By Jayne Ozanne , Accepting Evangelicals
I had gone to the General Convention of The Episcopal Church at the invitation of Integrity, a pioneering LGBT organisation that was formed exactly 40 years ago (such a biblical number!) to help campaign for full inclusion and acceptance of LGBT Christians within the Episcopal Church. The chapter that had sponsored me was Integrity Houston, to whom I am eternally grateful. This meant I spent a great deal of my time with delegates from the Diocese of Texas – including their bishop, Andy Doyle. Texas is a relatively conservative diocese with quite polarised extremes at both ends of the “tradition” spectrum. I couldn’t have hoped for a more suitable group to be sponsoring me, especially given the challenges that both the Diocese of Texas and we the Synod, are currently facing.
No one will forgive me, I think, for claiming that it has been quite a week! As I touched down in Chicago I received a text from my host, an Attorney, who was keen to share the groundbreaking Supreme Court decision approving marriage equality under the US Constitution. America was therefore in festive mood and this set the tone for the rest of my weekend. The next day, I was able to witness the unopposed election of Bishop Michael Bruce Curry, Bishop of North Carolina, as the new Presiding Bishop for the Episcopal Church. No Crown Nomination Commission – just Bishops choosing from amongst their colleagues in a closed session, and then seeking the endorsement of the House of Deputies.
Presiding Bishop-Elect Curry is a truly charismatic and gracious man, with a clear commitment to inclusive evangelism. I was completely bowled over by the euphoria in the chamber on his announcement – even the bishops were whooping and cheering. A few minutes of his short acceptance speech were enough to reduce me to tears. Here is a man who brings such inspirational faith, drive and magnetism to the Church. He will be a man who, I believe, will bring great healing – across so many divides. Being the first-ever Presiding Bishop to be elected on the first ballot – with over 100 votes more than any of his rivals – he is obviously seen as “God’s man for God’s time”. An African-American with a contagious evangelical zeal and a passion for mission, he will be a commanding presence amongst the Global South primates and other evangelicals throughout the Anglican Communion – and one I pray they will heed. Bishop Curry will formally take office on 1 November after a ceremony at the National Cathedral in Washington DC. And therein lies the next lesson I learnt – “evangelical” tends to mean something quite different in the USA.
I therefore found myself doing a lot of fast tap dancing (think Richard Gere in Chicago) when first meeting people: was the fact I was heading up an LGBT organisation going to be more contentious than the fact this organisation was called “Accepting Evangelicals”? I determined not to apologise for either of these two points and instead just sidestepped the looks of unease that the news of my tribal roots created in people. Fortunately, these didn’t hold for long as after a few minutes of honest and frank discussion I could see them visibly relax – hopefully breaking stereotypes that had been formed over years. Of course the climax for me was the debate in the House of Bishops late on Monday morning regarding the legislation to enable trial use of rites for Same-Sex Marriage.
I walked in to the House of Bishops’ chamber just as The Most Rev Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori, 26th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, announced the start of the debate. I was slightly flummoxed as I was expecting the visitor gallery to be full with press and visitors, but it was treated (at this stage at least) as just another piece of business. There was a short opening debate before the bishops were asked to break into small groups around their tables to discuss it further – an interesting idea I thought, to try and bring them to one mind. The Presiding Bishop then addressed each table in turn and asked if anyone wanted to speak – a fascinating way of dealing with 160 bishops who each had differing views.
Whilst there was some obvious disagreement, my lasting impression was of a number of bishops standing up to say that although they would not be voting for the resolution, they were very grateful for “the generosity of spirit” that enabled them to have the flexibility to hold and follow a differing view to those of their colleagues. That said, as Bishop V Gene Robinson, retired Bishop of New Hampshire and the first openly gay elected bishop in the Anglican Communion, reminded the assembly, it was equally important to remember the feelings of LGBT people who have been very hurt by the Church over the years. The debate was heartfelt, open and free of the ecclesiastical speak that we often revert to in Synod. There was no theological one-upmanship – just plain, direct talking.
The legislation was eventually passed – following a debate in closed session that lasted most of the afternoon – by an overwhelming majority of 129 to 26 with five abstentions. Four bishops from my host diocese voted against it and one abstained – much to the dismay of my newfound friends, but echoing why they felt there was so much synergy between the UK and Texas (who would have thought it?). The legislation was then sent immediately to the House of Deputies for their own debate and discussion. This was scheduled for the next day, which sadly meant I missed it, given my flight arrangements. However, the lead had been set – the bishops had provided a clear steer as to what they felt God was saying, and they then passed it to the clergy and laity in the House of Deputies to either accept or reject. As history has shown, the Deputies overwhelmingly accepted it!
Despite the headline-grabbing appeal of this issue, the marriage rites proposed for use by same-gender couples may only be used with the permission of the diocesan bishop. Furthermore, any member of the clergy may decline to administer such rites. It is anticipated that some dioceses will begin to use these rites on a trial basis after Advent while others will continue in their discernment of this issue. On the evening after the vote, we gathered in the main hall for the “Integrity Eucharist” as it is affectionately known, which is a gathering to praise the glory of God and to remember the contributions of LGBT Episcopalians in the common life of the Episcopal Church. This was the first year that the group had been allowed to use the main convention hall, and there was a slight nervousness as to how many people were going to turn up. I had been promised a memorable experience whatever the numbers, and I was by no means disappointed. That said, as thousands poured into the hall I realised that this was going to be a true celebration of the Eucharist – like none other I had ever witnessed.
People came from all parts of the church both LGBT and straight – many with their children, and joined together to worship and thank God. To say I was deeply moved by it all would be a complete understatement. Perhaps it was made more poignant for me by the fact that I had felt something very heavy lift from me earlier that weekend. It was a small gesture, but one that will stay with me forever. Over lunch the previous day, a senior Church leader having just heard my story leant over the table and took my hand. With tears in his eyes he looked into mine and said: “I’m so sorry for the pain and trauma we, the Church, have caused you Jayne. Please forgive us.”
I took a few moments to reply, feeling myself welling up, and said: “Do you know, that’s the first time anyone has said that to me?” I was and am so very grateful. It was such a healing experience, and one that enables me to believe that there is still hope… and faith… and love.