Should Gays Serve In The Episcopal Church?

The 76th Episcopal General Convention is underway in California, where clergy will deliberate whether to bless same-sex marriages, and if an informal ban on gay bishops can be dropped. Ed Little, the Episcopalian Bishop of Northern Indiana, and the Rev. Susan Russell of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., debate gays in service to the Episcopal church.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the Barbershop guys sound off on the news of the week, including the big Michael Jackson send-off and what's next for the NAACP, which opens its annual convention tomorrow. But first, our weekly Faith Matters conversation. That's where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today, we're going to talk about how the Episcopal Church is grappling with homosexuality again, at the Episcopal General Convention. That's a meeting of the church's bishops, clergy and lay leaders to set policy, and it's now under way in Anaheim, California.

The Episcopal Church is not the country's largest denomination but historically, it has been considered among the most influential, as so many of the country's leaders have belonged to it. And like other denominations, it has been divided over the issue of whether and how non-celibate gay men and women can serve the church and whether the church can bless same sex unions. That conflict has been particularly intense since 2003, when Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, a gay man who is also in a committed relationship, was elected bishop.

In 2006, the church placed a moratorium on consecrating more gay bishops and blessing same-sex couples. But now, as more and more states permit same- sex unions, a group of clergy and lay leaders are pushing to lift that moratorium. Joining us now to talk about all this is the Reverend Susan Russell. She is a priest at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California. She is also the president of Integrity USA; that's a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization within the Episcopal Church.

Also joining us is Bishop Edward Little. He is the bishop of Northern Indiana, and he does not support the consecration of same-sex unions or the ordination of more gay bishops. And both are attending the convention in Anaheim, and we're pleased they're both able to join us from there. Welcome to you both, thank you for joining us.

Reverence SUSAN RUSSELL (Priest, All Saints Episcopal Church, Pasadena): Thank you so much for having us.

Bishop EDWARD LITTLE (Northern Indiana): Thanks for having us on the show.

MARTIN: Bishop Little, I want to start with you. It's - it's my impression that this has been a very painful issue for the church. I wonder, what is the atmosphere at the convention right now?

Bishop LITTLE: I think it's clear that this is an issue that's dominating the entire convention. There have been a couple of enormous hearings where hundreds of people have attended, and many folks have testified - and rather passionately -about their convictions about these issues. So, although there are lots of - lots of matters on the table at general convention, sexuality is probably the one with the highest valence.

MARTIN: And how do you feel about that?

Bishop LITTLE: Well, in some ways it's tragic that we are almost mono-focused on this issue, and it makes it more difficult for us to take up questions of mission, questions of how we reach up a culture which is becoming increasingly unchurched.

MARTIN: Reverent Russell, what about you? It's my understanding that you were among those who has testified to this point, is that right?

Rev. RUSSELL: I am. I've had the opportunity several times to testify at some of our open hearings, and I actually agree with Bishop Little. I think it is in many ways tragic that we continue to focus on issues of sexuality when so many other issues cry out as well for the church's attention. The good news is at this convention, is we're getting to this early. At our last general convention in Columbus, many people said we sort of waited 'til the last 48 hours to get everything done.

At this one, it feels like we're trying to get a lot done in the first 48 hours. And my deepest hope is that by the energy and attention we're placing on these issues early in our legislative agenda - we're here for 10 days - that we will be able to come to some decisions and move the church beyond these issues so we can all get on with the wider mission.

MARTIN: I understand that you are, among others, are expected to have a private meeting, if you haven't already with Archbishop - the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to talk about these issues. Has that meeting taken place? And what is his role here?

Rev. RUSSELL: There was an opportunity, actually, yesterday. Eight of our LGBT deputies had a private meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury. I was not among them but in talking to colleagues, it was a very respectful meeting. He was very open to hearing their perspective. And frankly, he has some concerns, as he should as the head of the wider Anglican Communion. He is what we call an instrumentive unity, and his focus is on trying to keep everyone together and at the table.

He indicated yesterday a preference, when he spoke to us, that we not make decisions that move this church forward, ahead of the wider communion. But as I said in a comment after that, there are also people in the communion who would probably prefer we had never put tea in the Boston Harbor. And so as Americans, we do have a history of moving ahead, perhaps, of our Church of England friends and colleagues on issues. And I think this will be one of them.

MARTIN: And I want to ask each of you about this whole question of what this issue, how the wider church is addressing this issue. Bishop, I'm going to start with you because it's my understanding, I don't know if you agree, that there are those who believe that the church has already lost thousands of members over this. A group of churches have explicitly chosen to remove themselves from the Episcopal Convention in America and put themselves under the authority of churches elsewhere, precisely over this issue.

Are you - is that your - is your primary concern that if - that this is leading to further schism? Or is your primary concern theologica - you just believe that it is wrong to consecrate same-sex unions, and it is just wrong to ordain same-gender-loving individuals, bishops who are not in celibate relations, who are not celibate?

Bishop LITTLE: Actually, both. On the one hand, theologically, the trajectory of the Christian tradition and the Scriptures is towards lifelong heterosexual union as God's ideal, as God's plan. And if there is to be any change in that, it would take up a long time for us to work through the pastoral and theological implications. But in the meantime, I think there is a clear and widespread acceptance throughout the entire Christian church and absolutely, the Anglican communion, about the meaning of marriage and its place in the Christian life.

