Sunday, November 29, 2015


Today, Sunday, November 29, 2015, the First Sunday in Advent, marks the end of a long chapter in the history of the Episcopal Church. It is the moment of a landmark event, the start of same-sex marriage in the Episcopal Church. Whether one is celebrating or weeping depends on which side of the fence one is on. I am celebrating.

This road to get to this day has been a long and tortuous one. In the big picture, one should recall that the first half of the twentieth century was consumed with defending democratic principles, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, the French would say, that is freedom, equal rights, and the common bond of all human beings. The end was the colossal success of democracy over the anti-democratic forces in the world, most importantly fascism. After peace, the great democratic impulse turned to the liberation of the elements of society that had been historically denied their democratic rights: first blacks, then women, and finally homosexuals. What we have today is the final victory of that long and great crusade to extend democracy in America to all the people. The last barrier has fallen.

Of all the great American religious denominations, the Episcopal Church was most affected by this great democratic movement. Once a rather conservative, stodgy religion of repetitious archaic liturgy mostly representing the entrenched elite ruling class, the Episcopal Church made a conscious decision to embrace with all its might the new crusade after the Second World War (what I call "horizontal" religion). First it campaigned for Civil Rights. By the 1970's it turned to the issue of the role of women in the Church, particularly whether women should be allowed into Holy Orders. By 1976 that was settled. At the same time, a new prayer book came along to be adopted in 1979. By then, far-right conservatives were peeling off the Church in disgust.

The issue of the interface of the Episcopal Church and homosexuality first appeared in 1976. In 1979, General Convention passed a resolution saying it was "not appropriate" to ordain practicing homosexuals. "Practicing" referred to openly homosexual persons such as those living with a same-sex companion. (Closeted homosexuals have been ordained forever; some people believe St. Paul was one). The conservative Episcopalians believed they had won the fight and continued believing such through the 1980's.

The issue of homosexuality was different than the earlier ones of race and women's ordination in that it operated on two levels. Homosexuality involved two problems: morality and Church government. The earlier issues did not involve morality, at least not directly. They were matters of institutional structure. Homosexuality was more than that. Conservatives saw homosexual behavior as inherently sinful and therefore immoral and unchristian (they love to quote the handful of verses they say condemn homosexuality). They said it was against God's plan of nature. Therefore, if it were sinful, it should never be condoned by the Church in any way such as allowing practicing gays to hold Holy Orders. By the 1980s, the Diocese of South Carolina, under Bishop Allison, moved squarely into this camp and would stay there afterwards to the schism.

The issue of the ordination of gays came to a head in the Episcopal Church much the same way women's ordination did, by proponents holding ordinations in defiance of the understood rules. The problem of the 1979 resolution ("not appropriate") however, was that it was never put into canon law. It was only a resolution, not a law of the Church. John Shelby Spong, the bishop of Newark decided to move ahead with reforms favoring homosexuals. By 1988 he established in his diocese the first rites for same-sex blessings in the Church. In 1989, he ordained a gay man, Robert Williams who was living openly with a same-sex partner. The next year Spong's assistant bishop, Walter Cameron Righter, ordained an openly gay man, Barry Stopfel. The leaders of the Diocese of South Carolina went ballistics and went off to the General Convention of 1991 demanding fierce disciplinary action.

The 1991 Phoenix General Convention is still remembered for its tumultuous, raucous, acrimonious atmosphere. It was all because the issue of homosexuality was back front and center and the Church had to deal with it. There was no choice. Much to the South Carolinians' disappointment, however, the House of Bishops refused to censure Spong and Righter. The Convention hammered out a tortuous, strange patchwork resolution that on the one hand reaffirmed traditional marriage and also recognized the reality of homosexuality. This was not the finest hour in Church history. In fact, the next year, the bishops met at Kanuga to ask why they were so dysfunctional (It was reported that Allison told them it was simple---apostasy, and then refused to take Communion with them). Nevertheless, the 1991 Convention marked the shift in the momentum within the Church from the "anti" to the "pro" side. By not censuring Spong and Righter and not voting to "invalidate" the controversial ordinations, the Convention had given tacit recognition to the ordinations of open gays.

