Beleaguered conservatives in the 2.4-million-member Episcopal Church cheered the news out of England this summer. An overwhelming majority of the world's Anglican bishops had overcome back-room arm-twisting and bureaucratic political maneuvers to deliver a message to liberals in the West: Homosexual practice "is incompatible with Scripture," thus bishops "cannot advise the legitimizing or blessing of same-sex unions, nor the ordination of those involved in same-gender unions."
The action came toward the end of the three-week-long Lambeth Conference in July, which every 10 years brings together bishops from 38 Anglican denominations in the Anglican Communion. They represent an estimated 70 million members in more than 100 countries. Women's ordination was the hot-button issue at the last Lambeth; homosexuality took the spotlight at this year's 13th edition of the conference. Resolutions adopted at Lambeth are not binding on the member churches but can wield considerable influence in member churches as a point of reference.
Conservatives in America's Episcopal Church have been trying without success for years to stop the ordination of open homosexuals. The floodgates were opened wide when a church court two years ago dismissed charges against retired bishop Walter Righter for ordaining a homosexual. The court said the church had no core doctrine against such ordinations.
Such actions led soon-to-retire bishop John Spong of Newark, one of the church's most liberal prelates, to boast in a church newspaper interview on the eve of Lambeth: "I now have 30 out-of-the-closet gay priests-the only difference between our diocese and others is that we are honest about it."
Flushed with recent successes, Integrity, a 2,500-member group of homosexual activists and supporters in the Episcopal Church, began laying plans more than a year ago to win some sort of benevolent nod toward homosexuals at Lambeth. But as the conference approached, it became clear that large numbers of Bible-quoting bishops in Africa, Asia, and South America were intent on pursuing an opposite course. Alarmed, gay-friendly bishops in the West nixed the pro-homosexual idea and adopted a defensive strategy. They and Anglican leaders anxious to keep the lid on at Lambeth agreed the best outcome would be a bland, middle-of-the-road resolution affirming traditional marriage and chastity while condemning "homophobia."
But Bishop Spong did not help the campaign for blandness. In a July 10 interview with the Church of England newspaper, he said of Christians in Africa: "They've moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity. They've yet to face the intellectual revolution of Copernicus and Einstein that we've had to face in the developing world. That's just not on their radar screen." And if the African and Caribbean bishops are upset by his remarks, he said, "that's too bad: I'm not going to cease to be a 20th-century person for fear of offending someone in the Third World." The interview was published under this title: "African Christians? They're just a step up from witchcraft. What Bishop Spong had to say about his fellow Christians."
A furor erupted among the bishops following publication of the story. Presiding Bishop Griswold and other conference leaders huddled with Bishop Spong. At first, the New Jersey prelate denied making the statements to the reporter, Andrew Carey, son of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Then Bishop Spong was shown transcripts of the recorded interview.
Finally, on July 28, Bishop Spong issued an indirect apology of sorts in a conference news release titled, "Bishop Spong apologizes for perceived insult to Africans." He said he did not intend to denigrate the African bishops or their churches by his remarks. He said his point was to underscore the cultural differences between the church in the developed and developing worlds, requiring different forms of communication. In saying that, "I've been heard to insult Africans, for which I am really sorry." He agreed "superstitious" had been "an unfortunate" word choice, but he had used it to refer to African views on theological issues, not to African people.
During the conference, held at Kent University near Canterbury, about 750 bishops were scattered among four main discussion groups and various subgroups. Their main task was to adapt prewritten drafts into position papers and resolutions on an array of topics, from international debt to relations with Muslims. The discussion sessions were closed to the press.
In the 60-member subsection on sexuality, Africans led the way in amending the "safe" draft resolution written by section leader Duncan Buchanan, a bishop from Johannesburg. Careful wording reflected conservative concerns related to homosexuality but in restrained tones that would increase chances of acceptance. As balance, liberals won inclusion of a passage assuring homosexuals "that they are loved by God." The amended resolution won approval with about 80 percent of the votes in both the subsection and main group.
