Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Openness in the Episcopal Church

by M. Thomas Shaw March 28, 2007
Op-ed in today's Boston Globe

THE EPISCOPAL Church's House of Bishops recent meeting in Navasota, Texas, attracted much public attention as observers waited to hear how the bishops would respond to challenges facing the Anglican Communion over the full inclusion of gays and lesbians. The debate also centered on the church's place within the larger framework of the Anglican Communion. The House of Bishops is an autonomous body within the larger Communion representing 15 sovereign nations, the United States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, The Virgin Islands, and Micronesia.

The Episcopal Church, in its deliberations, may come across to many as overly fractious as it grapples with what kind of faith community it will be in the 21st century, yet it is precisely within this tension that the best of our church is revealed.

Openness and transparency, including the airing of differences, is important to the life of faith lived in community and it is through this type of conflict and discussion that we understand how God is calling us into the future and how the church will respond to the contemporary world.

And so, in faithfulness to that tradition, the bishops approved resolutions affirming our desire to continue in the discernment process with the wider Communion about our church's place in it, but not at the expense of our polity, which is part of our church identity, and not at the expense of gay and lesbian members seeking full inclusion.

Our meeting statements validate who we are as Episcopalians and inform others of what we are not. In rejecting a proposal that would allow prelates from other parts of the Communion to oversee dissenting American parishes, we are saying that such a scheme would violate our church law and compromise our autonomy "while sacrificing the emancipation of the laity for the exclusive leadership of high-ranking bishops.

"For the first time since our separation from the papacy in the 16th century, it [the proposal] would replace the local governance of the Church by its own people with the decisions of a distant and unaccountable group of prelates."

The last point is important.

The Episcopal Church divides authority between the laity, clergy, and bishops.

Bishops from other parts of the Anglican Communion did not readily understand this structure. At the same time, the House of Bishops pledged the Episcopal Church's commitment to remain a constituent member of the Anglican Communion, continuing to engage in dialogue with our sister churches throughout the world and working to strengthen bonds that allow us to live out the Gospel in mutual mission.

Our resolutions state that membership in the Anglican Communion "gives us the great privilege and unique opportunity of sharing in the Anglican family's work of alleviating human suffering in all parts of the world. For those who are members of The Episcopal Church, we are aware as never before that our Anglican Communion partners are vital to our very integrity as Christians and our wholeness."

While public attention was channeled on the perceived differences among parts of the Anglican Communion, the bishops spent considerable time reflecting on the many global partnerships that allow us to keep our focus on God's mission, specifically on the Millennium Development Goals initiatives of the United Nations, which call upon nations to work together to alleviate poverty, suffering and disease, to ensure environmental sustainability, to eliminate discrimination, and to develop global partnerships. In our diocese, much of our work is focused in partnership with Anglican churches in Kenya and Tanzania where we fund programs that feed 7,500 AIDS orphans a week and train home-based AIDS workers who provide testing, care, and AIDS prevention.

As the Christian church prepares to celebrate the events at the heart of our salvation through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in the words of our statement, we find new hope that we can turn our attention to the essence of Christ's own mission in the world, to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor (Luke 4:18-19).
It is to that mission that we now determinedly turn.

The Right Reverend M. Thomas Shaw is Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.

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