Episcopal convention returns sexuality discussion to local groups

July 21, 1991|By James L. Franklin | James L. Franklin,Boston Globe

PHOENIX -- Shaken by a debate that raised fundamental questions about how it is governed and its basic beliefs, the Episcopal Church ended its convention yesterday by sending further discussion of sexuality to local parishes and dioceses.

The nearly 1,100 bishops, clergy and lay deputies who make up one of the largest representative church governments in the nation gave their overwhelming support Friday to a compromise on the main sexuality issue.

The compromise, which church leaders said was important to keeping members in the 2.4 million-member denomination, restates in part traditional beliefs about sex within marriage.

"General convention affirms that the teaching of the Episcopal Church is that physical sexual expression is appropriate only within the lifelong, monogamous 'union of husband and wife in the heart, body and mind intended by God for their mutual joy, for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity, and when it is God's will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge of love of the Lord,' " the resolution said, citing words from the marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer.

But to accommodate those who believe the church must be more inclusive of homosexuals and others who question the traditional teaching on sexuality, the resolution promised that the church would seek "to reconcile the discontinuity between this teaching and the experience of many members of this body."

The resolution cited the 70th General Convention's "failure to lead and to resolve this discontinuity through legislative efforts."

It commissioned bishops and deputies from each diocese to initiate a sexuality study to include all parishes and directed the House of Bishops to develop "a pastoral teaching" before the church's 1994 General Convention. That teaching is to be based on the results of the parish-level study, with advice from theologians, ethicists and social scientists.

Bishop David E. Johnson of Massachusetts, who first outlined the compromise idea to bishops before the convention, said later he will not change his policy of refusing to ordain non-celibate homosexuals.

Governance proved to be a major issue at the convention. There was disagreement over whether resolutions adopted by the national church are binding, who could enforce them and whether it is wise to solve doctrinal questions by legislative action.

The fragility of the peace was evident a few hours after the basic compromise was reached as the House of Bishops debated measure calling for the censure of two bishops who had recently ordained non-celibate homosexual clergy, but bishops on both sides agreed that the question centered on how the church's government should work on more than the issue of homosexuality.

"We're at the edge of a constitutional crisis in our ability to determine what binds and what does not," said Bishop C. Cabell Tennis of Delaware, who supported the censure motion.

The bishops defeated the censure motion, postponing study of the gay ordination question for a later meeting.

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