Thursday, March 18, 2010

Inclusion in the Church: Beyond the arguments

Yesterday we received word that The Rev. Mary Glasspool of Maryland has received the necessary consents of diocesan standing committees and bishops to be ordained a bishop suffragan in the Diocese of Los Angeles. She will become the second openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion and in our branch of it, the Episcopal Church. There really is no going back.

Before the rhetoric becomes overheated, I think it important to step back and have a look at how far we have come, how we got to this moment, and where we might be going.

On March 4, The Rev. David Norgard, the president of Integrity USA, gave a speech at the Virginia Theological Seminary entitled "The Future of Inclusion." I think this is an important speech, and I am reprinting it in full today because I think he gives a good summation. It is also timely; the House of Bishops convenes tomorrow at Camp Allen, Texas, for its Spring meeting, and at the top of the agenda is a discussion about same-gender relationships.

In his talk, Norgard sketches a highly readable history of the fight over including LGBT people in the Episcopal Church. He notes that his giving such a speech at the Virginia seminary is historic and would not have been possible a few short years ago.

At the conclusion of his speech, Norgard asks provoking questions about the relevance of the Episcopal Church, and evangelism beyond LGBT community; he looks beyond the fights of the last 30 years, and he ends on an optimistic note:
But as I see it, it’s not a matter of acquiescing to a more inclusive future for the sake of those who have been on the outside. It is rather a matter of embracing opportunities that give us all a future as a community – a community of mystery and reason, of determined commitment and unconditional love.
I commend this to you today. It is worth your time to read:
* * *
The Future of Inclusion
By the Rev. David Norgard
Good evening. I want to begin by thanking the Dean for the invitation to be with you this evening. It was a most gracious offer that he made to me to come and speak here at the seminary and I am delighted to be doing just that. I also wish to thank you all for being here. I consider it both a great pleasure and a privilege to share with you my perspective on “The Future of Inclusion in the Episcopal Church.”

As you may be aware, the Dean issued the invitation to me to speak on this topic in my capacity as President of Integrity USA. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with it, Integrity is an organization dedicated to advancing the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons (LGBT) in the life and ministry of the Episcopal Church. Composed of individual members and parish partners from across the country, it has been engaged in its ministry of advocacy and education for thirty-five years now, ever since being founded by an Episcopal layman from Georgia, Dr. Louie Crew, in 1974.

When Mike Angell, a student here from the Diocese of San Diego and occasional preacher to the President, first contacted me about arranging this visit, he posed a straightforward yet intriguing question: What is the future of inclusion in the Episcopal Church? If I were someone who was prone to pithy answers, I would say “bright” and call for the next question. The very fact of my being here – at the Virginia Theological Seminary – as President of Integrity – provides strong evidence for the soundness of such optimism. There was a time within the living memory of some in this room (myself included), when such an occasion as this would not have been contemplated, let alone realized. This moment we are sharing right now, my friends, is in itself richly symbolic of the long road we have traveled together as Episcopalians over the past four decades. In fact, I believe that it is a directional sign toward where we are headed as a church….as you put it here, “orthodox and open”

I am not prone to pithy answers though, as you can already tell. So I would like to expand on my sunny forecast and give you a full report of the indicators as I read them. Speculating intelligently on the future is always first an exercise in interpreting history, particularly recent history. So let me begin there.

Recent history clearly has been a story of advances toward a more and more inclusive church, with only occasional setbacks. Looking at the issue broadly, we can see this progression a number of ways. For instance, we can observe how the role of women in the church has evolved and expanded. Thirty-five years ago, there were no women in the House of Bishops. Now there are sixteen. Thirty-five years ago, women were still somewhat new to the House of Deputies. Now a woman is President. In a similar vein, we can look at how the Spanish language has entered the life of the domestic Episcopal Church. Four decades ago, to hear Spanish in an Episcopal church was a novelty. Nowadays, many dioceses have at least one congregation where Spanish the primary language. We can look at various demographic trends and, generally speaking, they point to a denomination that is exhibiting more diversity in both its membership and leadership. My particular competence, however, lies in the area of the conscious inclusion of sexual minorities and, on the national level, that particular storyline begins in 1976.

