Saturday, May 29, 2010

Diocesan Task Force on same-sex blessings; and how a British bishop changed his mind

The contentious issue of the inclusion of gay/lesbian people into the full life of the Church is never far below the surface, and I am about to wade into the waters here in Virginia. Bishop Shannon Johnston, of the Diocese of Virginia, has appointed me to a task force of 11 people -- six lay and five ordained -- who will soon examine the issues surrounding same-sex blessings and, hopefully, chart the way forward for this diocese in the next year. That is my hope.

The panel was commissioned at the Diocesan Council (convention) in January, and has adopted for its name the neutral-sounding title of the resolution that set it up -- "The R-14 Task Force." The bishop finished appointing the members in May. The first meeting is set for June 19, followed by another meeting July 17.

I will not be present at the first meeting, but I plan to attend via Skype or telephone connection. I will keep you posted in this space as fully as I can on how this develops. The deadline for the completion of our work is November 1, and I see no reason why we cannot meet the deadline. Other dioceses have impaneled similar task forces and are already finished; much of the research we've been asked to do has been done elsewhere; the Diocese of Virginia has a considerable volume of work of its own to draw upon, having had several committees and task forces looking at various sides of the topic for years.

Bill Bergen sent this item the other day: The Rt. Rev. Tom Butler (just retired Bishop of Southwark, U.K.) had three minutes, on BBC's Thought of the Day for May 25, to say a word about Theresa May, the British Home Secretary who recently said about homosexuality, "I've changed my mind." Maybe others might change their minds, too. The Holy Spirit works like that.

Here is Bishop Butler's brief statement in full:
The press has been remarking on Theresa May's response to a question from a member of the Question Time audience, about the new home secretary's apparently less than gay-friendly voting record . Her reply: "I've changed my mind".

I don't think that she's alone in that. It's remarkable to observe how, in spite of traditional religious teaching, public opinion in Britain over a period of a decade or so, in a remarkable shift of thinking has mostly changed its mind on the worth and place of gay people in society. The reason is simple: it's difficult to hold dogmatic views about what is good and desirable behaviour, when some of the often obviously good, loving and responsible people you actually encounter are behaving in an alternative way.

The same thing happened in the Church over questions concerning divorce and remarriage. Thirty years ago it was almost unknown for divorced people to be remarried in church, but many changed their minds when it was their own children or grandchildren who were caught up in divorce proceedings. The messy ambiguities of choosing divorce over remaining in a loveless marriage, with often painful consequences for children whatever the choice became more apparent. Society had changed its mind and the Church if it were to continue to have any pastoral influence on those struggling to live decent lives had to take account of the change.

Now, as a reminder on how profound the shift has been in our attitude to homosexuality, the weekend papers also carried the story of the conviction of two young men in Malawi now serving hefty prison sentences for the crime of loving one another. Fourteen years hard labour is a cruel and degrading punishment, totally unacceptable in any country, and Christian leaders should not be afraid of saying so.

Of course this brings problems to a church like my own which is part of a global communion of very different cultures and traditions. I was in the Diocese of Maryland a couple of weeks ago shortly before one of their very able priests Mary Glasspool was ordained a bishop in Los Angeles. The fact that Mary has been in a twenty-year lesbian partnership was simply a non-issue for the many church people there who knew and admired her, and they found it very difficult when I tried to explain that liberal actions in America or indeed Britain can have dangerous consequences for fellow Christians living in minority situations in Africa or Egypt. But a responsible global church must take this into account and try to build bridges of cultural understanding.

But be that as it may, the price of holding the communion together can't all be paid by stifling the lives of gay people in the West and cruelly punishing them in Africa. The Home secretary has changed her mind, and so have I.
Watercolor by Laramie Sasseville, 1995.

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