Last Thursday (March 1, 2007) the Rev Susan Russell and I had the privilege of sitting down for a little over an hour with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. I was grateful for the opportunity and I hope it signals a new openness on the part of her office regularly to engage acknowledged leaders in the Episcopal lgbt community.
Bishop Katharine is a remarkable listener and, even more strikingly, an amazingly non-anxious and non-defensive person. Those qualities alone go a long way to encourage me to trust her, even when I disagree with her. My impression is that she says what she means and does not speak in code, so we do not have to spend (and should not waste) a lot of time trying to figure out what is really going on or what she is really intending to do. This too is refreshing, and makes her election all the more remarkable.
This brings me to probably the most important thing I brought from my meeting with her. She told the Church Center staff after her return from Tanzania that she really did not know if the Episcopal Church could make a positive response to the “requests” of the Primates. I believe she sincerely means that, and is willing for us as a Church to disagree with her. I say disagree, because I do believe she thinks the current proposals are the best way forward, and I have no doubt she will continue to argue for them. On the other hand, she is not going to force us to do something we are not willing to do.
This means that we (lgbt Episcopalians and our supporters) must vigorously participate in the forming of consensus, whatever shape that is to take. It is time for us to make clear who we believe we are, and what the limits are to our participation in this ongoing process. I think we can do this in as non-anxious and non-defensive way as Bishop Katharine, so that our word is not a simple, “We have no need of you,” which would be a less than Christian response.
Susan and I presented Bishop Katharine with three bottom lines as we perceive them among lgbt Episcopalians:
The full inclusion of lgbt people in the life of this church (incomplete as it is, but also as far along as it is) is not up for negotiation, and this must include our being very clear that Lambeth 1.10 (1998) is not the standard of teaching in this province of the Communion (the most recent missive from the Archbishop of Canterbury makes it clear that his goal is our accession to this standard. If that is the case, then the Communion is indeed in trouble).
The days of pronouncements such as the Tanzania Communiqué that are about lgbt people without the body producing them having been in any substantive conversation with us must be over. It is absolutely intolerable for this non-listening to continue.
Integrity in particular, and lgbt Episcopalians and our supporters in general, will continue to insist that nothing short of the full inclusion of all the baptized at all levels of the church, including sacramental ones, is acceptable for the church to be a whole and holy body. We asked her not to perceive this as our being unsupportive of her.
She signaled her agreement to all of these points, although I have no doubt we remain in some disagreement about how best to carry them out.
I believe from various things she said that she has acted thus far as she has for three basic reasons:
She values the Communion and believes the Episcopal Church does as well, and faced in Tanzania with its break up, she offered what she thought she could in a good faith effort to hold it together. It is difficult for me, who has been a part of this conversation for twenty years now, to believe wholeheartedly that this is a good faith effort. I hear, for instance, her insistence that we see the graciousness in the Communiqué. I have looked hard and failed to find even an ounce of it.
She believes there has been progress on the issue of the inclusion of lgbt people in other provinces of the Communion and that we have a vocation to stay at the table and ensure that this progress continues.
She believes there will be an Anglican Covenant and that it is best, again, that we stay at the table and participate in its formation.
I find myself in relative agreement with her on these positions, but a serious “cost-promise” analysis needs to be done. We will do no good at the table if we are there without our integrity intact. My estimation of what is being asked of us is that we say we are something that we are not for the price of our continued admission to the table. This is highly problematic and smacks of institutional idolatry. It may very well be that many (even a majority) of our Communion partners need us to stand clearly against this process for the sake of Anglicanism and the Communion, and that our full capitulation to the Primates’ demands may do more damage than good to the Communion in the long run.
In addition, Susan and I were able to share a great deal of our personal stories and the contexts in which we live and minister. I was able to share some of my experience at the Lambeth Conference in 1998 (at which she was not present). I wanted her to know that I have stayed in this church not simply to fight a justice issue about which I feel passionate, but because it is in this church, and in particular in the two communities with which I have been privileged to share an Altar as priest, that I continue to find God and God continues to find me.
One puzzlement that I carry with me since the meeting is her mentioning several times that she thinks we should be looking for a “non-violent” response. “What would Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. be doing in this situation?” she asked. I must confess I am not exactly sure what a “non-violent response” means here. I am not sure that simply saying, “No, we cannot do these things,” is a violent response, or especially, “Here are things we can do, but here are things we cannot do.”
I also fundamentally disagree with her that “impatience is an idol” in this situation. She is the presiding bishop because of past impatience, so this assessment rings hollow with me. Patience was not one of the virtues with which Jesus was invested, nor Paul as I read him. There is, rather, an urgency to the good news that they believed must be proclaimed in word and deed, and a radical impatience with those who would put up roadblocks to that proclamation. The Anglican Communion itself is what may have become an idol in this case, its preservation having become more important than the work of God. God is no respecter of persons was a fundamental part of the early proclamation of Christians. God is even less a respecter of institutions, even (perhaps especially) religious ones.