That year General Convention debated a resolution which acknowledged and recognized homosexual persons as [quote] “children of God.” When you stop to think about that for a moment now, in 2010, to some of us it sounds just a little quaint…kind yet presumptuous in that old-guard, true-blue Episcopalian sort of way. That body of mostly churchmen, in all their magnanimity and sagacity, were moved to vote on the question of who was a child of God.

Thankfully – and to the great relief of many whose ontological validity hung in the balance, the vote was in the affirmative. (Don’t some of you feel much better now?!) Soon after that, presumably in the spirit of that declaration, the Bishop of New York, Paul Moore, ordained the first openly lesbian woman to the priesthood, Ellen Barrett, at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan.

The church at large was not at all amused, however. Mountains of letters of protest were delivered both to the parish rectory and the diocesan chancery, including (sadly) no small number of bodily threats and spiritual curses. Apparently, being a child of God was one thing; being a priest was entirely another. In a notable demonstration of elegant backtracking, another resolution passed at the next convention, declaring the Ordination of “practicing homosexuals” to be “inappropriate” at that time.

Permit me a personal excursus here. Despite the apparently ill-timed nature of my desire or desires (whichever), upon returning from the convention in Denver, I proceeded with my own plan of seeking Ordination and enrolling in seminary. It was a very big step for my home diocese, Minnesota, to sponsor an openly gay man. As a lot, Minnesotans are quite reluctant to be inappropriate; it’s just not in their nature. But the bishop, Robert Anderson, was a man of steadfast conviction and quiet courage. As the local process proceeded and the national debate intensified, he never wavered in his support. I recall one instance that might resonate especially with those here tonight. After receiving my admission application, the dean of the divinity school where I applied called my bishop to express his serious concern. He explained ever so delicately, almost apologetically, that I had listed Integrity – of all things – among my church involvements. The dean discreetly whispered over the phone to the bishop, “He is probably gay;” to which the bishop whispered back, “Actually, I have met his partner, and he is definitely gay…Is there some problem?” There was none for him if there wasn’t any for the bishop, the dean stuttered, leaving the bishop to wonder: Was it his chairmanship of the board or his matter-of-fact approach that had been more persuasive?

Back to the larger saga: For the next dozen years, no convention was without its resolutions about homosexuality. The topic seemed to move from being the love that dare not speak its name to the debate that would never end. Meanwhile, more and more lesbian and gay people, lay and ordained, lived on one side or another of an increasingly sharp and deep divide within the church. On the one side, more than one bishop prohibited any known homosexuals from serving at their cathedral’s Altar, unless they first took a vow of celibacy. At a prominent seminary, openly gay clergy were barred from serving as supervisors of field education. On the other side, another divinity school named a scholarship after Dr. Crew…and several bishops became increasingly vocal about their gay-supportive views, rejecting outright the argument that the church would fall apart if it accepted lesbian and gay people fully. Douglas Theuner, a predecessor of Gene Robinson in New Hampshire, coined the rallying cry of the whole movement. “There can be no unity without justice,” he declared emphatically to the House of Bishops. For years, his quote was displayed on the front cover of every Voice of Integrity magazine. And I dare say that it is still timely and pertinent today on an even larger plane.

By the start of the nineties, more than a decade of debates and studies and hearings and speeches had brought no resolution. They had brought dozens of resolutions actually but no solution to the controversy. So, what was an “Episcopal” church to do when confronted with such vexation? Turn to its bishops was the answer that came to the Phoenix convention in ’91. The theologians among them (“bishops” and “theologians” not being coterminous, you realize) would undertake another extensive study and report back at Indianapolis in ’94. If nothing else, we are a studious church. Just parenthetically, I do wonder about our bishops sometimes. They have studied homosexuality for years and some still claim to be perplexed. It only took me a summer to learn it…but I suppose that is a story for another time.

Back to Indianapolis: The bishop who succeeded Paul Moore of New York, a man by the slightly unfortunate name of Dick Grein, delivered the report to a packed and tense House of Bishops. The report started well enough from the perspective of those hopeful for a breakthrough in LGBT equality. It recognized that gay people existed, that they were in the church, that indeed they were children of God, that they did some good things, and that many of them were actually very nice…lovely, in fact…devoted to partners, devoted to church, great on the Altar Guild, etc., etc…but…But the report concluded, nevertheless, they still should not be ordained and we should not be marrying them either, particularly to each other.