So, that's one side. The other side is, in fact the - this issue has led to enormous division both within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Hundreds and hundreds of priests have left the church and gone to other jurisdictions; hundreds of parishes have left the Episcopal Church; four entire dioceses have removed themselves from the Episcopal Church. And countless thousands of lay persons, including in my own diocese, have left the church. And so, the losses are really, really severe.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking with two members of the Episcopal Church: Reverend Susan Russell of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, who is also the president of Integrity USA, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization within the Episcopal Church; and Northern Indiana Episcopal Bishop Edward Little. And we are talking about how the convention, which is meeting in Anaheim, California, is currently grappling with the issue of how to address same-sex marriage and members of the church in same-sex unions.

So - but Bishop, what do you say to those like - I believe that was Reverend Russell's point that says, you know, the Bible has been use as a warrant to justify slavery, to justify the mistreatment of women and children; that it is a living document and that the interpretations of it have been open to new understandings. How do you address that question?

Bishop LITTLE: Well, of course there's been an evolution in biblical teaching or understanding of the meaning of the Scripture more accurately over the years. But at the same time, I'd have to add that I think there is simply very little wiggle room, as you look at the broad sweep of scripture from Genesis to Revelation, that lifelong heterosexual marriage is part of God's plan. It's rooted in creation itself, it's a sign of Jesus' love for the church. And so I think it's important for us to have a kind of pastoral flexibility and to be able to say to gay and lesbian people, we want you to be part of the church, we want you to worship with us, we want you to seek Jesus with us.

And then somehow in the - simply in the being together, perhaps we can - we can find a way forward. But unfortunately, what we're doing now is to move forward through legislation which is simply leading to - leading to further division.

MARTIN: But is your view that through that being together that same-gender-loving individuals would change?

Bishop LITTLE: No, I'm actually not seeking that. There has never been a time in my ministry - I was ordained in 1971 - there has never been a time in my ministry when I didn't have gay and lesbian parishioners. And they have always been a wonderful part of my life. And it's not so much that I'm seeking to change them is that we simply be together and be silent in the presence of a mystery. I'm willing, in a sense to - to be - open and to be as welcoming as I possibly can. Where I have to draw the line is when I'm asked to take an action that is theological and sacramental. And so for example, in blessing a same-sex union, I go beyond pastoral welcome, and I'm actually changing the doctrine of the church. And that's a direction I can't go.

MARTIN: Revered Russell, what about that point? What do you say to those who believe that they simply cannot support this direction theologically, and that they also believe it threatens the wider unity of the church? How do you respond to that?

The Rev. RUSSELL: You know, I think those are just absolutely the questions to be asking. And the first question - you know, my response is thank God, I'm an Episcopalian, where there is actually room in this church for Ed Little and Susan Russell.

I would never, ever ask someone to act against their theological conscience, but we're a church that started in the Church of England in the 16th century and was able to hold in tension, the seemingly impossible differences of being both Catholic and Protestant in the 16th century. My position, and the position of many in the church, is if we could be Catholic and Protestant in the 16th, we can be gay and straight in the 21st.

You know, I disagree with Bishop Little, which will not come as a surprise to him, about how we interpret Scripture. There is a broad sweep from Genesis to Revelation, but I don't believe, from my perspective, that God's story is focused on marriage. It's focused on mission. It's focused on justice. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. I believe that same arc bends through our Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and at the end of the day, what matters is the theological orientation of a person, not the sexual orientation.

So I do believe there's warrant in Scripture for us to change our minds about what God's mind is, and as you noted, we've done that on a number of issues and questions over the generations. And as for the timing, I said last night - in 1976, the Episcopal Church promised full and equal claim to its gay and lesbian baptized. It was 33 years ago. Thirty-three years is the number our tradition tells us our Lord Jesus walked on Earth. Surely 33 years, the length of Jesus' earthly life, is long enough for us to wrestle with these issues. I think this is the convention we're going to make some decisions to move forward, and I'm looking forward to all of us getting on with the mission of this church.

MARTIN: Briefly, Reverend Russell; we only have about a minute left. There's been a lot of attention focused on members of the church who have left because they do not support the ordination of gay bishops and the consecration of gay unions. What about those who do, and what about members like yourself who are same-gender-loving individuals? Do you, if the moratorium is upheld, do you believe that members - that will cause other people to leave, and what about yourself?

The Rev. RUSSELL: Yeah, very briefly, you know, that was one of the things about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered members. We have never threatened to leave if we don't get our way. I think it grieves the heart of God that people have chosen another path. We want to say the door is always open for them to come back, but I really want us to start focusing on who will come, not who might leave. And some of the most compelling testimony last night was from young people - 17-, 18-, 20-year-olds - talking about wanting to evangelize in their communities of young people about their church, and that this is a blockage in some ways. I said last night in the artery of this church, we need to get this blockage out and - so we can really welcome everybody and keep the Gospel flowing.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. The Reverend Susan Russell is a priest at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California. She's the president of Integrity USA, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization within the Episcopal Church. We were also pleased to be joined by Bishop Edward Little, Bishop of Northern Indiana. And they both joined us by phone from Anaheim, California, where they are attending the Episcopal General Convention. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Bishop LITTLE: Thank you.

The Rev. RUSSELL: Delighted, thank you.

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