November 26, 2013

Three Cheers for Bishop McConnell

I was very pleased with the pastoral letter released by Bishop Dorsey McConnell yesterday. The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh has been waiting a long time to learn the degree to which homosexuals would be integrated into the life of The Episcopal Church in Southwestern Pennsylvania. I don’t understand why the delay was necessary, but the final outcome was surely worth the wait.

The Substance

What was released by the diocese yesterday was more than most people expected. The package consisted of the pastoral letter proper, guidelines for using the provisional liturgy for same-sex blessings, an assessment of the rite itself, and a report on the diocese’s sexuality dialogue. The final item was signed by the co-chairs of the committee that ran the dialogues, Bishop McConnell and Dana Phillips.

As many readers no doubt know by now, the bishop will allow same-sex blessings to be performed in the Diocese of Pittsburgh:
Since this local character [of communities of faith] exists in variety of conviction, I find it reasonable that this variety should be allowed to express itself in local practice, by allowing the decision of whether or not to use this rite to be made by each pastor, in his or her own parish. This “local option” will allow each rector or priest-in-charge to minister pastorally according to his or her commitments and conscience, while putting none under constraint or duress.
The other major decision announced by the bishop concerns ordination:
As for the somewhat related matter of ordained ministry, I believe the principal determining factor in regard to my role as ordinary rests in my discernment, in concert with the Church, as to whether God is calling any given individual to Holy Orders. Therefore, I will not alter the non-discrimination policy begun under Bishop Price; an individual’s being in a committed same-sex partnership will not, in and of itself, be a barrier either to ordination or call in this diocese.
The pastoral letter was followed by guidelines for how the provisional rite for same-sex blessings is to be used. I was particularly pleased by the bishop’s commonsense approach to rule-making here. Rather than establishing elaborate procedures to be followed leading up to a blessing ceremony, he has chosen to take himself out of decision process and to trust his priests to behave responsibly. His list of rules ends with the following:
It shall be the responsibility of any pastor contemplating the use of this rite to assess the likely pastoral and liturgical implications, and to address them with the couple, the parish leadership, and the bishop well in advance of the prospective date of its use.
A priest would be a fool to do otherwise.

Bishop McConnell also released a critique titled “The Provisional Rite: An Assessment.” Had his assessment prefaced his letter, one might have anticipated that he would prohibit use of the rite approved by the 2012 General Convention entirely. I suspect few who have studied the rite are totally happy with it, and the bishop’s criticisms will help the church develop a more satisfying liturgy. That The Episcopal Church is also studying marriage encourages the hope that future ceremonies for both straight and gay couples will reflect a coherent and contemporary theological understanding of what is taking place.

The final piece released yesterday is “Summary Report: Conversations on Human Sexuality and Communion.” The report is remarkably short of statistics, noting only that 124 people participated in the dialogue project, and, of those, only 92 were involved after the project graduated from the pilot stage. The report lists six “themes” emerging from the discussions, which, somewhat abridged are
  1. The diocese needs to avoid making issues of human sexuality THE defining issue of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.
  2. Education is needed across the diocese on Episcopal polity at the congregational, diocesan, and national levels.
  3. No one should be marginalized due to their position on issues regarding human sexuality.
  4. We need more time together.
  5. What could happen?
  6. The conversations need to continue.
What is particularly curious about this list is that none of the “themes” directly addresses the two questions that were supposed to be the subject of the dialogue, namely same-sex blessings and the ordination of partnered homosexuals. Moreover, lacking raw data, statistics, and demographic information, it is difficult to know what to make of the “themes.” According to the report, “Responses were written on a flip chart, typed, and forwarded directly to Bishop McConnell for his review as part of his personal discernment on the issues.” This raises the question whether a different person (or objective committee) would have identified a different set of “themes.” Did the bishop find the messages he wanted to find?

Further Thoughts

Bishop McConnell’s decisions were not unexpected. Given the recent history of the Pittsburgh diocese, they seemed quite necessary. There are already a number of gay priests in the diocese, and two parishes have just called gay priests. Failure to authorize the blessing of same-sex unions would have felt like a return to the reactionary days of the Bob Duncan episcopate. Instead, Pittsburgh has decisively joined the mainstream Episcopal Church. (The overwhelming majority of Episcopal dioceses are allowing the blessing of same-sex unions, and many that do not are the “usual suspects,” such as Albany and Dallas.)

We can only hope that the bishop’s pastoral letter does not invite defections from The Episcopal Church. In this diocese particularly, it would be easy for a parishioner to leave an Episcopal parish and to find a nearby “Anglican” parish that is comfortably homophobic. Doubtless, some will do so. I do not expect that any priests will walk, however, as they surely knew, when they chose to stay with The Episcopal Church, that this day would come.

