June 28, 2012

A Letter from Pittsburgh’s Bishop-elect

Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh shieldPittsburgh Episcopalians have just received a letter from Bishop-elect Dorsey McConnell in their inboxes. The subject of the missive is how he intends to deal with same-sex blessings in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh assuming that, as expected, the General Convention approves trial liturgy for such blessings. (The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania recognizes neither civil partnerships nor same-sex marriage, so Pittsburgh priests won’t be performing any same-sex marriages in any case.)

McConnell says about what we were led to expect regarding same-sex blessings, namely, that he expects to have a dialogue seeking consensus—what he calls a local sensus fidelium—before proceeding or, presumably, not. I was a bit surprised to see that “the ordination of those in same-sex partnerships” is also included in the Pittsburgh moratorium. (I believe that we have partnered homosexuals already in the ordination process in Pittsburgh.)

McConnell writes:
The liturgies that have been proposed do, in fact, articulate such a set of conclusions. They expound a theology of blessing and implement it through sacramental rites. Since the substance of this theology, and the mode of its expression, are among the questions that belong to our inquiry, for your bishop to license the use of these rites before we have had a chance to open together the questions they conclude, would be to turn a deliberative process into mere talk about things that had already been decided. The question of whether these, or other similar rites, may or may not have a place in our common life needs to be considered as part of our discussion, not made moot before we have even begun.
He says he expects to begin a diocesan dialogue by January 2013 and have preliminary conclusions by Pentecost. From one point of view, this seems reasonable, at least insofar as as the process seeks to head off the kind of destructive conflict that Pittsburgh saw all too much of prior to October 2008.

And yet, the tenor of this proposal seems different from the conversation about human sexuality that Bishop Ken Price proposed for the diocese but never initiated. What the bishop-elect proposes seems too much like the diocese’s having a referendum on whether it is going to defer to the judgement of the General Convention or not. I would have preferred an approach more like that of Texas Bishop C. Andrew Doyle. I believe, in other words, that Dorsey McConnell has made his first major mistake with regard to the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Of course, McConnell is not oblivious to the perils of what he is doing. He says
One other note: I have heard from a few who appear to believe that my approach to this matter is somehow insincere or evasive, that this is all a mere stalking-horse, that I will eventually seek to marginalize those with whom I disagree and return the diocese to something like the Bad Old Days. I completely understand this apprehension. How can you really know me yet? Given all that has happened in this diocese, the fact that you are willing to trust me at all is a testimony to God’s grace and your open-heartedness, and to the healing you have begun under Bishops Johnson and Price.
I share the concern about “the Bad Old Days,” though I am not among those the bishop-elect has heard from, though I suppose he has now.

You can read Dorsey McConnell’s letter in its entirety on the diocesan Web site.


  1. Well, the holdover priests got what they wanted with this guy, while the strong initial sense of the laity was clearly that a different Bishop was wanted. The holdover priests were selfish or fools or both, in their stubborn thinking that they knew better than the laity. While to some extent it is gratifying that the Bishop-elect does not wish to impose his point of view, it is perhaps fortunate that he will not impose it upon us. The moratorium on ordination of gay priests is alarming. The Bishop-elect should actually lead a little bit, rather than follow. The Bishop-elect has now stated in writing that he will not preach recognition of the rights of all people to be treated as equal in the eyes of God, as entitled to serve and worship as equal members of the church and to be encouraged to sanctify long term and loving relationships with the partners of their mutual choice. What the Bishop-elect perceives as a balanced approach does nothing more than confer some legitimacy on the bigoted point of view that gay people are "disordered" and are somehow lesser beings in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. From the venal point of view of the Diocesan market niche, one sociologist has written that denominations can be fitted into a spectrum of value choices, and that the average seeker usually jumps just to the next denominational niche. This Diocese has attracted Catholics, from a large and weakly committed membership, who can no longer identify with the notions that women are second class participants, that gays are "disordered", that contraception is evil, that only Catholics go to heaven, etc. To put it bluntly, I left the Catholic church decades ago because of its treatment of gay people as intrinsically evil while at the same time putting every priest on a pedestal. Having left a denomination once, it would be less heart-breaking if the need arises to leave another denomination for the same reasons. The Bishop-elect needs to search his conscience on the question of what would Jesus say and do, if approached by gays who want to worship God with Him.

  2. It seems to me that what our Bishop-elect is doing is very much an effort to keep the horse in front of the cart.

    You reference with some approval the "Texas" approach, as articulated by Bishop Doyle, and I would just notice that this approach was the result of precisely the kind of conversation that Bishop-elect McConnell is describing here. They got that conversation started some time ago. Bishop-elect McConnell is saying, "let's start right away, as soon as I get there."

    I wouldn't be surprised if we end up here in Pittsburgh with something like the Texas approach, but that will only "work" for us if we get there under our own steam. And that takes time, conversation, and a good level of respect and mutuality among all the parties to the conversation.

    I'm not sure where you get the idea of a "moratorium" in reference to ordinations. I don't see anything like that in the letter, anyway.

    Certainly it is the case that for many years our diocese had a stated policy--or at least a "value statement"--related to the conduct of clergy and of those discerning a vocation to ordained ministry ("faithful if married, chaste if single").

    It is the case as well that the canons of the Episcopal Church forbid discrimination on the basis of, among other things, sexual orientation, in the "discernment process" or in other aspects of Church life.

    The standard for ordination and conduct of ministry is generally reflected in the question the Bishop asks the Presenters in the ordination service, as they speak for the diocese: "And do you believe his manner of life to be suitable to the exercise of this ministry?"

    In the jumble of life in the Episcopal Church these days there is no question but that there is a certain variation of standards, beliefs, both implicit and explicit, about "manner of life," diocese by diocese. There are going to be differences between the people of Midtown Manhattan and, say, Manhattan, Kansas. In some dioceses, for example, bishops, reflecting the values of their diocesan communities, will decline to ordain or license for ministry someone who has been divorced and remarried, while other dioceses have elected twice-divorced and remarried persons as bishops.

    I understand from Bishop-elect McConnell's letter that he would see at least some aspects of some issues related to the moral conduct of clergy, and of those preparing for ordination, to be relevant in a diocesan conversation about marriage, family, and sexuality, and to the discussion of the blessing of same-sex unions. Seems to me to be reasonable. Or maybe we'll find that they're two separate conversations. But both necessary, long run, as we figure out "who we are" in our still-reorganizing diocese.

    And I doubt really that Bishop McConnell is suggesting a "referendum" on the will of General Convention. His goal seems very much to try to find ways to find ways to build common life, and a "referendum" is a recipe for polarization, "winners and losers."

    It was Bishop-elect McConnell's long experience and track-record over a couple of decades as a leader in efforts to work against polarization that made him an especially attractive person to our diocesan Nominations Committee, first, and then to the clergy and lay deputies at our Convention who elected him. Isn't this invitation to conversation about what have been difficult and divisive subjects for us is exactly what we've been asking for?


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