October 15, 2013

Kicking the Can down the Road

Kicking the can
Sex is something we don’t like to talk about in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. Some people don’t like to talk about it, anyway. Progressives in the diocese have been trying to discuss sex for years, but conservatives, and particularly conservative clergy, have, metaphorically at least, put their fingers in their ears, closed their eyes, held their breath, and begun to turn blue whenever the dreaded topic of sexuality was raised.

With the departure of Bob Duncan and his merry band of reactionaries, progressives had hoped that we could begin to act like a diocese of adults and join the mainstream of The Episcopal Church. We eagerly awaited the long-delayed authorization of a trial liturgy for blessing same-sex unions. Our joyful anticipation received a blow from our bishop-elect even before deputies congregated in Indianapolis for the 2012 General Convention, however. Bishop-elect Dorsey McConnell announced June 28, 2012, that our diocese would engage in a dialogue concerning sexuality before he made a decision about whether we could bless same-sex unions in this diocese and—this was a total surprise—whether we would ordain partnered homosexuals in Pittsburgh. (See “A Letter from Pittsburgh’s Bishop-elect.”) McConnell wrote the diocese, “My hope is that we would launch this process [of dialogue] in January 2013 and come to some preliminary recommendations by Pentecost, though if we need more time, we can certainly take it.”

On June 28 of last year, I wrote
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.
This has proven to be one of my more prescient remarks.

The sexuality dialogue not did begin in January. The first session was held in March—see “A Day of Dialogue”—and the project ramped up slowly, in part, because self-identified conservatives were slow to volunteer to participate. Pentecost came and went, and the termination date of the sexuality dialogue experiment and the day of decision for the Bishop of Pittsburgh continued to recede into the future. The dialogues ended quietly in September, and the expectation was that the bishop would announce his decision about how our diocese would deal with homosexual persons before our November annual convention.

Anxiety about the decision of the bishop as to whether we would join the Episcopal mainstream or remain in the conservative backwater cultivated by Bishops Hathaway and Duncan grew as the resolution of the sexuality issues was repeatedly delayed.

Yesterday, I learned that Bishop McConnell, on October 4, had written to the clergy in an e-mail message as follows (any errors are in the original):
From: Dorsey McConnell <dmcconnell@episcopalpgh.org>
Subject: A Note to All Clergy of the Diocese
Date: October 4, 2013 1:00:03 PM EDT
To: undisclosed-recipients

Dear brothers and sisters:

You will recall that at clergy conference just last week, I had indicated that I was preparing to announce a diocesan policy concerning same-sex blessings on or around the 15th of October.Since our time together, I have heard from several of you, and I have spoken more broadly with my staff and others in diocesan leadership.These discussions have led me to conclude that a new date is in order.

Several factors are influencing this shift.

First, the Theology Committee that has been assisting me will meet again on October 8th.According to the plan I had announced, this would leave me with only a few days to reflect on and incorporate their
final counsel.

Second, we would then quickly arrive at the run-up to Diocesan Convention. I want to use our annual gathering (particularly my address) as a time for us to focus on our long-term mission priorities as a diocese. I do not want the policy statement to pre-empt this focus. Rather, when it is announced, the decision needs to be framed within the larger picture of how we might go forward together in our common life in Christ, which I hope to articulate at Convention.

Which brings me to my third – and perhaps central – reason for reconsidering my own October deadline: it is critically important how we communicate the policy to our parishes. Yes, “we” – because it is incumbent on me as bishop to make and expound the decision, but I also realize that you as pastors will be on the front-line in your congregations, fielding questions and ministering to a variety of responses from your people.I want to do this right, in a way that offers you all active assistance and support, even if it requires a few more weeks to prepare the message and lay the groundwork for its dissemination.

I have from the beginning noted that, should we need more time, we should not hesitate to take it.Given all this, I am now aiming for the 15th of November, after Convention but before Thanksgiving, as a more
suitable goal.

As always, I invite your further comments and counsel.You remain in my prayers, and I continue to ask for yours.

Faithfully your bishop,

(The Right Reverend) Dorsey McConnell
Bishop, The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh
/crux est mundi medicina/
It is hard to know where to start enumerating what is wrong with this letter. To begin with, the bishop has told the clergy he is postponing his announcement, but laypeople are left in the dark, anticipating an imminent announcement and becoming more anxious by the minute.

The bishop has talked about empowering the laity, but, in his letter to the clergy, McConnell seems more concerned with managing the the reactions of laypeople than empowering or ministering to them. The church does not exist for the convenience of the clergy; laypeople are not a problem to be managed.

