It was a full day in Indianapolis and the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church.
First of all, Dr. Anita P. George, of Church of the Resurrection, Starkville, was elected to the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church (the wider church's "vestry") on the first ballot this afternoon. She was the recipient of the second highest number of votes of six people elected to full six-year terms -- and of 15 total candidates. Anita will be serving a full term after having completed an unexpired term.
Secondly, the House of Deputies approved the Structure Committee's recommended omnibus church reorganization resolution unamended and without dissent this afternoon. It was a stunning development and gave me, as a Structure Committee member, a great deal of pride. Please see my blog from yesterday to understand the various aspects of this resolution.
Third, the House of Deputies today elected the Reverend Gay Jennings of the Diocese of Ohio as the new President of the House of Deputies. Gay was chair of the Structure Committee and did an excellent job of guiding the committee through the challenging issues. Gay was one of the first church leaders to travel to the Coast in the days after Katrina and worked with clergy in responding to the needs of the devastated communities. She was also one of the principal architects of the "Weathering the Storm" conference for clergy impacted by Katrina and their families in the months after the storm. Her brother-in-law is a resident of Wiggins, Mississippi. In the voting between three candidates, Gay had a majority of five votes on the first ballot.
We were also aware that one of the "hot button" issues would be considered this afternoon -- the provisional use of same sex blessing liturgies on a local option basis. We had a wonderful and gracious meeting of the Mississippi deputation at lunch today (we meet each day for lunch) and it helped us prepare for the discussion which we knew was coming. Bishop Gray provided his usual dose of wisdom and depth to the deputies. We have also been blessed to have Linda Nelson, former Mississippian, church consultant, and director of Advent Retreat House in New Orleans, with us for the end of Convention. It was a fruitful discussion.
Let me assure you: Whatever you have read in the secular press about the approval of the blessings has been oversimplified and mischaracterized. Yes, the church did approve liturgical texts for provisional use in the blessing of same sex relationships. Yes, this is the first time the church has offered such resources. Yes, there is educational information which has been developed and provided for use in congregational discussions.
It is also local option, i.e., permission of the diocesan Bishop is necessary. It is true that "unofficial" liturgies have been used in many dioceses over the last several years. No, the rite is not "marriage" -- the church still defines marriage as between a man and woman. It is the "blessing of a lifelong covenant relationship." It is a resource for dioceses and congregations which have been moving in this direction, or has been allowing blessings, for several years.
Bishop Gray has said for the past year or so that the church has been heading in this direction. He had said at diocesan council this year that Convention would take this step. This development should surprise no one.
Bishop Stacy Sauls, former Bishop of Lexington, has said that the provision for blessings is a "pastoral exception" to our usual understanding of marriage in order to minister to the needs of people in the church. He has compared this "pastoral exception" to the provisions made for divorce by the Church in the early 1970s.
At any rate, the vote passed with a 78 percent majority among lay deputies and by a 76 percent majority among the clergy. Because of those factors listed above -- as well as others -- I voted for the rite's approval. There is a "conscience clause" for differing and dissenting bishops and clergy within the canonical change, so there will be no forced compliance. This "conscience clause" is different from the one offered with the advent of women's ordination because it is more than a "gentleman's agreement" -- the "conscience clause" is included within the canons of the church.
One of the remarkable elements of convention is the sense of Christian community which exists among the widely varying perspectives. We discuss, debate, listen and differ in committee meetings and on the floor of the House of Deputies. But we do so respectfully, honoring one another in the process. And in good Episcopal practice, we come together daily to hear the Word proclaimed, to say our prayers, to break the bread and to drink the wine. Just as we are...
This church is a wide, expansive and gracious body. But no more so than the love of the risen Christ we proclaim as Lord of Life. Despite tendencies to stereotype folks we do not know, understand, and from whom we differ, every person I have encountered here is a faithful, devoted and loving follower of Jesus Christ.
To be a part of this deputation and this convention is a blessing.