That night everyone felt a pall hang over the entire convention. Liberals were in despair. Conservatives were anxious. What would happen next? It was not at all obvious. Integrity folk worried: Would these unfounded conclusions somehow end up enshrined in canon law? Had the struggles and efforts of so many of us for so long been for naught? As a church, were we about to retrench?

Well, perhaps I should have guessed what was coming, since I happened to know the antagonist so well. The next afternoon, a son of this very seminary, the famous or infamous Bishop of Newark, Jack Spong, stood to a point of personal privilege. Slowly, dramatically, he read what eventually became known as a Statement of Koinonia, i.e. of community. With forceful eloquence, he stated unequivocally that he would ordain whoever was fit and called, homosexual or heterosexual. He took a similar stand with respect to blessing the committed relationships of same-gender couples. Then, with savvy and audacity, he invited his colleagues with courage enough to share his convictions publicly to sign the statement along with him. That evening the special service sponsored by Integrity was overflowing…and so were the tears. By 7:00 o’clock, about five hours later, dozens of other bishops had signed that statement and by late the next day the number had reached 78. There could be no mistake. It was by no means the end of the struggle…but our church had reached a turning point.
Still, skirmishes continued through the rest of the decade. Between General Conventions, the Episcopal Church caught the attention of our nation’s secular media by the novelty of conducting a heresy trial, namely that of the Rt. Rev. Walter Righter for ordaining a gay man named Barry Stopfel. As anachronistic – can I say medieval? – as it appeared to many reporters, several were nonetheless kind enough to note how the Episcopal Church maintained its sensibility throughout the ordeal. The Wall Street Journal, for example, noted that afternoon tea was served to the journalists and from a proper silver service.

The new century and the new millennium arrived…but not the end of the conflict. The story picks up in Minneapolis in 2003. That bastion of radical liberalism, New Hampshire, had the audacity to elect Gene Robinson, a gay man with a partner, as its bishop and, because of the timing; it was up to the General Convention to consent to the election. The line of people rising to speak their mind, pro and con and sometimes both in truly Anglican fashion, stretched all the way to the back of the huge hall. The testimony was variously emotional, logical, political, personal, and theological. Frankly, it was probably also unnecessary. Most people knew how they were going to vote before they ever entered the room. Nevertheless, the debate ran its full allotted time and then the House of Deputies voted. With a majority that was neither vast nor slim, it confirmed the election of the church’s first openly gay bishop in the church of God and the bishops did likewise, with the added dramatic flourish of a score of them abruptly walking out upon announcement of the results. Eventually, Gene tied with Desmond Tutu as the most recognized Anglican bishop in the world. (Sorry, Rowan.)

With the advent of a gay bishop, a reasonable outside observer might have expected the Episcopal Church finally to get on to other business. It had now been debating essentially the same subject for three decades. The Nicene Creed had been produced more quickly. Yet in 2006, at the proverbial eleventh hour, the same Presiding Bishop who had presided at Gene’s consecration pushed through a resolution designed to ensure that what had happened in New Hampshire stayed in New Hampshire. Although couched in sober and pious phrasing such as “exercising restraint,” Resolution BO33 basically called for a moratorium on the consecration of any more gay bishops.

That brings us close to the present moment and to Disneyland, or, I suppose I should say, to the 2009 General Convention in Anaheim, California. The passage of two resolutions by the convention brought the saga that had lasted nearly as long as “Days of our Lives” to its long-awaited conclusion. The resolution finally came.

Resolution #C056, originating from the Diocese of Missouri (whose Standing Committee just consented to the election of Mary Glasspool), moved the Episcopal Church decisively toward recognizing – and solemnizing – same-sex unions. Specifically, it acknowledged the changing legal landscape with respect to marriage and called upon our bishops to provide for generous pastoral response, especially in those places where civil unions of one sort or another are now permitted. Furthermore, it mandated the Standing Liturgical Commission “to collect and develop theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same-gender relationships” while, it added, “honoring the theological diversity of this Church in regard to matters of human sexuality.” In other words, we recognized that not everyone is happy about the emerging reality but it is what it is and we are moving forward.

The other landmark resolution, #D025, unequivocally affirmed that God has called and may call LGBT individuals to any ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. In other words, the de facto moratorium of 2006 on gay and lesbian bishops was lifted and what was characterized as “inappropriate” and untimely back in 1979 was at last found to be entirely appropriate and indeed timely.