Why is the bishop waiting for his Theology Committee? There is a wealth of theological analysis of the homosexuality issue to be had. Cannot the bishop decide what to do on the basis of what others have said? Does there need to be a distinctively Southwestern Pennsylvania theological take on the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of partnered homosexuals? Does the bishop not realize how his vacillation conjurers visions of Bob Duncan’s walking apart from the despised Episcopal Church?

As an aside, I must object to the decision of General Convention that left the matter of using the provisional liturgy for same-sex blessing to individual bishops. This seems too much like the medieval practice of imposing the religion of the local prince on all his subjects. The provision may have been necessary to get a liturgy for same-sex blessings past the House of Bishops, however.

The bishop is deluding himself if he thinks that delaying decisions on sexuality issues until after convention will cause deputies to focus on his vision for the future of the diocese. The future of the diocese is inextricably tied to how the diocese deals with homosexuality, and the absence of decisions about the sexuality issues cannot but obsess convention deputies and distract them from whatever the bishop wants to say. (It is not clear what the bishop wants to say, as his address is still missing from the pre-convention journal.)

Bishop McConnell has, from a progressive perspective, only one option—he must authorize same-sex blessings on a local option basis and consent to the consecration of partnered homosexuals. To do otherwise is to resurrect the hostilities to diocesan leadership engendered by Bob Duncan.

One can only surmise that the clergy that the bishop has “heard from” are conservatives attempting to postpone the inevitable as long as possible. I have been unable to identify anyone on the bishop’s “staff and others in diocesan leadership” that McConnell may have consulted. He certainly seems not to have taken lay opinion into account when deciding to postpone his decision more than an year into his episcopate. The reality is that the conservative clergy who remained in the diocese in the face of the 2008 schism assumed that acceptance of homosexuals in the diocese was inevitable, as indeed it is, if not in 2013, then certainly at some later time.

Dorsey McConnell cannot sit on the fence forever. One suspects that he knows what he must do.Why doesn’t he do it and get it over with? If I am wrong in thinking this, we have made a terrible mistake by electing this man as our bishop. I pray that that is not the case.


  1. I don't disagree with any of your reasoning Lionel. But I really would like to give the issue more time. Of course we all know where this is heading. But wounds need to heal, and that takes time. Some times a lot of time. Perhaps the bishop made a big mistake in setting a timetable and even taking on the issue with such tenacity. But I'm still in the forgiveness mode, and thankful that we don't have the agenda-driven bishop that we once had.

  2. Sorry, my name didn't appear for the above comment Lionel, as I was just reminded by google. (using my wife's e-mail) Peter Luley with the above useless opinion!

    1. Peter,

      Thanks for identifying yourself. I’m not sure under just what circumstances a comment is labeled as being from “Unknown.”

  3. I don't necessarily disagree with your larger points, but to me, it seems like Bishop McConnell is acting in good faith and "with all deliberate speed"—of course, that phrase was made famous during the desegregation battles of the 1950s, another time when progress in civil rights seemed to be painfully slow.

    Yes, it is one year into his episcopate, but I guess I wonder—in the life of the church, is that really a long time?

    One of the many legitimate criticisms that I think can be levied at Robert Duncan and other so-called "traditionalists" is that they seem to want a hierarchical (I dare say "patriarchal") structure, such as exists in the Roman Catholic church: "I will tell you what to do, and you will not question my authority."

    That's not the way the Episcopal Church USA and the Church of England have evolved since the 19th century. (Which is one reason why the idea of "traditional Anglicanism" makes me laugh. Which "tradition"? The "traditional Anglicanism" the "traditionalists" seem to desire appears to be pre-Henry VIII! Or at least pre-Act of Toleration.)

    I'm not sure it would have served anyone if Dorsey McConnell had come in and imposed a decision. He may not be moving fast enough for some of us, but I do think he is moving, and in what I pray is the "right" direction, and I don't know that I would be doing anything much differently, if I were in his shoes—and I'm thankful I'm not.

    One larger point, however, is that communications both within the Diocese, and externally with the broader community, are not great. A friend of mine calls the kind of communication that exists in the Diocese "folklore and innuendo." We find out about things through leaks, or blogs, or rumors, or when the Post-Gazette writes a story—or in twisted versions of the truth, told by folks who do not have the Diocese's best interests at heart.

    We need to do a better job telling our story, because overall, it's a good one. (Then again—I work in communications and PR. Of course I think "better public relations" is the answer! ;) )


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