Tuesday, 30 March 2004

Tom Wright upsets Americans

The Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, is in Pittsburgh this week. He was interviewed just before he left England by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette resulting in this: Visiting bishop wants end to rhetoric on gay clergy.

His quoted remarks here, comparing ECUSA to the Bush administration, have provoked considerable criticism in America. In fact they are quite similar to earlier expression of his views. See for example, That special relationship in the Guardian last October.

However, the Pittsburgh story does contain some rather odd details. Leaving aside for now all the issues arising from the comparison with the Bush administration, just consider the ECUSA facts.

He compared that action to the Episcopal Church’s consecration of an openly gay bishop against existing church polity. “So why should the world listen to the [Episcopalians in the] United States when changing Episcopal Church law?” he asked. “It is bound to be perceived as, ‘There you go again.’ It’s more of the same.”

But the consecration of Gene Robinson as a bishop in ECUSA is not against “existing [ECUSA] church polity” and the only relevant changes to “Episcopal Church law” were made several years ago. Specifically:

1. The canons of ECUSA were modified by General Convention in 1994:

All Bishops of Dioceses and other Clergy shall make provisions to identify fit persons for Holy Orders and encourage them to present themselves for Postulancy. No one shall be denied access to the selection process for ordination in this Church because of race, color, ethnic origin, sex, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, disabilities, or age, except as otherwise specified by these Canons. No right to ordination is hereby established.
Title III, Canon 4, Section 1 of the Constitution and Canons for the Government of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, p. 60

2. Then in 1996, an ECUSA ecclesiastical court ruled that retired Bishop Walter Righter had violated no church law or “core doctrine” when he ordained (back in 1990) a non-celibate homosexual man. The court therefore declined to consider further the heresy charges that had been made against him (by ten bishops, many of whom are those now forming the NACDP). The bishops chose not to appeal the decision.

3. And for good measure, in 1997, the ECUSA General Convention approved health benefits for domestic partners to be extended to the partners of clergy and lay employees in dioceses that wish to do so.

So, it is hardly surprising that, seven years after the Righter judgement, a non-celibate homosexual has been consecrated as a bishop in ECUSA. Much of the comment about the Robinson case has related to the events of 2003 (election, confirmation, consecration), all of which were conducted entirely in accord with existing ECUSA requirements and involved no changes in church law. But the initial eligibility of the candidate for the office was established in law long before that. Surely the time for complaining about any of the changes listed has long since expired?

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I tend to favor the liberal side of the debate about Bishop Robinson, but the argument about the 1994 amendment is misplaced. By its terms, the 1994 amendment prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. I believe that’s a different question than discrimination on the basis of sexual activity. It can be argued that the church should revisit its teaching that any sexual relations outside of male-female marriage are illicit. But I don’t read the 1994 amendment as having done so, and it doesn’t seem to be a good idea for people (including PB Griswold) to claim that it did.

Posted by: D. C. Toedt at March 31, 2004 03:15 PM

A reader commented: “By its terms, the 1994 amendment prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. I believe that?s a different question than discrimination on the basis of sexual activity.”
IMHO the Jeffrey John matter settled any question of whether these cases are about orientation, since he is celibate.
The point remains that the US Church has no law against homosexuality.

Posted by: Tim Stewart at March 31, 2004 11:19 PM

Surely D C Toedt’s semantics are getting a little creative here? To suggest that sexual orientation and sexual activity are seperate questions is absurd. As +Peter Carnley has said recently in referring to appllying some notion of natural law to sexual orientation in the current discussion, it would be unnatural for a person to engage in sexual activity that is contrary to their sexual orientation. What a canon says has to be taken with its full consequences, in this case, that people of whatever sexual orientation have sex - would the Church so prudish about what a heterosexual couple got up to on their wedding night when the possibility comes up that one of them might be ordained?

Posted by: Kieran Crichton at April 1, 2004 01:05 PM

The argument seems to hinge on the 1996 Ecclesiastical Court ruling, rather than the 1994 Amendment. If this is the way ECUSA sets its key policies, that is its choice. But there must be the question as to whether one court ruling creates a precedent. Is there a court of appeal for the ECUSA Ecclesiastical Court. In the UK, I guess you appeal back into the main court hierarchy and, for the time being, may end up in the House of Lords. What happens in the USA?

Posted by: Mike Jackson at April 1, 2004 07:52 PM

I wonder if we are actually reading what Dr Wright said, or whether it has been filtered through an American prism???

My suspicions are aroused when I read: “So why should the world listen to the [Episcopalians in the] United States when changing Episcopal Church law?” I rather suspect that the term “Episcopal Church” has been supplied by an American journalist to assist his audience’s understanding, while Dr Wright actually said either “Anglican Church/Communion” or simply “Church”.

The context also seems to make it clear that Dr Wright was referring to the effect of the unilateral decision of ECUSA to consecrate Dr Robinson upon the wider Anglican Communion.

At least, Dr Wright’s observations may have had one useful consequence: his lack of enthusiasm for the unilateralism both of ECUSA liberals and of the Bush government may demonstrate that allaince between theological conservatism and the right wing of secular politics isn’t a universal phenomenon!

Posted by: Alan Harrison at April 5, 2004 02:46 PM

As an American, the criticism seems harsh because most Episcopalians aren’t crazy about George W.! But it’s hard to deny the similarity in outlook compared to the rest of the world: we look out for our own interests, and while we’ll tell the rest of the world how important their opinions might be to us, at the end of the day we’ll do what we feel is best, regardless of the anyone else’s opinions (the Kyoto Accords, land-mine resolutions, Iraq, l’affaire Robinson). We’re big and bad enough not to care, and we’ll self-righteously criticise the rest of the world for not going along (“ignorant animists” and Freedom Fries, anyone?) rather than actually trying to find out why they think as they do.

Posted by: Jim Stanley at April 5, 2004 09:46 PM

There’s a difference between conscience and indifference. Consecrating +VGR, in accord w/ ECUSA canons, if against the majority of Anglican episcopal advice, is the former. ECUSA took a decision which affected no church other than itself out of its collective conscience (as democratically expressed at the GC). American foreign policy has largely (esp. the last 3 years) been formulated upon its indifference to the desires of the rest of the world, taking decisions which most definitely affect the entire world.

This canard, made repeatedly by +Tom Wright and others, is nothing but disingenousness. They are trying to capitalize on the world’s just indignation against U.S. foreign policy, and use that indignation to bludgeon ECUSA for acting out of conscience (and in good faith).

Finally, there’s a not-so-subtle linking of ECUSA and U.S. foreign policy, just because we’re American. I haven’t seen any polls broken down on religious affiliation lines, but I would bet good money that Episcopalians are among the faith groups most opposed to the war in Iraq. If +Tommy wants to attack a denomination for “American arrogance,” he ought to take it up w/ the (similarly homophobic) Southern Baptist Convention, and quit bashing the Episcopal Church.

Posted by: J. Collins Fisher at April 12, 2004 06:15 AM