I hope that Pittsburgh Episcopalians who are disappointed by Bishop McConnell’s decisions will recognize that those decisions will have little effect on their lives. They can easily find an Episcopal church without gay clergy should that be necessary, and the blessing of someone else’s relationship does not affect them or require their complicity. If they have been content to be in a church that blesses same-sex unions in other dioceses, why should such a ceremony in a church across town be of any concern? We will have to see how this works out in practice.

Finally, I’d like to say a few things about the sexuality dialogue. Was it successful? It’s hard to tell. For one thing, it surely did not succeed if one takes its stated goal of involving 500 people seriously. To be sure, it offered to a small number of people a model of how controversial matters might be discussed. I am skeptical, however, of the report’s assertion that “this type of dialogue is good and needs to continue.” In fact, “this type of dialogue” is very resource intensive, and, by its intimate nature, exposes participants to a limited number of viewpoints. One has to wonder if larger groups involving more coherent presentations might be more useful in exposing large numbers of people to the diversity of views held in the diocese. Additionally, since the dialogues discouraged engaged discussion, they did not facilitate testing one’s own views and being open to modifying them.

At some level, I suspect that most people found the dialogues interesting, perhaps even useful. One would have liked to have seen statistics from an evaluation instrument intended to gauge, with some objectivity, how people felt about the experience, however. Nevertheless, just as acceptance of homosexuals has increased with the increased visibility of homosexual people, encounters in the dialogues with people of differing views likely served to defuse, at least to some degree, irrational suspicion and hostility toward those holding opinions different from one’s own.

The sexuality dialogue was supposed to “inform” the decisions of the bishop, but no one knows quite what that means. Was the bishop seeking guidance, trying to gauge the likely consequences of his decisions, or trying to lessen conflict within the diocese? Just as people had a right to question Clarence Thomas’s candor when he denied having given Roe v. Wade any consideration, it is difficult to believe that Bishop McConnell has not long known what his decisions would be.

Once the sexuality dialogue was announced, the bishop was pretty much precluded from making his decisions public until the project had run its course, lest he destroy the illusion that the dialogue really mattered. Surely, most of the material that was released yesterday could have been written long before November 25; most of it could have been written before the sexuality dialogue project was concluded. The delay from October 15 to November 25 just seemed gratuitous and irritating.

Anyway, it’s time to move forward.

Other Reports and Comments

Two Pittsburgh groups issued statements about Bishop McConnell’s announcements. The first to appear was from Integrity Pittsburgh. Predictably, Integrity’s statement expressed appreciation for the pastoral letter, but it is difficult not to see the statement as argumentative and mean-spirited. In part, it said
We’ve patiently waited for this first step, and we thank the bishop for it. We feel this is only the beginning of full inclusion of LBGTQA people into the life and ministry of the church.
It would have been more gracious to have been thankful now and to ask for other actions—What do these people want? They never say explicitly.—later.

The statement from Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh (PEP) was more positive in tone, ending with
PEP is optimistic that, with these decisions now in place, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh is equipped to move forward in love with vigor and intention.
It is curious that the stories I have seen about the pastoral letter mention same-sex unions but do not mention the acceptance of clergy in committed same-sex relationships. This is true of the stories from Episcopal News Service, The Living Church, AP, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Many in Pittsburgh consider both decisions important. Taking, as it usually does, every opportunity to criticize The Episcopal Church,  The Living Church spent most of its story on the bishop’s criticism of the blessing rite.

No doubt, other commentaries and news stories will be forthcoming. Perhaps they will be more comprehensive in scope.


  1. Lionel, with all due respect, you have been publicly hectoring Dorsey McConnell for months, mocking this process and criticizing everything about his deliberations, including the timing of his announcement.

    And now Integrity is "argumentative and mean-spirited"?

    To quote Jack Benny: "Well!"

    Perhaps I'm too close to the situation, but this seems like a case when Luke 4:23 comes to mind! ;)

    1. My moral authority or lack thereof aside, I am not alone in having done a double take upon reading the Integrity Pittsburgh statement.

    2. I'm sure you weren't alone.

      Be that as it may, I am still reminded of Sophie Masloff's retort when Pete Flaherty accused her of running a negative campaign! "Argumentative and mean-spirited," indeed!

      To point out that the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh is still far behind the national church when dealing with LGBTQ Christians is a fact, not argumentative nor mean-spirited. Even conservatives would—proudly, I think—agree.

