By Mary Frances Schjonberg
June 03, 2009
[Episcopal News Service] A group formed by Episcopal Church bishops to study the theology of same-gender relationships has begun its work, but the chair of the committee that appointed the panel refuses at least for now to identify its members, a decision that critics say is insulting and lacking in transparency.
"It has always been the committee's intention to publish the names of the panel when the work has reached the appropriate stage," Diocese of Alabama Bishop Henry Parsley, chair of the House of Bishops Theology Committee, said in a statement June 3. "We believe that for a season the work can best be accomplished by allowing the panel to work in confidence. This supports the full collegiality and academic freedom of the theologians and provides the space they need for the deep dialogue and reflection that is taking place among them."
Parsley made the statement the day after two advocacy groups called for the theology committee to make the names public and to explain why more study of the issue was needed.
While the study is mentioned in one paragraph of the House of Bishops Theology Committee's report to the 76th General Convention, the names of the "diverse and balanced panel of theologians" the report says have been appointed to the sub-committee are not included.
The committee's report says the House of Bishop requested the study, which is described as "designed to reflect a full spectrum of views and to be a contribution to the Listening Process of the Anglican Communion, as well as to the discussion of this subject in our province." The report calls the study "a long-term, multi-step project" designed to be completed in 2011.
The Rev. Susan Russell, president of Integrity USA, said in a June 2 statement that keeping the names of the theologians secret was "the height of absurdity and insult." She said that the secrecy makes the project "suspect, disingenuous and dishonest."
The Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers, co-convener of the Chicago Consultation, said June 2 that her organization was "saddened that the House of Bishops Theology Committee has chosen to begin this important scholarly work without making public the names of the bishops, theologians and scholars who are serving on this panel."
Parsley said in his statement that he wanted to "assure those concerned that the panel very intentionally represents a robust range of views on the subject and includes gay and lesbian persons."
The project, he said, "is designed to articulate theologically a full range of views on the matter of same sex relationships in the church's life and to foster better understanding and respectful discernment among us.
"We wish to invite any member of the church who wishes to address the panel to send comments to the Theology Committee," he continued. "We will see that these are communicated to the theologians to enrich their reflection and dialogue."
Parsley said those comments should be sent to him at email@example.com.
Russell said that a secret study "sends a horrific message to gay and lesbian people -- both inside and outside the church" and is "utterly contrary to our baptismal promise to respect the dignity of every human being.
"A 'closeted' sub-committee studying same-sex unions seems too bizarre a thing to even make it into a Monty Python episode, much less be a course intentionally taken by a church that committed to full and equal claim for its gay and lesbian baptized 33 years ago," Russell said.
Her statement noted Resolution A167 from the 2006 meeting of General Convention, which reiterated the church's 1997 apology to "its members who are gay or lesbian, and to lesbians and gay men outside the Church, for years of rejection and maltreatment by the Church."
Meyers said in her statement that "the theological study of human sexuality is essential to our common life, to our mission and evangelism, and to our ability to live out our baptismal promises" and "deserves to be no less than a model of the transparent governance that the Episcopal Church has upheld for centuries."
Commending the committee for continuing the effort to study the issues of human sexuality in the life of the church, Meyers noted three of four official Episcopal Church studies in 1994, 1997, 2000 and 2003 involved the House of Bishops Theology Committee. Those studies include:
- the House of Bishops' 1994 "Continuing the Dialogue: a Pastoral Study Document of the House of Bishops to the Church as the Church Considers Issues of Human Sexuality";
- "The Blessing of Same-Sex Relationships" report of the Standing Liturgical Commission with the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops to the 72nd General Convention in 1997;
- the liturgical commission's report to the 2000 General Convention titled "Theological Aspects of Committed Relationships of Same-Sex Couples"; and
- the House of Bishops Theology Committee's 2003 report "The Gift of Sexuality: A Theological Perspective".
Meyers suggested that further study ought to "be enriched by common prayer" and thus called General Convention to establish a rite for the blessing of unions across the Episcopal Church. At least four resolutions to that effect have already been submitted to the convention, as well as one calling for a study of the theological dimensions of Christian marriage.
Meyers said her group was committed to praying for the members of the sub-committee "by name and to providing our assistance as they continue their work."
In addition to Parsley, the members of the theology committee during the 2007-2009 triennium were Diocese of Puerto Rico Bishop David A. Alvarez; Diocese of Tennessee Bishop John C. Bauerschmidt; Diocese of Nebraska Bishop Joe G. Burnett; Ellen T. Charry, associate professor of systematic and historical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary; the Rev. Dr. Sathianathan Clarke, theology professor at Wesley Theological Seminary; Stephen E. Fowl, chair of the theology department at Loyola University in Maryland; the Rev. Dr. A. Katherine Grieb, professor of New Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary; retired Diocese of Maryland Bishop Robert W. Ihloff; Charles T. Mathewes, associate professor of religious ethics and the history of Christian thought at the University of Virginia; Dr. Joy A. McDougall, associate professor of systematic theology at Candler School of Theology; Diocese of Milwaukee Bishop Steven A. Miller; and Dr. Kathryn Tanner, professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.