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Sexuality discussions bring Lambeth bishops to frank conversation

By Mary FrancesSchjonberg, July 31 2008, Episcopal Life Online

[Episcopal News Service, Canterbury] Conversation marked by tears and apologies, hand holding and embracing, was the order of the day July 31 as bishops attending the Lambeth Conference formally addressed a portion of the Anglican Communion’s debate on human sexuality.

The pervading sense was that the mood at the current conference was "dramatically different" from the tone of sexuality discussions at the 1998 Lambeth Conference during which "people were distressed at some of the reactions to some of the things that were said," said Archbishop Phillip Aspinall of Brisbane, the primate of Australia and principal spokesman for the bishops. He recalled that in 1998 "there were occasions when bishops actually booed and hissed what other bishops said in the gathering."

Aspinall said that his indaba group (a collection of 40 bishops from five Bible study groups who have been meeting together since the beginning of the conference) contained the "same degree of difference in the views held by the bishops but at the end of the indaba group, bishops from different ends of the spectrum on the issues actually embraced each other and thanked each other for helping them understand better what was at stake in these issues."

"Now, we haven’t waved a magic wand … and gotten answers, but I think that is a very significant step forward," he said.

Two questions were suggested to bishops for consideration during the morning’s meeting. One centered on how the debate on homosexuality and the divisions it has caused in the communion affects the bishops’ mission efforts in their contexts. The second asked what bishops needed from each other — and are able to give each other — to help each other be leaders in their dioceses’ mission.

The questions posed to the bishops did not involve a reconsideration of 1998 Lambeth Resolution 1.10, which Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said in the day’s introductory video shown to bishops after the morning Eucharist is "where the vast majority of the communion still stands." Instead, he encouraged the bishops to deal with what he called "the unfinished business" of the resolution, which he described as being "about how we engaged sensitively with each other in our different readings of scripture and our pastoral approaches to people with gay and lesbian lifestyles."

The Rev. Canon Philip Groves, the facilitator for the Anglican Communion’s Listening Process, told ENS that the goal of the day was for the bishops to have "safe space" in which "to genuinely talk and share what’s on their heart" and "genuinely sharing in one another’s dilemmas and struggles."

At the beginning of the day’s discussions, the bishops also watched a 10-minute film of people from all over the communion answering the first question from their perspective. About a third of the film’s audio was played for reporters. In that segment, among the opinions expressed were that homosexuality is an abnormality according to the creation story in Genesis, that "these people are also human," and that "the marginalized of the most marginalized are welcome in the kingdom of God."

Williams encouraged the bishops to "go deep," saying "we need to look at what we believe about human nature, human relationships and about God, God’s nature [and] God’s relationship with us."

"And we need dispassion, not in the sense of being cold and analytical about it but actually trying to see the question whole; not letting our emotions, our prejudices immediately dictate not only a conclusion, but also an attitude towards other people," he added.

Church of the Province of the Indian Ocean Archbishop Ian Ernest agreed. Speaking as a member of the so-called Global South, Ernest said "we have expressed our convictions clearly, but with generosity and with respect of the other, and we have listened carefully — attentively — to the challenges of our bishops living in other contexts."

After he had spoken "with passion for my own convictions," Ernest, who is Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola’s successor as chair of the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa, said, "a bishop from the Episcopal Church stood up and spoke about his own context, and then we held hands and said ‘we’ve got to journey together.’"

"The conversation cannot stop on Monday," Ernest said. "It’s got to continue."

The archbishop also told reporters that his indaba group expanded its discussion beyond homosexuality to polygamy and the "intense sexual activity among our young adults" that he sees in his context. "The whole scope of human sexuality has got to be enlarged," he said.

"In the process that has been given to us, we are able to look at one another," he said. "We are able to shed tears with one another."

Diocese of Toronto Bishop Colin Johnson said that as his indaba group discussed human sexuality for the last two days, "we spoke very personally."

Asked if he thought any bishops had changed their minds after the day’s discussion, Johnson said "some people have nuanced their positions."

Speaking to reporters at the daily Episcopal Church news briefing, Diocese of North Dakota Bishop Michael Smith said the conversation in his indaba group was "respectful and heart-felt," while Diocese of Maine Bishop Chilton Knudsen called the conversation in her group "deep and tender."

Los Angeles Bishop Jon Bruno said that the bishops in his group talked about having to move "past holding one another at bay, moving toward relationship with one another and doing mission work with one another."

Bruno, saying he had some anxiety about being in such a process given his leanings to the "left side of the church," told reporters that he stated his stance truthfully and felt listened to. "There were apologies back and forth for things that have been said and done in the past, and I think we moved forward in a sense of abundance rather than a sense of meagerness."

Smith said some people had felt "anxious that there won’t be a definitive decision made at this conference" around the divisions caused by the human sexuality debate. He said he wants "the healing of the communion and whatever that takes I think we have to be patient with this."

"I tend to trust the process that the Windsor Report has laid out for us as the road map for reconciliation," he said.

 

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for Episcopal Church governance, structure, and trends.


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