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VT BISHOP VOICES SUPPORT FOR SAME-SEX UNIONS

From The Bennington Banner, Oct. 2, 2007

By Mark E. Rondeau

BENNINGTON — The leader of Episcopalians in Vermont stands by his church's progressive treament of gay and lesbian couples in Vermont, despite opposition from conservatives in his denomination and an ambiguous national policy on the blessing of same-sex unions.

Thomas C. Ely, the Episcopal bishop of Vermont, played an active role in the recent meeting of the Episcopal House of Bishops that answered a communiqué by the Anglican Communion objecting to policies regarding gays and lesbians in the American church.

"Our church, the Episcopal Church, has continually spoken out and been an advocate for the civil rights of gay and lesbian persons in our culture, and certainly here in Vermont that's key to our mission and ministry," Ely said Sunday, during an interview at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Bennington, where he took part in the Cornerstone Centennial Celebration.

The Episcopal Church in the U.S. is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, a fellowship of churches that trace their roots back to the Church of England. Over the past several decades, homosexuality has become a divisive issue, particularly with the election in 2003 of Eugene
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Robinson, a gay man in a relationship, to become bishop of New Hampshire. In addition, some Episcopal dioceses — including the Diocese of Vermont — permit the blessing of same-sex couples as a pastoral decision by clergy.

For their part, the U.S. bishops object to the recent practice of foreign bishops interefering in their jurisdiction by ordaining conservative Americans to minister to conservative U.S. congregations that have broken away from the Episcopal Church.

In a February meeting in Tanzania, the group of primates, or archbishops, who lead the provinces of the Anglican Communion, said they believe "that the Episcopal Church has departed from the standard of teaching on human sexuality accepted by the Communion ... by consenting to the episcopal election of a candidate living in a committed same-sex relationship, and by permitting Rites of Blessing for same-sex unions. The episcopal ministry of a person living in a same-sex relationship is not acceptable to the majority of the Communion."

The Episcopal House of Bishops met in New Orleans in late September. Also attending was Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Anglican spiritual leader.

In a voice vote the Episcopal bishops approved a finely crafted and diplomatic answer to the Tanzania statement, basically affirming the status quo while promising no radical changes in policy toward gays and lesbians.

In their statement, the American bishops reconfirmed an earlier meeting's decision "to exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on the communion."

They also pledged as a body not to authorize public rites for the blessing of same-sex unions.

Blessings continue

In a Sept. 29 statement after the meeting, Ely wrote, "We acknowledged as well that 'the majority of bishops make no allowance for the blessing of same-sex unions.' Of course that means some bishops do. I am one who makes allowance for such blessings, and I intend to continue the current pastoral approach we have in place in the Diocese of Vermont for the blessing of holy unions. This was clearly addressed and understood in the House of Bishops.

"We in the Diocese of Vermont have not authorized any public rites for the blessing of same-sex unions. That is the work of General Convention, and I long for the day when the Episcopal Church adopts a public rite for the blessing of same-sex unions," Ely added. "During our discussion in New Orleans, I made it clear to my colleagues that our pastoral care of lesbian and gay couples is important to our common life in the Diocese of Vermont."

The Episcopal bishops in New Orleans called for the "unequivocal and active commitment to the civil rights, safety and dignity of gay and lesbian persons." They also called for an end to incursions into American dioceses by uninvited foreign bishops.

"We tried to craft a response to those Anglican Communion partners that addressed what we heard as the concerns that they were raising, and also that gave us an opportunity to address some of the concerns that we have with regard to incursions into our dioceses by bishops from other dioceses who come uninvited and those sorts of things," Ely said Sunday. "So the crafting of that resolution, that response, was meant to ... do our best to respond to some issues that were raised and also to say some things about what we're concerned about."

Some people don't fully understand how the Episcopal Church is governed, and feel that groups of bishops can unilaterally change things. Rather, it is the Episcopal General Convention that makes final decisions for the church, he said.

"Sometimes people don't understand that we did everything we could in response to those statements. I felt we did, (with what) we could all agree to go forward with," he said.

Ely noted that Anglican theology embraces an approach known as the "via media" (Latin, for "the middle way.") In this "we understand that there's a pretty big umbrella, that comprehensiveness for the sake of truth is important, and that trying to narrow down things into black and white has never been part of the theology of Anglicans," he said. "So we live in that place of ambiguity and tension. And for those who have difficulty living in that place, our life as the Episcopal Church can seem very messy.

"But for those of us who live it, it may be a little messy, but it's not a mess that we care to change. I mean it's who we are. It's part of our identity, because we believe that the truth that the Spirit is helping us to discover is somewhere in midst of that diversity," he said. "So we value that diversity and invite the conversation, invite the dialogue."

Though he supported the response of the House of Bishops, Ely does feel there is "a discontinuity, if you read the statement from the House of Bishops, between our commitment to civil rights and to the reality that right now within out own church gay and lesbian persons are not enjoying full and equal justice and status."

"And so we live with that, which for me is a sad and unfortunate place, but being honest about it and naming it at least maybe will help us to move beyond it," he said.

St. Peter's parishioner Judy Krum offered the view of one Episcopalian in the pews.

"The press tends to latch on to the hullabaloo that has been caused by the consecration of the bishop of New Hampshire, Gene Robinson. His consecration was done according to the canons of the Episcopal Church — there's no problem with that," she said. "But what some of the larger church around the world has issue with, I think, is the idea of the inclusion of all of humanity in the church.

"And that's what Christ wanted, and he represented the inclusion of everybody in the church. And I think the Episcopal Church in general and particularly the Diocese of Vermont has been very forward-thinking, and very inclusive of everybody," Krum said. "And as a person in the pew, most of the people that I rub shoulders with in the pew are of that mind."

Is she worried that there might be a schism — a major split — in the worldwide church? "No. The church has been through so many ups and downs. It's centuries and centuries old. It has survived through all kinds of ups and downs. I don't think that this is going to be the thing that tears it apart," she said. "I think what's going to happen is that there's going to be more and more conversation and more and more relationship-building and that's the important thing, that's what brings people together and that's what the church is."

The U.S. Episcopal Church has about 2.5 million members. The worldwide Anglican Communion has 37 provinces and more than 70 million members.

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