view, were three other resolutions passed by this general convention: supporting a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA); calling for transgender civil rights at the local, state and federal levels; and urging nondiscrimination practices for the laity employed by the church (which is usually exempt from such civil mandates). The explicit inclusion of transgender people in these resolutions signals what has been at the heart of the controversy in the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion and many other Christian communities for some time — the issue of gender.

The instability of the Anglican Communion — what some have been calling a “realignment” — began much earlier than the election of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. It stretches back to the 1970s, when the Episcopal Church began to ordain women. Episcopalians managed to avoid outright schism back then by permitting bishops to opt out from that decision. Today, there are still a few dioceses in this country and many provinces in the Anglican Communion that will not ordain women. That compromise created a fragile unity, at best, and the fault lines quickly appeared in 2003, when the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster approved the blessing of same-sex unions and Gene Robinson, a gay and partnered priest, was elected as a bishop. Those two decisions became the proverbial straw that broke the gendered camel’s back.

The rhetoric from the opposition to those 2003 decisions shed new light on the character of this struggle. A whole world view rooted in the binary gender system was being called into question. Some biblical scholars began referring to same-sex unions as not merely immoral but especially heretical; such unions, they argued, do not reflect God’s intent in creating humanity as “male and female.” One went so far as to identify “homosexuality” as humanity’s primal rebellion against God. An Anglican archbishop even likened same-sex unions to global climate change and humanity’s willful destruction of God’s creation. In short, the debates over LGBT people have very little to do with love, relationship and commitment; they have everything to do with gender. (The outcry by some over the 2006 election of a woman as the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church made the centrality of this issue even clearer.)

By giving overdue attention to gender in the controversies concerning “homosexuality,” this year’s General Convention of the Episcopal Church has named the elephant in Christianity’s living room: None of us can deal effectively with sexuality and religion without addressing gender. I find this very hopeful as well, not just for Episcopalians or for our Anglican siblings around the world, but for every faith community struggling to address LGBT concerns.

My own church certainly has not resolved those struggles or settled the debates. But it has taken a significant step forward by insisting that any progress for “LGB” people necessarily depends on taking the “T” much more seriously than most faith communities have been willing to consider. For that alone — which is quite a lot — I’m grateful for the courage and witness of the 76th General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

About the author: The Rev. Jay Emerson Johnson, Ph.D., a member of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Religious Leadership Roundtable, is an Episcopal priest and the programming and development director for the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif.

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The National Religious Leadership Roundtable (NRLR), convened by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, is an interfaith network of leaders from pro-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) faith, spiritual and religious organizations. We work in partnership with other groups to promote understanding of and respect for LGBT people within society at large and in communities of faith. We promote understanding and respect within LGBT communities for a variety of faith paths and for religious liberty, and to achieve commonly held goals that promote equality, spirituality and justice.

The mission of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is to build the grassroots power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. We do this by training activists, equipping state and local organizations with the skills needed to organize broad-based campaigns to defeat anti-LGBT referenda and advance pro-LGBT legislation, and building the organizational capacity of our movement. Our Policy Institute, the movement’s premier think tank, provides research and policy analysis to support the struggle for complete equality and to counter right-wing lies. As part of a broader social justice movement, we work to create a nation that respects the diversity of human expression and identity and creates opportunity for all. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., we also have offices in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis and Cambridge.