That brings us to 2010, to the present day, which is by definition of course, the threshold of the future. Looking across the ecclesiastical landscape now from the perspective of the history I have just recounted, I believe the direction that this church is headed is clear. Collectively, we are now moving in the direction of transforming the legislative victories attained at the national level into living realities at the diocesan and congregational levels. We have decided, finally and unabashedly, in favor of being the kind of faith community in which lesbian and gay people are truly part of the family. We have become a “Modern Family,” to borrow another TV show title, and Mother Church, if you will, has come out. She has come out as a “P-FLAGer.” As an individual Episcopalian and as President of Integrity, my outlook is both hopeful and optimistic because once you have come out of the closet, friends, it really is not all that easy to go back in.

Having said that, I hasten to add that, as it is with the stock market, so it is in politics: Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Even the freshman student of history knows that human progress is not inexorably linear. History is littered, in fact, with examples of progress not merely coming to a halt but taking a violent u-turn. The “war to end all wars,” World War I was followed by World War II. In China, the move toward a free market was followed by the brutal clampdown of free expression in Tiananmen Square.

Nevertheless, there are multiple sound reasons for optimism. Let me cite just a few. Just recently, the Attorney General of Maryland announced his official opinion that his state should recognize same-sex unions performed elsewhere. The nearby District of Columbia, of course, just became the latest civil jurisdiction to allow such unions and even though the city has long been regarded as a bastion of liberalism (like New Hampshire), the symbolic value of the nation’s capital city doing so is potent. Likewise with Iowa: Today, in the Midwestern heartland, same-gender marriage is the law of the land and a fact of life. Looking northward from here, the Bishop of Massachusetts, Tom Shaw, has granted his clergy permission to perform marriages for same-sex couples in the churches of that diocese, C056 being his justification. And across the country in my new home diocese of Los Angeles, the convention elected the Rev. Canon Mary Glasspool, a partnered lesbian, to serve as one of its two bishops suffragan. As of yesterday, 55 of 56 required Standing Committee consents have been received and her consecration is tentatively scheduled for May 15th.

Why all this movement in a forward direction? Fundamentally, I believe it is because nearly everyone today knows someone who is dear to them and lesbian or gay: a brother, sister, son, daughter, father, mother, neighbor, teacher, student, judge on “American Idol.” This increasing familiarity has brought contempt some places, to be sure, but mostly, to know us has been to love us.

My primary ministry these days is as an organizational development consultant to churches and nonprofits. In that work, I spend a fair amount of time helping leaders articulate mission and vision statements for their organizations and communities. A vision statement is essentially an articulation of what you want to be true when you have succeeded in your mission. It implies a commitment to do whatever is possible toward making that preferred future the reality. If I were to draft the de facto vision statement of the Episcopal Church, it might read, in part, something like this: “The community and its leadership are diverse in age, gender, race, culture, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and familial constellations. This fact is a great blessing and is nurtured in the way we live together.” If this phrasing sounds familiar to you, it should be. I adapted it from the student body section of the VTS website.

As with any great cultural shift, this one will too will continue to meet resistance. A review of the national church’s website illustrates the point. There is an extensive section on diversity that includes a, b, c, d, x, y, and z…but not l, g, b, or t. Thinking historically again, just consider the Ordination of women or the adoption of the current Book of Common Prayer. Years after the formal actions were taken at General Convention moving the church forward on these matters, battles still raged on. Every great struggle, it seems, is defined by and motivated in part by the resistance with which it must continue to contend. And in this vein, I see the struggle for a diverse faith community as no exception to that historical rule. Three challenges in particular are possible and substantial enough to merit specific mention.

First is the desire for a scapegoat, a common temptation in community life. Whenever some crisis occurs or some unforeseen disaster descends upon the scene, it can seem expedient or advantageous to cast blame upon a vulnerable target. Jerry Falwell blamed AIDS on gay men, for instance. Never mind HIV. The only necessary ingredients for combustion are some inflammable scandal or incendiary economic friction coupled with invidious rhetoric.

Another viable force of resistance to a diverse church is the temptation of political expediency. It is well within the realm of possibility that the Episcopal Church might persuade itself to do the wrong thing (in my view) for the right reason. For instance, it is not implausible to imagine a scenario in which our church moves toward a recognition of global interdependence and, in the process, negotiates away aspects of its own identity or polity.

