Monday, May 27, 2013

Shall We Discuss the Possibility of Discussing the Use of the Rite for Same-Sex Blessings?

[Postscript on May 30:  Dear readers: Since posting this initial piece four days ago, I have progressed very far in my thinking, with your help and with some good conversations in other venues. I came to realize that the announcement actually caused fear for me, though I articulated anger in this initial post. I now believe our rector and vestry has taken the correct step. Please read the full post here along with all the comments from me and other readers to see the evolution of my thinking. I had been tempted simply to delete this post, but I've decided not to; it may be helpful to see how I have moved from anger to fear to acceptance and hope on this "hot" issue of same-sex blessings.  I now wish I had not lashed out in such anger on Sunday.  But it is what it is.] 

Welcome to Orwell’s version of Episcopal Church polity in my little parish.
In case you haven’t been following along with the Episcopal Church move toward authorizing the blessing of same-sex unions, or in case you don’t know about my own parish and diocesan situation, I’m going to bore you for a while with background information.  Eventually, I’ll get to the point about the news I learned in my parish today.
My parish is a very diverse one out in mid-Missouri.  We’re not urban, and we’re not rural.  Our county is heavily Republican, but the parish is not.  As the only Episcopal parish in a 30-mile radius, we have learned to be tolerant of all perspectives. We do a great deal of worthwhile mission and ministry.  But – it seems to me – the great diversity of polico-theological views within the parish keeps us from having the Difficult Conversations that some others in the Episcopal Church have had.  We are very polite.  It seems to me that we have a “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” ethos within the parish.  We unite around the things that unite us, and I think that is a good thing.  On the other hand, I’m not so sure it’s such a good thing that we seem to dodge the tough “political” and “social” issues that have garnered headlines in the nation and the Episcopal Church over the past decade.   
One of those is the blessing of same-sex unions.  The General Convention authorized a liturgy of same-sex blessings [SSBs] in 2012.  The rite itself is available here.  The General Convention left it up to each Bishop as to whether s/he would allow SSBs in his/her diocese.  In December 2012, the Right Reverend George Wayne Smith, Bishop of Missouri, authorized the SSB rite for use in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri.  His letter, and the guidelines he established, are available here
In the interest of full disclosure, let me say I was part of the task force that worked with our bishop to develop those guidelines.  They weren’t entirely what I may have wanted, but I believed then and now that they were fair and judicious.
The guidelines require first that the clergy must support the move before “beginning a process of discernment in the congregation” and must notify the bishop that the congregation is entering the process of discernment about whether to perform SSB liturgies in the congregation.
Second, the guidelines require that the parish “will undertake a season of prayer and study, including as many parishioners as possible in this process, and taking into account especially whatever theological and social diversity there may be. That is, this process should be thoroughly inclusive.”
Our diocesan guidelines go on to outline what study/discernment resources might be helpful and the requirements for a vote by the vestry. 
You can read the rest of the requirements on our diocesan website.
I believe that is all well and good. 
OK.  That’s all background for you who have been following the developments in TEC and/or the Diocese of Missouri.  Now I get to the point.
After all the other routine notices/announcements today, our priest went to the lectern.  She gave a brief version of what I’ve said above.  I thought something BIG must be coming.  What she then announced is that a subcommittee of our vestry has been created and will hold “listening sessions” to determine whether our parish will begin the process of discernment to consider whether to allow same-sex blessings in our parish. 
Listen to that again: Our vestry is going to hold listening sessions not about whether we will hold SSBs in our parish, but about whether we will even discuss that prospect.
It would be too dramatic to say I was devastated.  But I certainly was disappointed. 
The diocesan guidelines envisioned that the clergy and vestry would choose to allow the conversation (or not), then it would move forward (or not).  Nowhere did the diocesan guidelines suggest a parish should hold a plebiscite about whether even to begin the conversation. The guidelines envisioned that the clergy and vestry would decide whether to begin the conversation. 
But my parish is going to have “listening sessions” to decide whether or not we should even begin the conversation.
Am I angry?  Yes, I am. 
Back in the early 1960s, our parish was in the process of calling a new rector.  Our parish was integrated, but all the black people were forced to sit in the back of the nave.  The priest whom they wanted to hire said he would come only on condition that that de facto segregation would end immediately.  The vestry agreed, the priest came here as rector, the parish was truly integrated, and that priest became one of the driving forces in integrating the downtown businesses. What a brave priest he was!  And how brave the vestry was!  
But what did I hear today?  My parish leadership is going to launch a conversation about whether we will even allow that conversation to take place.  We’re going to talk about whether we shall even talk about allowing same-sex blessings.  That seems a bit Orwellian to me. 
Let’s roll back the clock about 50 years.  Let’s say the vestry appointed a “listening committee” to decide whether to discuss the issue of racism in our parish.  Let’s say we talked about whether to discuss the injustice of telling African-Americans they had to sit in the back of the nave.  Would that not have been a profound injustice and a total failure of nerve on the part of our clergy and vestry?  I think it would have.  Fortunately, back then, there was a priest who said “THIS SHALL NOT STAND!”  He made it clear he would not come here while such injustice prevailed.
Our diocesan guidelines do not let a priest and vestry to take such a unilateral action today on the issue of same-sex blessings, and I understand that.  The guidelines require that the clergy support entering into conversation and that the vestry lead the conversation within the parish.
Instead, our parish is taking an even more backward, tentative step: They are going to ask the whether the conversation is even allowed to happen. Our bishop has not asked parishes to take that weenie step.  The guidelines assume that clergy and vestries would decide whether to launch the conversation.
Despite my anger and disappointment, I take this solace: Our parish under our current rector has a very good track record of having very productive and open “listening sessions.”  We took a very long time to talk about reconfiguring our worship space, and it came out very well, with all voices being heard.  The rector and vestry were highly attentive to all the voices from the parish.
If our vestry had followed the diocesan guidelines … If they had decided whether or not to begin the conversation about SSBs … I would be content. But they did not. Instead, they have decided to have a parish “vote” about whether we will even begin the conversation about SSBs.  And that makes me angry.  It won’t surprise me a bit if the parish decides the whole topic is just too divisive and therefore they don’t want to talk about it. After all, we’re a happy parish that ignores its differences.  Why introduce such a difficult topic of conversation? 
So we’re not going to have a conversation about same-sex blessings in my parish.  At least not yet.  Instead, we’re going to decide whether we’re even going to discuss the possibility of talking about SSBs.  No matter how that conversation ends, I am heartsick that our parish leadership has chosen this route.
African-Americans, you want equal treatment?  Let’s talk about whether we should discuss your appeal.  …  Women, you want equal treatment?  Let’s talk about whether we should discuss your appeal.  … Faithful gay men and lesbians, you want your covenants blessed in your Episcopal parish?  Let’s talk about whether we want to have that conversation in our comfy “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” parish. 
Even before the first “listening session” has convened, I am profoundly disappointed.  Dear parishioners: Would you want to have listening sessions about whether to consider your status in this parish?

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