This past month one of our largest parishes has gone through some major changes.
Many of you know that the clergy and a sizable group of parishioners at Christ Church
of the Ascension in Paradise Valley have found themselves at odds with the Episcopal Church since the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. I sense that some of those people also viewed the action of the 2006 General Convention as a departure from an “orthodox” understanding of Scripture and Church tradition.
This unhappiness has over the years resulted in a lack of participation in the life of the Diocese, and even discussions of how that parish might leave the Episcopal Church, taking the parish property with them. By now I think you know that in our system of governance, all parish property is held in trust by the congregation for the Diocese. That has not stopped some dissatisfied congregations around the country from challenging that rule in court, but to date, with no success.
Ever since I began my time as bishop, I have tried to make it clear to the unhappy members of that parish that I valued their presence in the Diocese, and that they were welcome to their own theological understandings. You have heard me say many times that our church is a big tent, and that anyone who wants to be an Episcopalian should be!
One of the ways I did that was to arrange for them Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO) in which I invited the Bishop of the Diocese of the Rio Grande to become their Episcopal visitor. This system worked for a while.
However, with the announcement by the rector, Fr. Ken Semon, that he was leaving to take an interim position in that Diocese, things quickly changed. Many vestry members resigned, a new “moderate” vestry was elected, and a small group of about 75 people (out of a 1000 member parish) announced that they were leaving their home on Lincoln Drive to start a new church. This group, calling themselves “Christ Church Anglican,” has affiliated with an Anglican archbishop in Africa, in violation of not only the Windsor Report, but also the ancient canons of the church. I am sorry that they felt they had to take such a drastic step, but I wish them well in creating a place where they no longer have to feel angry and oppositional to the mission of the church.
Back at Christ Church of the Ascension, parish life continues. I have appointed the Rev. Philip Jackson, formerly leader of one of the largest and fasted growing parishes in Detroit, as Priest in Charge Under Special Circumstances, which means that after one year the vestry may, if its wishes, call him as their permanent rector. Fr. Jackson is traditionalist in his thinking, but he is also loyal to the Episcopal Church. He began his duties on this past Monday, October 1st. My assumption is that his parish will continue to be a home for those who describe themselves as conservative, but who value their historic connection with the Diocese, as I value their connection with us.
It is always sad when members of the family leave home—and I want to say to them again “the door is always open.” But I am also heartened to know that Christ Church of the Ascension has begun a healing process that will allow it to remain an important part of our Diocese as we work together to do the Lord’s work.
A Final Thought.
I have received lots of letters since I wrote to you after the recent gathering of the House of Bishops last week. I also discovered an excellent article which summarizes my feelings about where we are now. It is called, “Keep Your Eye on the Prize,” and it is written by the Dean of the Cathedral in Syracuse:
I attended seminary in 1978-1981. Thus, I was in seminary when the 1979 General Convention passed a resolution stating no persons having sexual relations outside of marriage between a man and a woman should be ordained to any order in our church. This resolution was largely seen as a reaction to Paul Moore's ordination of Ellen Barrett, a lesbian, to the priesthood in 1977. It sent shock waves through my seminary, Nashotah House, and not just among the gay or lesbian students [And yes there were both there in those days.] One student, a gay man who I thought had great promise as a priest, decided that he needed to leave seminary and cease being in the ordination process. One of the results of that resolution was that a new organization called Integrity, and a charismatic leader named Louie Crew, became emboldened. I heard Louie preach at St. Francis House in Madison, Wisconsin in that time frame and he was compelling.What if instead, Louie Crew and many others had simply left the Episcopal Church? What if Gene Robinson, when he clearly did discern that he is a gay man, had decided to leave? On one hand our Church would have deserved it. But thanks be to God they stayed and taught and talked and built relationships, in what must have surely have seemed like a frustratingly endless basic tutorial on human sexuality and the Bible.In 2003 the General Convention gave its consent for Gene Robinson's election to be a bishop. That was 24 years after passing a resolution saying he shouldn't even be a priest. In the lives of people living in history, 24 years is a long time, a generation. In the scope of Christianity, 24 years is nothing, not even the blink of an eye. Even in the history of the Episcopal Church, it is not that long a period of time. When Gene's election was confirmed we thought that in many ways that the struggle was over, not completely, but much closer.But then we were reminded that not only are we not a congregational or presbyterian church, we are not merely a national church. We are an episcopal church, and bishops by definition are symbols and even means of unity across the globe. When first Barbara Harris and then other women were ordained to the episcopate we faced the global challenge that people, serving in an order one of whose purposes is unity within the church, would not be received by many within our Communion. We entered a period of "impaired Communion" with many of our dioceses throughout the Anglican Communion. Yet in that case, we could look to resolutions from prior Lambeth Conferences which stated that there were no theological barriers to women being ordained.When a gay man was elected a bishop in our church, we thought this would be similar, but we were wrong.We were reminded that – legally and constitutionally – we are part of the Anglican Communion. We were reminded that unlike the ordination of women, Lambeth had said "no" to this move. We have repeatedly been told, and I believe the bishops heard again, that to continue down this path would mean that we have decided to leave the Anglican Communion.For us to ordain to the episcopate people whose "manner of life" causes a problem for the rest of the Communion [and since I am divorced I may be included in that group] until there is a change in the consensus of the Anglican Communion is to, in effect, leave the Communion. For us to authorize rites for blessing same-sex relationships [something I have advocated for twenty years] until there is a change in the consensus of the Anglican Communion is to, in effect, leave the Communion. My prayer, my hope, and the thing I work for, among others, is the full participation of gay and lesbian people everywhere, and especially in Christ's One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, including the Anglican Communion.I think that the best thing in the long run is to refrain from acting, but to be a powerful and strong voice for advocacy, as Integrity has been within the Episcopal Church. We need to try to have openly glbt people representing the Episcopal Church on the Anglican Consultative Council. We need for our Primate and Bishops to be fully present voices within the councils of the Communion. I think that the Cathedral Deans need to become more creative about building relationships with other Deans and cathedrals across the Anglican Communion, so that the gays and lesbians among us may be heard and seen.We need to be realistic that all this may take another generation, but I do not think we should walk away from the challenge of transforming the third largest body of Christians in the world, and I believe it will happen. I say all of this realizing that as much as I may preach and teach and advocate, as a married, straight male I am not paying the cost for this journey the way glbt people are. Only the glbt among us can decide if they want this journey and if they are willing to pay the cost. I hope for the sake of God's Church, and even more for the sake of God's Dominion, that they will find the ability to do so.About the Author: The Very Reverend G. Thomas Luck is Dean and Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral in Syracuse, New York.