The 1994 General Convention, in Indianapolis, was really the turning point for the Church on the issue of homosexuality. From 1976 to 1991 the "antis" had the upper hand. After 1991 the balance began to shift. By 1994, the great confrontation was ready. That year, the House of Bishops presented a study report on human sexuality that conservatives prepared to attack. They drew up a formal statement called the "Affirmation" and had it signed by 106 bishops denouncing the bishop's study report. They made very clear their position: 1-marriage is between one man and one woman only, 2-sexual relations between same-sex persons cannot be condoned by the Church, and 3-the Church cannot compromise on moral principles. Their goal was to kill this bishops' report as they indeed had done in 1988 with an earlier report called "Sexuality: A Divine Gift." But the situation was different now.

By 1994, the proponents of homosexual rights had developed a concerted effort to make their case. It was led by Bishop Spong. At the 1994 convention he refused to allow the conservatives to rule the field. He organized a strong opposition that drew up its own document called the "Koinonia Statement" that listed their goals: 1-recognition that homosexuality was morally neutral, 2-that same-sex couples in committed relationships should be honored and 3-that ordination should be open to all homosexuals. It was eventually endorsed by 90 bishops. 

At that point the Episcopal Church was divided on the issue of homosexuality roughly into thirds, one-third "anti," one-third "pro," and one-third neutral. The battle then was between the antis and the pros for the hearts and minds of the uncommitted middle crowd. The fact that the antis said their position was not negotiable left them in a box. In the end, the bishops decided to send their new study report on sexuality to the deputies without attaching either the "Affirmation" or the "Koinonia Statement" to it.

The 1994 Convention went on to pass a landmark resolution making a change in the Church canons to list "sexual orientation" as something that could not be used against ordination. This was done so quietly and subtly the conservatives barley recognized it. In fact, canon law was changed to remove the barrier against the ordination of gays. Spong and the "pro" side won the day even if it took quite a while for the other side to know what had hit them.

They did come to realize it much to their chagrin. Not willing to surrender, however, they moved on to another plan of action, hauling in the "pro" Bishop Righter for a church trial on the charge of heresy. Ten conservatives drew up a formal presentment against Righter that was signed by many other bishops and warmly endorsed by those of South Carolina. In 1996, after two hearings and before a formal trial, the court dismissed the charges saying there was "no clear doctrine" on the issue (the 1979 resolution was not a doctrine). The conservative bishops had gambled all on the court and had lost. That really cleared the way for the ordination of homosexuals and broke the back of the "anti" movement in the Episcopal Church. The affirmation of Bishop Gene Robinson in 2003, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, was really an aftermath of the Righter trial of 1996. We all know the rest. After Robinson, the "antis" drew up the Chapman Memo that made a blueprint for schism. Four dioceses voted to leave the Episcopal Church. In 2012 the Church adopted a liturgy for the blessing of same sex unions. In 2015, the Church changed its canons to allow same-sex marriage in the Church. Mark Lawrence and the ruling clique of the Diocese of South Carolina used the 2012 Convention decisions as the excuse to lead the majority of the diocese out of the Episcopal Church.

So, today begins same-sex marriage in the Episcopal Church. It is the end of a long campaign in the modern culture war. Scientific demographic studies show that the Episcopal Church was ahead of the curve on the great democratic issues of the post-Second World War age. Of that, I for one am proud without end.

Before today is over, I think all Episcopalians who treasure freedom, justice, and equality for all people should take a moment and thank the man who really made homosexual rights possible in the Episcopal Church, John Spong. To my knowledge he is still alive and well at age 84.

So I say, wherever you are, thank you Bishop Spong, thank you. You were right. Your enemies were wrong. We are in a better place today because of your wisdom, courage, and resolve. In a sense, today is your day.