Wednesday, April 14, 2010

James Baker in News from the Hill

April 14, 2010

The spring issue of News from the Hill, an occasional publication of the Virginia Theological Seminary includes an article by the former Secretary of State, James A. Baker III. He makes it clear that he claims no expertise in the polity of the Episcopal Church of which he is a member. He sees the sexuality debate in our church as one in which there is not likely to be any resolution in the near term and that an outcome where one side is seen to ‘win’ and another to ‘lose’ as unnecessarily costly. He wants us to do what I thought we were doing which is to express respect for the good faith of the point of view of those with whom we disagree and not ‘squabble over assets’. He suggests that each parish be allowed to vote on what position it wishes to take on the position it would take on” issues of sexuality”. He then proposes what sort of mechanisms would be needed for parishes to change their minds, how often votes could come up and so on. All parishes would be deemed to be in good standing in the Episcopal Church.

He does not address exactly how those who disagree with their bishop’s decision on the matter would act but I presume they would accept the ‘good faith’ of their bishop as well. He does want no more consecrations of lesbian or gay people as bishops until the necessary canonical changes are in place.

If I understand him correctly he is proposing some kind of ‘local option’ (a term he uses) based on the votes of individual parishioners in individual parishes.

I am not entirely clear what it is that would be accomplished by this plan that is not in place already. It seems to me that it is very clear that no one is being required to support the blessing of same sex unions and certainly no clergy are being required to officiate at them. The most common arrangements seem to involve some kind of ’customary’ approved by the bishop and/or a requirement that clergy have vestry support prior to proceeding. Certainly those kinds of arrangements could be strengthened if that would achieve the desired goal.

What else would be the desired outcome of such a plan? It might be that congregants want to be able to tie the hands of their clergy. That is tricky to achieve in our polity although agreements forged at the time of hire can have a similar effect. It could be that a desire is for bishops to respect parishes who disagree with her or his position on theses matters and vice versa. Is that not happening already on the part of bishops? Clearly there are clergy and congregations who want their bishops to be pure and in line with their own thinking. Will those people be satisfied by such a plan or should we assume that they have already departed this branch of Christ’s Church?

Mr. Baker’s plan would be a concrete, outward and visible expression of the idea that the Episcopal Church is broad enough to “include within it people who hold divergent views on a variety of issues including the ordination of openly gay clergy and the blessing of same sex unions”. I believe that is already the case and has been the case for some time. I don’t have any problem with clear statements to that effect. What has changed is that the majority opinion of the Church leadership expressed in various conciliar forms has shifted. I wonder if the proposal is an attempt to suggest that the leadership are ‘out of touch’ with people in the pews. If that is the desire then the proposal has the effect of pursuing a more explicit congregational polity in order to ‘rein in’ the leadership rather than expecting the leadership to preach and teach in a persuasive way such that those charged with leading the church at various levels (vestries, councils conventions and the like) can make informed decisions.

I find myself wondering what the proposal that we all ‘agree to differ’ would achieve and why that is not where we are and have been for a long time. What it won’t do is help people who do not like the current direction of the Episcopal Church either o come to terms with it or change it as best I can see. Or am I missing something?

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