The Listening Process

Reports from the Provinces - The Episcopal Church (USA).

The process of listening to the voices of gay and lesbian people began for The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the 1960s. The 1976 General Convention (GC) passed a resolution which said that "Homosexual persons are children of God, who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church", valued their contribution to the Church and called for serious study and dialogue in the dioceses and for protection of homosexual persons under the law.

A year later the House of Bishops accepted a report of its Commission on Theology which stated "The Church is right to confine its nuptial blessing exclusively to heterosexual marriage. Homosexual unions witness to incompleteness." And further "In the case of an advocating and/or practising homosexual" ordination is inadmissible. Such an ordination, it was argued, would involve the church denying its norms of theology and ethics and the sanctioning of a lifestyle "not only as acceptable but worthy of emulation".

This stand was endorsed at the 1979 GC where orientation was specifically mentioned as not being a bar to ordination, but practice was. However 20 of the 175 bishops identified a discontinuity between the teaching of the Church and the experience of members of the Church, both ordained and lay. A small minority of bishops spoke of the experience of seeing in the relationships of partnered gay and lesbian people a "redeeming quality which in its way and according to its mode is no less a sign to the world of God's love than is the more usual sign of Christian marriage." Their examination of Scripture gave them "no certain basis for a total or absolute condemnation of either homosexual persons or homosexual activities." Such a stand made debate inevitable.

The 1985 GC reinforced the decisions of 1979 and called for a search for effective ways to foster an understanding of homosexual persons. The Commission on Health and Human Affairs in its report to the 1988 GC urged the Church "to create a context in which it could listen to homosexual persons tell their stories and in which they would feel comfortable in doing so". Many Christians quoted "hate the sin and love the sinner", but homosexual Christians reported feelings of being hated rather that loved by their fellow Episcopalians. 52 bishops signed a copy of the 1987 statement of the Church of England General Synod which endorsed marriage as the only place for sexual intercourse, considered homosexual acts as falling short of the ideal to be met by "a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion" and which made it clear that practising homosexuals should not be in Christian leadership.

When the Commission looked at the results of the Listening Process it noted that only 28 of the 99 dioceses had submitted reports. These had reported no strong consensus. The 1991 GC called for a study document to be prepared. Continuing the Dialogue was, after some objections particularly from bishops in Province VII (Southwest), recommended by the 1995 GS for use in the dioceses. The methodology of listening was based upon an initial sharing of common ground of communion in faith and the Baptismal Covenant. It presents a high value for Scripture and carefully examines the significant passages of the Bible. It considers the traditional understandings of marriage and moves on to consider the discontinuities presented by changes in society. It condemns all forms of sexualised violence.

In order to enable Communion-wide listening copies of Continuing the Dialogue were sent to every Province of the Anglican Communion. The Primates sent a note of encouragement for ongoing discussion. The 1997 GC called for an end to mandated dialogue while rejecting the adoption of the Kuala Lumpur Statement.

The 2000 GC, following on from Lambeth 1998, regretted the failure of provinces to communicate with TEC, and called for safe spaces to enable gay and lesbian people to be listened to around the world. The Convention passed a resolution which, while recognising that there was no consensus in favour of accepting same sex unions, acknowledged that there were members of TEC in such relationships. It resolved that these relationships should be characterised by "fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God."

In 2000 a proposal to ask for the preparation of blessing services for same sex unions was dropped." This subject was returned to in 2003 and, while the Theology Committee felt that there were no theological grounds for refusing such blessings, "its recommendations remained on the side of tradition, seeking to avoid confrontation at home and abroad". TEC has no official service of blessings for same sex unions and no such services are in preparation.

The Consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson in 2003 following his election in New Hampshire and the confirmation of the election at 2003 GC, created a feeling in the Communion that the matter of the legitimacy of gay and lesbian partnerships had been settled.  The General Convention in 2003 also passed a resolution which recognised that same sex blessings were taking place around the church and acknowledged that such liturgical experimentation was "within the bounds of our common life." The resolution did not authorise any liturgy for such blessing.

The Windsor Report called for TEC to explain from Scripture, tradition and reason how a person living in a same gender union could lead a flock of Christ. TEC responded with the publication of To Set Our Hope on Christ.

To Set Our Hope on Christ draws an analogy between Peter in Acts 10 discovering the Holy Spirit in the lives of gentiles and the discovery of some of TEC's members of the holiness and Spirit filled lives of those living in exclusive, life-long, unions of fidelity and care. It shows how theology has always developed and new interpretations of biblical texts have replaced older ones, especially in relationship to attitudes to the First Nation/native American peoples, racism (connected to slavery) and the prohibition of women from leadership. In each case Bible passages have been usedin the past to justify actions and attitudes which have been destructive. The response to listening has not been to reject the Bible, but to understand it in a deeper manner. To Set Our Hope on Christ affirms the biblical understanding of sin rooted in idolatry, but does so in the context of the new understanding of what homosexuality is.

The Listening Process is not closed and finished in TEC. There continues to be a spectrum of opinions within the church. Listening has no preconceived outcome other than to hear the voice of God in the present context. It is built on the common ground of commitment to God's mission and our baptismal covenant. It requires safe ground for people to express themselves in their vulnerability in order for the discontinuity between what we proclaim and how we are heard and experienced to be clear. It requires serious engagement with the Bible.