April 2, 2013

Whither the Sexuality Dialogue?

I am beginning to hear grumblings over the seemingly slow progress of our formal sexuality dialogue in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Recall that Bishop McConnell, even before his consecration was consented to by the General Convention, wrote to the diocese on June 28, 2012, saying, in part:
During the process that led to my election, I consistently stated my conviction that the Diocese of Pittsburgh needed to have a conversation that would lead to a consensus on how to approach both the blessing of same-sex relationships and the ordination of those in same-sex partnerships. I also said that I would be an active participant in such a conversation, informing it and helping to guide it, but not dictating its outcome. On this basis, I also have refrained from foreclosing the conversation by leading with my own thoughts on these matters. If we, as a diocese, are to arrive at a common mind, a local sensus fidelium, we cannot reach conclusions on these issues before we begin our inquiry.
At the annual diocesan convention last November, our newly consecrated bishop announced the formation of a team to conduct such a conversation, which was to be assisted in the design of the project by the Public Conversations Project of Watertown, Massachusetts. Target date for completion of the exercise was declared to be Pentecost 2013.

The team, led jointly by the bishop and by the diocese’s ubiquitous process guru Dana Phillips, quickly told the bishop that his schedule was unrealistic. As matters stand, there is no projected completion date.

On February 25, 2013, Bishop McConnell wrote to the diocese to outline the process designed by the diocesan team and the Public Conversations Project. Frankly, his description was a bit fuzzy, but he made it clear that two dozen people would take part in an initial dialogue and that, in a “replication” phase that would follow, it was hoped that “500 laity and clergy will volunteer to take part.”

In fact, two groups of 12 hand-picked participants were identified to pilot the process on March 23 and April 20. (See my report on the first session, “A Day of Dialogue,) That a month will elapse between the first and second event is dictated by the schedules of the facilitators from the Public Conversations Project. From these events, volunteers are to be identified who can act as facilitators at future events. They will have to be trained, of course, and two volunteer facilitators can put no more than 12 people through a session in a week.

Most people in the diocese have heard nothing about our sexuality dialogue since February 25. They are beginning to ask where matters stand and how one can participate. At this point, I doubt that a call for volunteers will be issued before June. If the goal is to involve 500 clergy and laity, it is difficult to see how the process possibly can be completed before November or so. Moreover, it isn’t clear that so many will volunteer or how the process will be carried out if more “conservatives” than “progressives” volunteer or vice versa. How will we determine when this process ends?

Bigger questions remain. Just how does the outcome of our dialogue “inform” the bishop’s decisions on ordaining partnered gays and blessing same-sex unions? How, in fact, do we even define an outcome for such a process? Will we have made any progress at re-integrating the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh into The Episcopal Church if, ultimately, we do not allow for the blessing of same-sex unions? Even the Diocese of Mississippi is doing that!

The delay in making decisions about partnered gay clergy and same-sex blessings is particularly problematic for parishes searching for new rectors. This group includes Calvary, Redeemer, St. Brendan’s, and St. Mark’s, Johnstown. The present uncertainty may make some clergy reluctant to commit to coming to Pittsburgh or may make congregations reluctant to consider certain candidates (e.g., a priest with a same-sex partner). Even if the bishop were to assure parishes will be able to call the priest of their choice, those choices may be limited by the present uncertainty about the trajectory of the diocese. We need greater diversity in this diocese, and the fact that three of our most progressive churches are seeking new clergy is worrisome.

Although the present sexuality dialogue is useful, if only to get people of the diocese to talk to other Episcopalians with whom they have no regular contact, there is no choice for the bishop if the diocese is to move forward with The Episcopal Church and not again become a disgruntled backwater nursing thoughts of schism. Partnered gay clergy and same-sex blessings must be allowed in Pittsburgh. No one is asking that such clergy be imposed on a parish or that any parish be forced to conduct same-sex blessings. The sooner these decisions are made the better. Until then, an uncertainty is developing in the diocese that we have not experienced since the final days of the Duncan regime.

Sex symbols

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