Pictured: Fr. Rod Reinhart, member of the board of Integrity Northern Illinois, with Bishop Gene Robinson at General Convention. Photo courtesy of Reinhart
From coast to coast, their parishes carry a sign: "The Episcopal church welcomes you." And yet, some among the gay faithful have felt that greeting included an invisible asterisk: "Unless you are a gay or lesbian couple" who wants to be fully included in parish life of the church.
Not anymore, according to the Rev. Susan Russell of All Saints Church in Pasadena, Calif. "We feel the asterisk has been erased," she said, referring to one resolution adopted last week in Anaheim, Calif. where the Episcopal Church met in the general convention.
Russell is president of the organization Integrity, the denomination's national gay and lesbian caucus, and an LGBT advocacy group.
There were, in fact, two resolutions approved by the Episcopalian gathering. The first allows for the consecration of openly lesbian and gay bishops. The second measure authorizes bishops to bless same-sex unions.
"What's significant about what happened at the Episcopal General Convention is that finally we are telling the truth about who we are," Rev. Russell said, speaking from her cell phone July 17. "I am so proud to be part of a church that at this point in its life has decided truth and inclusion and justice are prevailing enough values that we are wiling to tell the truth about that even when it's a challenge to our wider Anglican family."
The 2.1-million member Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the global Anglican Communion, and numbers 77 million people.
The convention adopted the first resolution by a two-thirds vote margin July 14, when bishops, clergy and lay leaders decided to open "any ordained ministry" to gays and lesbians. The Most. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, supported the measure.
The ordination resolution, in effect, removes de facto moratoria on openly gay bishops. "There will no longer be any barrier to their being nominated," Rev. Russell said. Of course "Gene Robinson is not the first gay bishop. The fact of his being honest about it," that she said, "is the challenge to the communion."
At its last convention in 2006, Episcopalians adopted guidelines that effectively banned the consecration of anyone whose "manner of life" would distress fellow Anglicans.
The 2006 policy, which is now basically reversed, stemmed from a church uproar in 2003 when an openly gay and partnered priest, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, became bishop of New Hampshire.
His consecration nearly brought the Anglican Communion to a schism.
Some bishops have bolted the Episcopal Church to form the Anglican Communion of North America, which is in effect a rival church. Overseas, some conservative Anglican leaders, mainly in Africa, cut ties with the U. S. denomination.
Concerns over unity linger—so much so that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the global communion's spiritual leader, voiced apprehension in Anaheim about decisions "that could push us further apart."
Afterwards, Robinson said, "This is the Church I've been telling my gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters to come to, or to come back to." Continuing on his blog, he said, "This is a day to rejoice in the Episcopal Church, which once again has stood for the full inclusion of all," referring to the ordination resolution.
The second resolution, also approved in convention, heralds even more inclusion—and sensitive pastoral ministry—by opening the door to blessing same-sex couples. The resolution calls for bishops to "collect and develop theological and liturgical resources'' on same-sex unions to report to the next convention. Eventually, the church may even consider creating a standard liturgy for same-sex unions, including a rite for same-sex marriage in the Episcopalian's Book of Common Prayer.
But for now, the blessing resolution "provides an official, very broad local option for bishops to allow blessing for civil marriage, for civil unions, and for domestic partnerships," explained Rev. Russell. Calling out all three of those categories, she said, enables "the Episcopal Church to respond pastorally to the people in our pews who are coming to us—or the people outside the church for that matter, looking for God's blessing on their relationship. It's huge step forward."
Bishop Jeffrey Lee of Chicago voted for the resolution.
Altogether, the twin Episcopal resolutions may bode well for a fuller LGBT inclusion in other faith traditions. "These actions could show other denominations that progress can be made without destroying the church," Harry Knox told the Associated Press, sounding a positive tone. Knox serves as religion and faith director for the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay-rights group.
In releasing a statement, the church advocacy group Integrity expressed satisfaction: "Thirty three years after promising a 'full and equal claim' to the gay and lesbian baptized, the Episcopal Church has affirmed equal access to ordination processes for all orders of ministry for all the baptized, has approved a broad local option for the blessings of our relationships, and has called the church to work together toward common liturgical expressions of those blessings. It is a great day for the church and a greater day for the witness to God's inclusive love."