by Susan Russel
The Episcopal Church of the United States has taken a very different approach to issues of human sexuality from its sister Church here in England. Its General Convention has resolved that marriage is open to people regardless of their sexuality, and is seeking to respect the conscience of the minority for whom this is difficult. The following is an article by the Revd Susan Russel, a priest from California who writes of the work of the group charged with seeking a way forward.
Thoughts on ‘Communion Across Difference’
I am writing this on a plane somewhere between LAX and ORD bound for the first meeting of the Episcopal Church’s Communion Across Difference Task Force.
The group – called together by Resolution 2018-A227 adopted at our 79th General Convention – consists of equal numbers of those holding that marriage is a “covenant between a man and a woman” and those holding that marriage is a “covenant between two people” – and our job is to seek a pathway toward mutual flourishing in the Episcopal Church.
But wait. There’s more.
We are charged to seek that lasting path forward for mutual flourishing “consistent with this Church’s polity and the 2015 ‘Communion across Difference’ statement of the House of Bishops affirming:
“(1) The clear decision of General Convention that Christian marriage is a covenant between two people, of the same sex or of the opposite sex;
“(2) General Convention’s firm commitment to make provision for all couples asking to be married in this Church to have access to authorized liturgies;
“(3) The indispensable place that the minority who hold to this Church’s historic teaching on marriage have in our common life, whose witness the Church needs.”
Needless to say, we covet your prayers as we gather for this first meeting and work together to imagine how we will respond to this arguably daunting task and high calling. I am privileged to be co-convening the task force with John Bauerschmidt – Bishop of Tennessee – and although our work is just beginning today, we stand on the shoulders of a great cloud of witnesses who been striving to figure out just how to manage mutual flourishing across deep divides for generations.
It is a cloud of witnesses I would argue dates back to the original architects of the “Elizabethan Settlement” – those who dared to imagine mutual flourishing across the seemingly intractable divide of whether we Anglicans would be Protestant or Catholic in the 16th century. Rather than continuing to burn each other at the stake over real presence vs. transubstantiation, our forebears found a way forward. And the reason I signed up for this gig is I am convinced that if they could find a way where there was no way in the 16th century we can find one in the 21st.
This is not say I am convinced it will be easy. My email inbox is full of missives from folks around the church about equally divided between “you are an intuitionalist sellout perpetuating toxic homophobia and patriarchy” and “you are an apostate heretic leading sheep astray to burn in the Lake of Fire.”
The jury is still out – but it is fair to say I hope the truth is somewhere in the middle.
I hope what I am is someone who loves this church enough to challenge it to live up to its full potential and revolutionary roots of being a particular people of God with the DNA of Anglican Comprehensiveness still coursing in its veins.
I hope I am someone who knows our history well enough to know that from the get-go we have been a people of God who came to the communion rail every Sunday knowing that half the people sharing the pews with us thought we were as wrong as we thought they were.
And I hope I am someone who can trust that if we started out doing that around different theologies of how the Holy Spirit made holy the bread and wine we received in the sacrament of Communion we can continue doing that around different theologies of how the Holy Spirit blesses and sanctifies those who come seeking the sacrament of marriage.
What I know is that there is an ontological difference between feeling excluded because you’re disagreed with and being excluded because of who you are. And so in order for us to continue to live out our Anglican ethos with Integrity there absolutely must be a place in this church for those who hold the minority theological position that my marriage doesn’t exist. And – equally essential to living out our Anglican ethos with Integrity – is that place is not and cannot be between any couple seeking the sacrament of marriage in this church. All the sacraments must be available to all the baptized, period, full stop. [See (2) above.]
Yes, the challenge of finding the place of “mutual flourishing” is a daunting one … but it is the challenge the Holy Spirit has put on our plate and it is the challenge we will be striving to mutually address in the days, weeks and months ahead.
To say we live in polarized and divided times is to damn by faint adjectives the times in which we live.
And so it is my deepest hope and most fervent prayer that whatever the Holy Spirit has in mind for us as we engage in this work over these next weeks and months, She will equip and inspire us to bear fruit that transcends the issue that has brought us to the table. I hope our history will equip and empower us to live into our future and model a way forward that is both an antidote to the many challenges that threaten to divide us and an inspiration to others who look for ways beyond the challenges that divide them.
I believe this is good and holy work to which we have been called. And I pray that the God who has given us the will to attempt these things give each and every one of us the grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.
Her excellent blog can be found here.