The third challenge I would name is perhaps the most worrisome of all because it pertains to our very viability as a community. I speak of the challenge of our own apparent irrelevance in the sight of the world around us. What if we Episcopalians finally do invite all the gays and lesbians in our neighborhood to our party…and they don’t to show up? What if what we have to offer is just not seen as being all that appealing? I do wonder: Have we fought for two generations to be included in a community that our younger gay brothers and lesbian sisters will simply regard as unimportant?

This question, it seems to me, leads to an even larger one: In an increasingly complicated world…one in which individuals are at once bowling alone and inextricably interdependent…one in which many doubt the primacy of any one theological narrative just as others defend their one true faith ever more militantly…one in which the strongest trend is identifying as “spiritual” and not “religious”…in such a world as this, is what we have to offer sufficiently authentic and compelling to appeal to those we would welcome?

I would like to offer two suggestions before I close. First, I believe we are perhaps uniquely positioned as a Christian denomination to offer to the spiritual seeker a community where a sense of mystery in life goes hand-in-hand with a respect for reason in the life of faith. As a communion, historically we have welcomed honest inquiry. To borrow words from the VTS website again, “our church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, has been open to new truths discovered by reason and experience.” At the same time, it is a church that has generally also been open to the ineffable, especially through experience of the aesthetic. In short, we are equally comfortable with answers and questions, with art and science. In my personal experience, this perspective on the world resonates with individuals who identify as belonging to a sexual minority. It does so because, in a culture where gender roles are still defined by straight lines, they are outliers on the spectrum of conventional understandings of social reality.

Secondly, I believe we are necessarily yet nonetheless sincerely at last beginning to see ourselves not first and foremost as an institution to which people, if they have enough sense, will just join naturally. In our most vital congregations anyway, I see evidence of a very different self-understanding. Instead of institutions bound by law and dedicated to self-perpetuation, they see themselves as communities bound by love and dedicated to purposes beyond themselves. This also resonates with LGBT persons in my experience for it mirrors the story of LGBT families and communities. No social conventions have brought us together, let me assure you. It has been nothing other than the soulful desire to belong to a family of choice and a community of choice that allows us not only to be ourselves but also to be there for the other.

If we continue along these lines, I believe there is hope not just for the future of inclusion but for the future of our church over all. We will be a community whose appeal to all sorts and conditions of folk is neither a passing fad nor an artifice of political strategy but rather the natural further expression of a catholicity that stretches all the way back to the coming together of Jew and Greek.

Friends, in the first few years after the advent of the Ordination of women, I recall a question arising frequently in conversation: Do you believe in women’s Ordination? It was almost like out of the Baptismal Covenant. Whether it was intended to elicit an affirmation or a renunciation, you couldn’t always be sure. In either case, the most memorable response I ever heard came from a very sincere if somewhat na├»ve man who said, “Do I believe in them? I have seen them!”

As openly gay and lesbian people become a common and unremarkable aspect of the cultural landscape, I do believe that more bishops will ordain LGBT persons, more vestries will elect them to serve as rectors, more congregations will elect them to vestries, and most importantly of course, Altar Guilds won’t wince at the need to set up a wedding for two grooms or two brides. We are past the turning point. We have crossed the tipping point and the forecast is bright.

There will be resistance. The impulse to respond eagerly and faithfully to the emerging realities of each succeeding age is always met with the opposing impulse to preserve and hold fast to what has been familiar and comfortable. But as I see it, it’s not a matter of acquiescing to a more inclusive future for the sake of those who have been on the outside. It is rather a matter of embracing opportunities that give us all a future as a community – a community of mystery and reason, of determined commitment and unconditional love.

Thank you for your kind attention this evening and your willingness to reflect on these intriguing questions together. I dearly appreciate your hospitality and your openness to this conversation. I invite all of you – lay and ordained, straight and not-so-much, to walk with Integrity in your ministries going forward. It is, after all, by walking with integrity (small “I”) that we have arrived at the threshold of the future we behold, one that is bright precisely because it is blessed with a veritable rainbow of color.

1 comment:

Mary Carolyn said...

Here is another article that will bear reading. The author is a Professor of Theology at Boston University and an ordained minister in the American Baptist USA church. Go to

Mary Carolyn