A skirmish ensued when the 27-member conference steering committee intervened and threw out an amendment on a technicality. But in the end, the bishops made the mildly conservative resolution more strongly conservative during the plenary session. They added the clause: "while rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture." They affirmed that "abstinence," rather than the original's "chastity"-often used as a code word by homosexuals-"is right for those who are not called to marriage." They changed "homophobia," another buzzword, to "irrational fear of homosexuals."
They also noted the significance of the strongly biblical Kuala Lumpur Statement and other statements, and asked that they be included in an official monitoring of homosexuality issues. (The Kuala Lumpur Statement came out of a meeting of 80 bishops from Africa and Southeast Asia in Malaysia in February 1997. They were concerned about the ordination of homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions in some provinces in the North. The "setting aside of biblical teaching" in such practices is "totally unacceptable," they declared. They cited Scripture passages setting forth God's will regarding sexual practice. There is no conflict between "clear biblical teaching and sensitive pastoral care," they said. Repentance, they added, precedes forgiveness and is part of the healing process.)
An amendment from the liberal side committed the bishops to "listen to the experience of homosexual people."
The amended resolution was adopted by a vote of 566 to 70, with 45 abstentions.
Among those voting yes was Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, primate of the Church of England and figurehead leader of world Anglicanism. Later, he acknowledged to his fellow bishops that it had been a "difficult and quite painful" debate. But, "I stand wholeheartedly with traditional Anglican orthodoxy, see no room in Holy Scripture or the entire Christian tradition for any sexual activity outside matrimony of husband and wife," the prelate said, prompting applause, "and I believe that the amended motion is simply saying what we have all held, what Anglican belief and morality stands for." Episcopal renewal leader James Stanton, bishop of Dallas and a co-accuser in the Righter case, hailed the vote as "a victory for the gospel."
Episcopal presiding bishop Frank Griswold was one of the abstentions. On August 14, he wrote a letter to his clergy and members explaining why he had abstained from voting. While parts of the resolution were "positive both in tone and content," he said, "I took exception to other parts and believe that we must explore more fully the whole question of what is compatible and incompatible with Scripture."
Catherine Roskam, an assistant bishop in the Diocese of New York, said she would ignore the resolution. "I'm not taking the language of condemnation back to my constituency," she said. "It has rendered itself irrelevant to my work as a bishop."
Leaders of Integrity said the vote would not deter them. The "hundreds of homosexual clergy" in the Episcopal Church will continue their ministry, and more will be ordained, they said. Lesbian and gay unions also will continue, they added. They also announced an alliance with two similar groups in the United Kingdom that will work to make the Anglican Communion supposedly more positive toward homosexuals, and honor those in "faithful, committed, life-giving, and holy relationships."
Bishop Richard Holloway of Edinburgh, head of the Scottish Episcopal Church, accused conservatives of breaking a tacit compromise with liberals by introducing sterner language in the resolution. He also lashed out at Archbishop Carey, calling him "pathetic" and a failure at providing adequate leadership. But "most heartbreaking," he said, "is the sense of a new prevailing attitude to scriptural interpretation which I do not recognize as Anglican."
Lambeth offered plenty of color for reporters. For example, small groups of gay activists demonstrated at times outside the conference hall. In one encounter, Nigerian bishop Emmanuel Chukwuma confronted Richard Kirker of the Gay and Lesbian Christian Movement and prayed repeatedly that God would deliver him from his homosexuality.
Meanwhile, more than 50 Americans, led by retired bishop Alex Dickson of Western Tennessee, gathered at the conference entrance. They told African bishops they were ashamed of the Spong remarks, and they asked forgiveness. There were tearful embraces.
Bishop Henry Orombi of Uganda dismissed Bishop Spong as uninformed about the African scene, the price the African church has paid for her faith, and the contribution the African church has made to the Anglican Communion. As for the role of the Africans at Lambeth, "We spoke the truth," Bishop Orombi said. "We are quoting what is in the Scriptures. Don't you forget that the church in America and the church in England took us the Scriptures, and we are not reading anything different."
To renewalist Todd Wetzel of Episcopalians United, the events and vote at Lambeth reinforced a view he shared with members before leaving for the conference: "I've got to believe that healthy Christians in the rest of the Anglican Communion are part of God's plan for redeeming this torn and dysfunctional branch of his church called the Episcopal Church."