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July 15, 2000
Column #985


     DENVER - The Episcopal Church no longer upholds marriage as the sole appropriate place for sexual behavior.

     For the first time, it not only acknowledged that heterosexual and homosexual couples are living together outside of marriage, but the triennial General Convention of the denomination voted to say couples ''living in life-long committed relationships'' could have a ''holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God.''

     The Episcopal Church said it expected ''such relationships will be characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect (and) careful, honest communication.''

     Sad to say, this is wishful thinking. During the debate, one bishop said that in his 30 years as a pastor in four churches, all of which had gay and lesbian church members, ''There were only two pairs who were in faithful, monogamous relationships. Among the others were some who were exploitative, some abusive and all the others were promiscuous.'' Research shows that cohabiting couples are also more likely to be abusive and commit ''adultery'' than married couples.

     Nevertheless, the Convention voted almost unanimously that the church will provide these couples with ''the prayerful support, encouragement and pastoral care necessary to live faithfully.''

     Conservatives did win one victory. By a handful of votes in the House of Deputies, half of which is clergy and half, laity, delegates opposed asking a Commission on Liturgy to draft liturgies ''to support relationships of mutuality and fidelity other than marriage.'' The House of Bishops, a co-equal branch, defeated the resolution decisively, 85-63, after three hours of debate.

     This is the third mainline denomination to take this step in the last three months. Both the United Methodists and the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. recently took a similar stand. However, there is one big difference. Unlike the Episcopalians, they meant it, and are enforcing it by subjecting those who marry same sex couples to trial and removal from ministry if convicted.

     By contrast, Bishop Daniel Herzog of Albany, NY charged that ''I know 60 dioceses (out of about 100) who exercise the local option to bless same-sex couples.'' Many more are also ordaining homosexuals though the national church has not approved that step, either.

     And there's no punishment for those who break rules. Indeed, San Francisco Bishop Bill Swing acknowledged, ''I have ordained more gays and lesbians than any other bishop in the history of the Episcopal Church, and you have not come after me. I'm thankful for your restraint.''

     Many bishops felt the Episcopal Church should approve the blessing of same-sex unions. ''We are being asked to bless love, and nothing more,'' argued Bishop Steven Charleston, President of the Episcopal Divinity School.

     Some of the advocates shared the pain of personal experience. Bishop Jack Croneberger spoke of his lesbian daughter. Bishop Otis Charles said, ''I probably am the only bishop who will speak as an openly gay person.''

     Bishop Bob Ihloff of Maryland lamented that he was asked to ''bless the hunt, a big part of which is blessing hounds who tear apart their prey. We need to look at the compassionate heart of Jesus blessing people.''

     On the other hand, Bishop Bert Herlong of Tennessee spoke of ''the pain of traditional Episcopalians who feel the church has violated their trust by allowing same-sex unions. It is not an issue of justice. It is an issue of morality, another way to bless sexual relationships outside of marriage. It is not about love. It is about blessing something that is sinful. If same-sex blessings were approved, 6-10 congregations could leave the Diocese of Tennessee.''

     Bishop Charles Duvall of Pensacola noted the near 50-50 vote of the House of Deputies, and ''The church is almost exactly divided'' while the vast majority of Anglican bishops around the world voted against homosexual marriages and ordination two years ago.

     But the decisive speech against developing liturgies for gays and lesbians came from a surprising source, San Francisco's Swing, who asserted: ''There is not a bishop who does not know where we will be 10 years from now. The issue is how do we get from here to there, and stay in unity.'' He said he disagreed with ''almost everything'' opponents had argued, and agree with ''almost everything'' said by proponents, but voted against it because ''in the Episcopal Church we have a chance to go together in a unified way.''

     Asked for his reaction, Scott Larsen, a spokesman for Integrity, a gay and lesbian lobby, told me, ''The church is moving to full acceptance of where gays and lesbians are in the church.  The church has never passed a statement like this. We are disappointed that the development of a national rite was not approved, but we have bishops and priests blessing same-sex relationships in 60 dioceses.''

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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