Acting in open defiance to the worldwide Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church has voted to end a de facto moratorium on the election and consecration of openly gay bishops. The vote -- overwhelming in both houses of the denomination's General Convention -- comes barely 6 years after the American church brought its worldwide communion to the brink of disaster.
The specific language adopted by the General Convention declared the church's openness to the ordination or election of homosexual persons to "any ordained ministry." In taking this action, the Episcopal Church now signals its absolute determination to defy Scripture, tradition, and the urgent cries of its own sister churches in the Anglican Communion.
Of course, the General Convention did not use the language of defiance in describing its own action. Instead, delegates to both the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies attempted to describe the action as a way of remaining true to their church's own principles and convictions. In one sense, the delegates could make this claim with something of a straight face. After all, as speakers during the debate made clear, this action is an honest reflection of what the Episcopal Church has now become.
As Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times reported:
Many delegates to the church’s convention here characterized the action not as an overturning of the moratorium, but as simply an honest assertion of “who we are.” They note that the church, which claims about two million members, has hundreds of openly gay laypeople, priests and deacons, and that its democratic decision-making structures are charged with deciding who merits ordination.
In other words, the denomination has pressed forward with the agenda of normalizing homosexuality and homosexual relationships and the moratorium on gay bishops was, in light of larger developments within the church, both awkward and artificial.
The crisis between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion exploded into the open in 2003 when the American denomination elected and consecrated Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, as the bishop of New Hampshire. The controversy that followed revealed the emerging fault lines in the Anglican Communion -- and in many other denominations as well. Liberal churches in North America (and often in Great Britain and Europe) were shown to be out of step and increasingly outnumbered by far more orthodox and conservative churches in what is increasingly called the "Global South."
In 2005, the Anglican Communion responded to the action of the Episcopal Church through the adoption of what was called the "Windsor Report." This document, presented as something of a peace plan, demanded that the American church cease and desist from the election of additional gay bishops and put a halt to efforts to extend formal recognition to same-sex relationships. Shortly thereafter, the Episcopal Church signaled its willingness, begrudging at best, to accept what amounted to a moratorium on these developments.
Now, as the Episcopal Church met for its General Convention in Anaheim, California, the American denomination has, in effect, told the Anglican Communion that it will go its own way, whatever the cost. Adding insult to injury, the General Convention also expressed its "abiding commitment" to the worldwide body. Apparently, this commitment does not extend to keeping its promises.
Amazingly, these votes came shortly after the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, had spoken to the General Convention, pleading for delegates to take no action that would widen the breach between the churches in his communion. “I hope and pray that there won’t be decisions in the coming days that will push us further apart," the Archbishop pleaded. In a statement released early on Wednesday, the Archbishop expressed his "regret" that the Episcopal Church had rejected his plea. "I regret the fact there is no will to observe a significant part of the moratoria," his statement declared.
As reported in The Los Angeles Times, even some who support moves toward the normalization of homosexuality and homosexual relationships saw these votes as extreme. "I am afraid we are becoming a church of a fundamentalist left," said the Rev. Kate Moorehead of St. James Episcopal Church in Wichita, Kansas.
Even more pointedly, one of the church's most insightful observers declared a virtual end to conservative and orthodox influence within the denomination. “It’s a clean sweep for the liberal agenda in the Episcopal Church,” said David Virtue. “The orthodox are finished.”
The action in Anaheim came just one month after conservatives formed the Anglican Church in North America as a conservative alternative to the Episcopal Church. The action forming a new denomination presented the Anglican Communion with a difficult decision. Traditionally, the Communion has recognized only one denomination in each country. The Communion will have to make some decision concerning which church is truly a part of its fellowship. If the Anglican Communion has the slightest concern for orthodoxy and biblical standards of ministry, the actions taken in Anaheim should make this decision much less difficult.