Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland
The First Sunday of Lent 2007
This has been one heck of a week for the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion. On Monday evening, the Primates (that is, the Presiding Bishops and Archbishops of the thirty-eight provinces or churches of the Anglican Communion), gathering in Tanzania, issued a communiqué, which was signed by our Presiding Bishop, requesting that the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops "make an unequivocal common covenant" that they will not authorize same-gender blessings within their dioceses and confirm that Resolution B033, passed at the 75th General Convention, means that a candidate for bishop who is living in a same-gender relationship "shall not receive the necessary consent unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the Communion."1
In other words, the Primates of the Anglican Communion have said explicitly that the church should not officially bless the relationships of gay and lesbian people, and that gay and lesbian clergy living in same-gender relationships should not become bishops until there is a new communion-wide consensus on this issue. They expect a response from the House of Bishops by September 30, 2007.
On Shrove Tuesday, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori offered her own reflections, suggesting the communiqué calls upon the Episcopal Church to enter "a season of fasting - from authorizing rites for blessing same-sex unions and consecrating bishops in such unions on the one hand, and from transgressing traditional diocesan boundaries on the other..." disciplining itself "for the sake of the greater whole."2
Beginning on Ash Wednesday and continuing throughout the week, leaders of the Episcopal Church have started weighing in and expressing opinions on this action. This is no small matter. Rather, it goes to the heart of what it means to be the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church, and people of God gathered in the name of Jesus. As our own bishop, the Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, wrote to the Diocese of Ohio, these requests "may compromise the integrity of our or any other province of the Church and its witness to the culture and society it serves."3
Obviously, as an openly gay Episcopal priest living in a faithful relationship, this ultimatum and its implications hit home. Not only does it speak to my own life and ministry, but it has deeper, more frightening global dimensions as it is coming from some primates who also endorse, condone, and/or benignly accept the criminalization of homosexuality in their countries: nations where same-gender sexual expression is punishable by imprisonment, beating, and even execution. Friends, we are talking about fundamental human rights and civil liberties.
There is no question that the world is not in agreement about homosexuality, and if one looks at a map of the world according to acceptance or criminalization, one will see a real difference between the industrialized nations of the north and the developing world of the southern hemisphere. As the Rt. Rev. John Chane, Bishop of Washington, said, "Christians throughout the world are born into cultures that persecute, stigmatize and deny the dignity of God's gay and lesbian children. We marginalize them, make them scapegoats and refuse their manifold gifts. The Episcopal Church is as guilty of these offenses as any other, and in recognizing this we have begun a journey of repentance."4
At issue is not just the question of homosexuality, but also that of church polity or governance. In throwing down a gantlet to the Episcopal Church, the Primates of the Anglican Communion have asked our bishops to do something that they don't have the authority to do. Our church, like our nation, has a governance structure that calls for representative voice from bishops, clergy and laity, alike.
As Bonnie Anderson, President of the House of Deputies (one of the two legislative houses in the General Convention), said in her response to the Communiqué, "The polity of the Episcopal Church is one of shared decision making among the laity, priests and deacons and bishops. The House of Bishops does not make binding, final decisions about the governance of the Church. Decisions like those requested by the Primates must be carefully considered and ultimately decided by the whole Church, all orders of ministry, together."5
The Rt. Rev. William Persell, Bishop of Chicago and my predecessor as Dean of Trinity Cathedral, said in his reflection that the Primates' demand for a response by the House of Bishops on behalf of the Episcopal Church "runs counter to our culture as an American Church, one in which the principles of freedom, democracy, conscience, compassion and equality of condition and opportunity are held to be sacrosanct and intrinsic to our identity."6
Setting ecclesiastical polity and identity aside for the moment, I want us to reflect on what is being asked of the Episcopal Church. For over thirty years, we have been wrestling with the issue of sexuality, moving slowly but surely toward the full acceptance and inclusion of our gay brothers and lesbian sisters. As a church, we have studied, discussed, and debated the subject ad nauseam, and we have witnessed the issue of homosexuality being used as a wedge issue in both secular and sacred politics. And in many places, we have agreed to disagree on this matter, living together in the tension of uncertainty and diversity within the context of community and proximity.