      (And for the record, I speak only for myself.)

    3. Jason, what more are you asking of the diocese or of the bishop? Can they realistically deliver?

    4. I can't speak for any group.

      I have personal feelings, of course; one of my feelings is that the diocese should be much franker in the language it uses, and much more direct, in handling these issues.

      Why is there a need for an outside group, such as Integrity Pittsburgh? Other dioceses have a bishop's standing committee on LGBTQ issues. But we seem to still be treating these issues like they're radioactive.

      There is a lot of hate directed by professed Christians toward LGBTQ people. On the national level, the Episcopal Church has done a good job at trying to be a positive force for education and outreach, but we, in Pittsburgh, are not doing nearly enough, in my opinion.

      Personally, I am very impressed with the bishop, as a spiritual leader, a political leader and a communicator. I think positive comparisons could be drawn between his style and Barack Obama's style.

      But, to continue that comparison, the U.S. Congress often fails to deliver for the president. Members of the President's own party don't advocate for his policies or implement them effectively.

      We, in the pulpits and the pews, need to start delivering for this bishop, advocating for his policies and the Episcopal Church's policies, and pushing Pittsburgh back toward the mainstream. In my opinion.

      For instance, I hear some clergy saying things such as, they will "tolerate" gay, bisexual and transgender people. My response has been, "tolerance" is not a synonym for "welcoming" or "loving" or "embracing."

      "Tolerance" implies putting up with something that irritates you. I can "tolerate" a stone in my shoe, but I don't welcome or love it. LGBTQ people are God's creatures, not things to be "tolerated."

      Until we get past "tolerance" and arrive at "welcoming" and "embracing," we will have a long way to go.

  2. Lionel, perhaps you were looking at an earlier version of the P-G article, but the latest (online and dead tree) version has:

    "Bishop McConnell also wrote that gay candidates for ministry who are in committed same-sex relationships would be eligible for ordination -- continuing a practice started by his immediate predecessor, interim Bishop Kenneth Price Jr.""

    1. Bill, thanks for the update. I first read the Post-Gazette story last night.

  3. > a different person (or objective committee) would have identified
    > a different set of “themes.”

    I don't think you mean to suggest that the committee was not objective, but just in case someone were to interpret your statement that way, I want to say (having been a member of it) that the committee was as objective as any committee consisting of people with deep commitments to mutually exclusive positions can be. The committee's role was to organise the dialogues, and once they began we were pretty much done, and never saw any of the individual comments made by people participating in the dialogues. The two co-chairs reviewed those and wrote the summary in the bishop's letter.

  4. Hello Mr. Deimel,

    Right off the bat, as a disclaimer, I am a Pittsburgh Anglican by choice and conviction, and consider myself fairly conservative theologically and socially. Just so you know that our worldviews are quite different. I observe the doings of the Episcopal Diocese as I would observe someone razing my childhood home - with sadness, but knowing that it is no longer my home. I do however, know and love people who are members of the Episcopal Diocese, so there is some interest for me.

    I do have a couple of questions about your post. It seems that you, like many of us, are not at all surprised by the Bishop's announcement, and wonder what took so long. I do wonder at your seeming disappointment - perhaps you were looking for more from him? Were you waiting for him to say, "This is good", rather than "This is allowed"?

    My other question is about the future - how long do you think it will be before same-sex blessings/marriages are mandated by the Diocese or the national church, as opposed to "allowed"? As I recall, the same language was used for the ordination of women, and it was barely 20 years before a mandate was issued by the church that this MUST happen, as opposed to this MAY happen. I have no problem with women priests, by the way...

    Thank you for your consideration and time, and I wish you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving!

    Jill Forrest.

    1. Jill,

      Thank you for the polite inquiry.

      Bishop McConnell did just what I wanted him to do. In fact, in that he did not lay down a fixed set of rules to follow leading up to a blessing, he went further than I had dared hope.

      As for the provisional rite itself, I am little concerned with the details. I’m sure it will be improved over time, and Bishop McConnell will be part of the perfecting process.

      Same-sex blessings/marriages will never be “mandated” by the church. No priest is now mandated to marry anyone. At some point, however, it may be mandated that no bishop can prohibit blessings/marriages in his or her diocese. The church never mandated that bishops ordain women, by the way, merely that there be a reasonable path to ordination for women in the diocese.

      At some time in the relatively near future—I make no specific predictions—marriage of any two adults will be possible throughout the country. What the church does likely depends as much on the U.S. Supreme Court as it does on the General Convention.

      Happy Thanksgiving to you as well. Come back tomorrow and read my Thanksgiving poem.


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