Liberal Episcopalians lost a battle over symbols in trying to persuade the denomination that homosexual couples deserve the same pastoral blessings as married heterosexuals.When the Episcopal Church's General Convention last met in Denver in 1979, it declared that ordaining active homosexuals (or heterosexuals engaging in nonmarital sex) as clergy was inappropriate.Liberal activists, including Episcopal priests and bishops, have tried to reverse that decision ever since. In recent years, activists have added the cause of winning the church's pastoral blessing on homosexual couples.At this year's General Convention in Denver, a committee of bishops and deputies proposed that the church prepare rites to "support relationships of mutuality and fidelity other than marriage which mediate the grace of God."Three bishops on the committee dissented, expressing concern that the resolution's language gave equal weight to marital and nonmarital relationships.An earlier proposal from the church's Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) urged that individual dioceses decide whether to ordain active homosexuals as clergy or to bless same-sex couples. (Critics call the notion "local option.")But that resolution met with widespread distrust. Conservatives considered it too permissive and liberals considered it too weak. The conservative American Anglican Council (AAC) published Mixed Blessings, a 56-page critique of the proposal.On the left, folk singer Judy Collins abruptly canceled her participation in a concert to raise funds for the Presiding Bishop's Fund for World Relief. In a news release on July 6, Collins said she considered the SCLM's proposal for local option "tantamount to accepting and supporting discrimination."

16th-Century Tactics?

Bishop Stephen Charleston used the folk singer's decision as an opportunity to blast the "16th-century tactics" of conservative Episcopalians. Charleston is dean of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., where some faculty members and students are openly homosexual. During a Eucharist sponsored by Integrity, a homosexual caucus within the Episcopal Church, Charleston accused conservatives of waging a campaign based on "power and fear."Episcopalians who filled the Cathedral of St. John in the Wilderness repeatedly cheered Charleston's sermon, sometimes rising in standing ovations.Charleston especially objected to "God's Love Changed Me," an ad campaign by the AAC. The full-color glossy ads featured testimonies from:

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  • A former member of the Ku Klux Klan.
  • A woman who had an abortion.
  • A former pornography addict who was sexually abused as a child.
  • A woman who once considered herself a transsexual.
  • A man who engaged in various homosexual affairs.
  • A man who spent years in "gay bars and strip clubs, alcohol abuse, and empty sexual liaisons."

Charleston and other activists said the ad campaign implied that homosexuality is pathological and that homosexuals must change. AAC leaders responded that conservative Episcopalians simply wanted to tell their individual stories, just as Integrity members have done through several General Conventions.Charleston counted the ad campaign among "repetitious acts of sabotage against one another, of name-calling, backbiting, and spiteful disinformation."While decrying name-calling, Charleston blasted Episcopalians whom he described as saying: "We own Jesus. We speak for Jesus. Jesus loves us best."

Salt and No Light

The battle of symbols reached still another emotional level on the day after Collins announced her cancellation.Nelson Koscheski Jr. of Dallas, a clerical member of the House of Deputies, had scattered salt beneath the tables of deputies from Newark (N.J.), Dallas, Ft. Worth, South Carolina, and other dioceses. He also scattered salt beneath the seat of Pamela Chinnis, president of the House of Deputies and an outspoken supporter of homosexual rights within the Episcopal Church.Deputy Louie Crew, the best-known homosexual activist in the Episcopal Church, protested Koscheski's action. "The deputation of Newark is sitting in salt," Crew said. He asked that the House of Deputies stand in recess while the salt was removed, and that the deputies use the time to "meditate on what it means to respect the dignity of every human being, including the deputy who spread the salt."Many deputies gathered near the Newark deputation. Holding hands or locking arms, and swaying in unison, they sang "We Shall Overcome," "Jesus Loves Me," "Jesus Loves the Little Children," and "Balm in Gilead."Koscheski later protested that he meant the salt as a gesture of healing, pointing out that he spread it among both liberal and conservative deputations. The Dallas deputation apologized to the House of Deputies twice. Koscheski resigned the deputation and returned to Dallas.Despite Charleston's condemnation of the AAC's ads, despite the nearly unanimous protests of Koscheski's action, and despite open hearings featuring many emotional stories from across the ideological spectrum, liberals did not muster the necessary votes for blessing homosexual couples.Deputies quickly approved paragraphs that acknowledged both the church's traditional teachings on sex and dissenting actions from that teaching. The resolution also pledges the church's "support" to couples living in long-term committed relationships other than marriage.Liberals in the House of Bishops attempted to restore the blessing rites, but to no avail.While declining to institutionalize "local option," General Convention acknowledged that de facto local option will continue throughout the Episcopal Church.General Convention will meet again in 2003 at Minneapolis, within a diocese that both ordains homosexual clergy and blesses same-sex couples.

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Related Elsewhere

Previous Christianity Today articles about Episcopal Church policy include:Dwelling in Unity? | Lutherans, Episcopalians aspire to full communion, but differences remain over the role of bishops. One Church, Two Faiths | Will the Episcopal Church survive the fight over homosexuality? Will Episcopalians Step into the 'Radical Center'? | Episcopalians hope a liberal new bishop can unite the flagging denomination in spite of divisions over homosexuality and women's ordination.For General Conference 2000 news, links, and special reports visit Prayerbook , a Canadian site. Anglicansonline also provides a comprehensive listing of news stories from General Conference 2000.News from a different perspective is available from Integrity , a homosexual Episcopal group.Chicago Tribune Religion columnist Steve Kloehn comments on what the church needs to decide about homosexuality and marriage before General Conference 2003.One of the biggest stories out of General Conference 2000 was the move to push defiant Episcopal dioceses into ordaining women. The Dallas Morning News talked to holdouts who said their intention was to "uphold the apolistic faith and Catholic order of the church"and the Los Angles Times took a look at ordination numbers since the 1992 decision to ordain women .

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