Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Letter from Bishop Shannon Johnston to the Diocese of Virginia

Bishop Shannon Johnston sent a letter this morning to our diocese about his upcoming "listening" meetings on the topic of same-gender blessings. The letter speaks for itself. He also mentions the R-14 Task Force that is shaping recommended guidelines for such blessings; I am serving on that task force, and I invite your participation in these meetings and your respectful dialogue in this space.

Here is Bishop Johnston's letter:

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Dear Diocesan Family,

Five listening sessions will be held across the diocese over the next several weeks entitled "Listen and Be Heard: Faithful Sexuality and the Blessing of Same-Gender Unions." Ever since these forums were first announced, I have heard a variety of responses. I have heard from people who feel that this is all about liberalism and who simply cannot believe that we would even have such discussions in the first place. At the same time, I have heard from others who feel that this is all about stalling and who simply cannot believe that we are having yet more talk. Very many of you are uncomfortable with extreme positions and describe yourselves as being "in the middle" with understanding and sympathies for both sides. Many others are largely confused in profoundly mixed feelings. It is also my experience that a large number of you feel that you have not had the opportunity to be heard and to listen on these issues in a safe environment.

Such a range of positions and experience is itself the reason why we need to go about this conversation in a different way. As the Church, the Body of Christ, we certainly must be able to come together in good faith and good will in order to engage and understand one another, if only to agree to disagree.

So I want to clarify for you what these listening sessions are and what they are not. First, I know that from 2003 we have some very painful history of such sessions in our diocese. At that time, we experienced a substantial amount of inappropriate anger. That history began to heal with the successful and much appreciated Town Hall meetings last year. Allow me to ask each one of you personally to help us continue that good work for the good of all. I believe that the listening process we are going to undertake should prevent a repeat of that difficult chapter.

The bulk of the time will be in small groups in which each person present will have the opportunity to speak and be heard in answer to specific questions about faithful sexuality and the blessings of same gender unions. I have asked that the information be gathered in a way that I can use it as a reference in leadership as your bishop. The opinions expressed in all groups will be posted for all to see and consider by the evening's end. I will study your comments very carefully, as will the Standing Committee. I need to hear from you, and you should be assured to know that you are, by this process, reaching your diocesan leadership in a truly meaningful way.

The focus of these sessions is to listen and to be heard; it is not on convincing, cajoling, or changing one another's minds. These forums will not be open-microphone crossfire debates, nor will they be voting sessions. I will speak at the end of each session about what I heard during the session and share a small piece of my journey with these issues.

Why are these listening sessions necessary, and why should you attend? These sessions are truly intended to be what the title suggests - a time to listen to one another. The people of the Diocese of Virginia have been grappling with issues of human sexuality for over 30 years. During much of that time, however, diocesan conversations took place in task groups or dialogue groups that were appointed for that purpose. The conversations have not always taken place more widely and have not always included the people in the pews of our congregations. It is my desire to broaden the conversation and to give every person in our diocese an opportunity to speak and to be heard on the important matters of faithful sexuality.

I also want to make clear that these sessions are separate and distinct from the work the R-14s Task Group is doing. You may remember that Council passed a resolution that requested that I empanel a group of clergy and lay people, including lawyers and experts on canon law, to recommend consistent standards should services of blessing same-gender unions be authorized at some point. I appointed the requested group in the spring of this year and they have been working faithfully to prepare their report for the Executive Board. The timing of this work parallels the listening sessions, but the work is not tied together. Please be assured that the listening sessions are not simply for show. I am committed to ensuring this process is authentic. (You can find the full text of the resolution at:http://www.thediocese.net/Governance/Annual_Council/215th_Annual_Council/Resolutions/).

The schedule of these sessions is:

Wednesday, September 29, Calvary Church, Front Royal, 7-9 p.m.

Wednesday, October 13, St. Paul's, Ivy, 7-9 p.m.

Wednesday, October 27, St. Alban's, Annandale, 7:30-9:30 p.m.

Wednesday, November 3, St. John's, Tappahannock, 4:00-6:00 p.m.

Wednesday, November 17, Christ Church, Glen Allen, 7-9 p.m.

In closing, I strongly believe these forums have the potential of forging a new way for the Diocese of Virginia to be together in contentious times. I look forward to undertaking this vitally important work with you, and I remain confident that God's grace will prevail upon us and upon our common life as a diocese.

Faithfully yours in Christ,


Shannon Sherwood Johnston

Bishop of Virginia

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