Here, at Trinity Cathedral, we have adopted a stance of acceptance, embrace and full inclusion of the LGBT community as evidenced by my election as your dean, by our congregation's celebration of Gene Robinson's election and consecration as a bishop, and by our vestry-adopted policy to bless committed gay and lesbian relationships. The cathedral congregation has grown and thrived not in spite of, but as a result of, our radical hospitality, welcome and inclusion of all God's people.
Although I know that some of you are offended when I take a political stand in the pulpit, my conscience, my faith and my own life will not allow me to remain silent about what is happening in our church. The matter before us resides at the heart of the gospel, especially in the reading appointed for this first Sunday in Lent where we are led by the Spirit to accompany Jesus in the wilderness of temptation. For me, the temptation to keep silent out of fear is powerful, and I will not succumb to it.
Temptation is a fact of life. We all are tempted, each and every day, in big and little ways. When we're dieting, we are tempted by food and drink. When we face a difficult, unpleasant or painful task, we often procrastinate, giving into the temptation of avoidance. This time of the year, lots of us are tempted to cheat (just a little) on our taxes, perhaps rationalizing our motives as somewhat political and righteous. Many of us are tempted to dismiss information that will complicate or inconvenience our lives; others are tempted to accept easy answers to complex questions; and most of us succumb to the temptation of telling little lies when it's easier than speaking the truth. Temptation is a reality of our human existence.
Jesus understood temptation. In his journey to the wilderness, a vision quest of sorts, Jesus faced temptations that were specific to his vocation but applicable for us today. They were not overtly evil, but they were not of God. They were what I like to call, the fast food of faith.
The first temptation - turn stone into bread - was literally about fast food. It was a temptation of convenience. Provide a hungry world with a full dinner pail and the masses will follow you anywhere. But Jesus rejected it. He realized that he was called to fill a deeper hunger for justice and restoration - to teach people how to fish instead of just giving them fish.
The second temptation - worship Satan in exchange for rule over all the kingdoms of the world - was about "absolute power [that] corrupts absolutely." Jesus knew that he could not win over the world for God through absolute control, especially if it meant succumbing to evil. At first glance, we say, "Of course, Jesus rejected this offer to make a pact with the devil." It was so obvious. However, if we think about this temptation in our own lives - if we consider the deals we've cut for power, the trade-offs we've made for advancement, the compromises we've agreed upon for the sake of collegiality - then it's not so simple. That's the challenge. Evil is often very subtle, and maintaining one's integrity in its face is never easy. Sometimes we even acquiesce to evil when we're trying to do well.
The third temptation - jump off the highest pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and be saved - is about magic, coercion and conversion through pyrotechnics. It's what we often see in television evangelism ministry. It's the gimmicks, entertainment, and promised miracles of big time religion.
In the end, all of these temptations involved taking the easy way out, a form of spiritual laziness and complicity. How did Jesus resist all these temptations? He didn't just say "no." He understood why he was saying "no." Jesus resisted the temptation of convenience, absolute power, and magic with his heart, soul, might and mind, digging deep into the roots of his Jewish faith, his spiritual ancestors, and his sacred story. With these resources, Jesus was able to stand firm and faithful against the temptations of his wilderness journey, as well as those during the rest of his earthly ministry.
What do these temptations have to say to us on this first Sunday in Lent? Obviously, they speak to each of us in our own individual ways as we face our own daily temptations. But on this particular first Sunday of the Lenten season, Luke's gospel reading might inform the Episcopal Church with how to respond to the Primates' ultimatum.
It would be tempting for the sake of unity to set aside the full inclusion and acceptance of a minority community within our church. It would be tempting to sacrifice this minority for the sake of united global partnerships. It would be tempting to say we're not going to move forward until everybody is united in agreement. But unity is an ideal of God - something to aim for - something that might not be achieved in our earthly realm? So what do we do in the meantime?
