The day began with Morning Prayer, followed by a meditation from Bishop Waldo in which he expressed his own view that he yearns for the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the Episcopal Church. He said that this is very different from an endorsement of promiscuity, whether in straight or gay relationships. Further, he noted, that not every expression of homosexuality is necessarily an expression of “orientation” but may simply be good old fashioned sexual immorality, just as every heterosexual act is not pure.
He told the delegates that we tend to rejoice when those with whom we disagree suffer a fall, citing the example of the Song of Mriam at the Red Sea. But he noted that human (or even angelic) rejoicing in the suffering of another being is never acceptable to God, no matter how many theological points it may put on our scoreboard.
He emphasized that he was expressing a personal opinion and not speaking ex cathedra. In other words, he spoke as a fellow traveler on the road, and was not trying to impose an episcopal viewpoint on the delegates. Further, he said that he just might be wrong, and wanted to be in dialogue with those who disagreed. Later in the day he clarified what some heard as an endorsement of the presumed 2012 liturgy on the blessing of same-sex relationships. He was neither presuming that such a liturgy should be approved, nor in fact stating that he would vote to approve it without serious theological work having been done beforehand. He stated that those who favor blessing same-sex couples tend to be dismissive of the Biblical holiness codes, especially in Leviticus 17-20. Yet they seem to have no problem with legal prohibitions on other Biblically condemned sexual acts, like rape or incest. The theology of same-sex relationships must include an honest discussion of Biblical sexual ethics, especially those which do not conform to modern understandings of proper sexual behavior.
Small group discussion followed and from all appearances, the delegates engaged the topic eagerly and honestly. In my group, the consensus was in favor of full inclusion, but there was deep regret that most conservatives were reluctant to publicly express their dissent, for fear of being shouted down. That would be tested shortly when the plenary discussion followed and the floor microphones were opened.
The first speaker was a priest (and a dear friend of mine) who openly dissented. That gave other conservatives the courage to speak as well. But there were also passionate and moving expressions from others, including several gay delegates, some of whom are open about their sexuality and others who are quietly closeted. One priest, in tears, told of her gay son, brother and sister and how she loved them simply as son, brother and sister, never even thinking of their sexuality. Another priest said he would be forced to renounce his vows if General Convention continued its delay of full inclusion.
In the afternoon, delegates sat by congregation and talked about how they might bring this discussion back to their own parishes. There was a general longing for guidance from the Diocesan staff and a clear desire to prepare a deep theological study that was loyal to scripture, tradition and reason while demonstrating that God was indeed “doing a new thing” in the Church’s understanding of faithful, monogamous same-sex relationships. Bishop Waldo promised the appointment of a theological study group, made up of trained theologians on all sides of the issue.
The day ended with Holy Eucharist.
So what did it all accomplish, this gathering of 400 people trying to be in communion, while in great disagreement? It may ultimately fail, an attempt to reconcile what may prove to be irreconcilable. After all, this is not like Congress, trying to agree on a budget, where all sides must give a little to get a vote through. This is a matter of truth, of justice, of the very fabric of the Gospel. Truth is not simultaneously true and false, and the Church knows that. We’ve tried to have it both ways for thirty years now, and the time has come to “stop limping along on two opinions” (1 Kings 18:20-21). Either the Episcopal Church believes that grace is sufficient or it doesn’t.
But at least the Diocese of Upper South Carolina is finally, at long last, talking about it.