A number of bishops in the Episcopal Church have offered wisdom for the moment that I want to pass on to you today. Bishop Hollingsworth invites us to "resist the distractions of self-focus and self-service offered by the power of evil that takes our attention off God's mission to reconcile all people to God and one another in Christ...to walk forward together, respecting and protecting the other, whoever she may be..."7
The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, the Dean of Episcopal Divinity School (who preached here last year) challenges us to "not change our devotion to doing what we believe is right.... to not delay justice for the sake of making our lives easier...to not deny a truth that we are certain is from God.... to not play politics with human lives."8
The Rt. Rev. Mark Sisk, Bishop of New York has spoken of his own convictions: "Over the years I have been prepared to make certain accommodations to meet the concerns of those whose view of the Gospel promise differs somewhat from my own. I am fully aware that those accommodations have not been uncontroversial...Now, I want to make it abundantly clear that I am not in the least prepared to make any concession that strikes at the heart of my conviction that gay and lesbian people are God's beloved children. They are we. Our witness to the Gospel would be unthinkably deformed if by some tragic misjudgment we willingly submitted ourselves to vivisection. We are one body in Christ."9
With these perspectives in mind - "being one body in Christ," "refusing to delay justice for the sake of an easier life," and "respecting and protecting the other" - I offer for our consideration the words of the prophet Isaiah appointed for reading on Ash Wednesday. "Is this not the fast that I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?" (Isaiah 58:6)
If we are going to fast for a season, as our Presiding Bishop suggests in her reflections on the Primates Communiqué, then let us fast as a entire church. If we are conflicted about the appropriateness of gay and lesbian persons for the episcopacy, then let us refrain from electing any bishops until we have sorted out this issue. If we are in disagreement about the blessing of same-gender relationships, then let us refrain from pronouncing blessing on any relationship, including marriage, until we have come to some consensus.
As the Rt. Rev. Andrew Smith, Bishop of Connecticut said, "If we accept gay and lesbian people as full partners in our church, we have to be consistent on matters of marriage and clergy. We can't advocate two classes of church citizenship: one for heterosexuals, one for homosexuals. Church unity is important, but you can't compromise on basic principles of conscience."10
I do not believe that God is calling us to fast from electing and consecrating openly gay and lesbian people to the episcopacy or from developing rites for the blessing faithful gay and lesbian relationships. I believe that God is calling us in the words of Isaiah "to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, (Isaiah 58:6). I believe that God is calling us to fast collectively as the Body of Christ by proclaiming in word and action the full acceptance, inclusion and blessing of all God's people in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion.
I can think of no better way to end this sermon on the first Sunday of Lent than with the clear and prophetic words of Bishop Steven Charleston:
To everything there is a season. This is our season to make a witness to justice... Millions of our GLBT brothers and sisters around the world, both those who can speak openly of their lives and those who must hide for fear of their lives, deserve our visible and unequivocal support.
Enough is enough. It is time to make our intentions clear, come what may... This church is either truly open to all, or it is closed to the Spirit. We either stand for what we know is just and embrace our GLBT members, or we stand aside as justice is denied. There is no easy way out of this choice. There is only a gospel way forward...If the Anglican Communion must separate over this fundamental issue of human rights, then so be it. To everything there is a season. Perhaps this is the season for the growth of the gospel in truth and in love in ways that we could never have imagined.11
Let this be so. Amen!
1 Episcopal News Service, 2/19/07
2 The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, 2/20/07
3 The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, 2/23/07
4 The Rt. Rev. John Chane, 2/22/07
5 Ms. Bonnie Anderson, 2/23/07
6 The Rt. Rev. William Persell, 2/22/07
7 The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, 2/23/07
8 The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, 2/21/07
9 The Rt. Rev. Mark Sisk, 2/21/07
10 The Rt. Rev. Andrew Smith, 2/21/07
11 The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, Ibid.