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The Episcopal Church and homosexuality

Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight
(DEPO) for parishes who cannot
accept equality for gays and lesbians

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bullet"We as bishops are not of a common mind about issues concerning human sexuality. Different points of view on these matters also exist within our dioceses and congregations." The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, from their document: "Caring For All The Churches" 1

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Faith groups, particularly those with a democratic organization structure, often have difficulty implementing major policy changes -- especially those involving moral questions. Such groups lack a single leader who can define "truth" for the entire denomination. The individual members and the clergy have the responsibility of effecting change. Unfortunately they will inevitably hold a range of opinions. It can take many decades for the denomination to reach a near consensus. Over the past 15 decades, this happened in the Anglican Communion with such important conflicts as the abolition of slavery, the morality of couples using contraceptives for family planning, the ordination of women, the consecration of women as bishops, etc.

As each topic achieves a high profile, it becomes obvious that:

bulletSome in the denomination are very keen to maintain the traditional beliefs and practices intact. They feel that change is inconceivable.
bulletOthers interpret the topic in terms of human rights and want change to occur immediately. They feel that maintaining the status quo is inconceivable.

Feelings can run so high that serious talk of schism surfaces. The Episcopal church is currently divided over the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals. Two additional potential conflicts have the potential of intensifying in the near future:  establishing church rituals to recognize same-sex relationships, and performing a marriage ceremony for same-sex couples. Some Episcopalians feel that they cannot remain part of a diocese which ordains sexually-active homosexuals. Some even want to distance themselves from a bishop who favors such ordinations.

In 2004-MAR, the Episcopal Church, USA developed a "Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight," (DEPO) procedure. It allows parishes that refuse to accept the consecration of Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire to receive pastoral oversight from another bishop, "who neither supported the election [of Robinson] nor supports the ordination of homosexuals to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church."

The procedure stresses that all are to understand that this oversight is to be a temporary arrangement. All parishes are expected to return under the full authority of their diocesan bishop. This may not be readily achievable. In many conservative parishes, public opinion is overwhelmingly opposed to granting equal rights to sexually-active gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Those beliefs may continue unchanged for decades. Female ordination may be one indicator of the slowness of change within the Episcopal Church USA. The Church formally changed its canon laws to allow women priests in 1976. Yet, bishops in some dioceses still refuse to ordain women.

As of 2004-JUL, one parish in Newark, NJ, has been granted delegated oversight. Six churches in Massachusetts -- Christ Church in Watertown, St. John's Church in Bristol, St. Paul's Church in Darien, Trinity Church in Bristol, Christ & The Epiphany Church in East Haven, and Bishop of Seabury Church in Groton -- are considering requesting oversight. 2

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"Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight," (DEPO)

Starting on 2004-MAR-19, bishops of the Episcopal Church attended an intense two-day retreat at Camp Allen, TX, for a period of intensive conversation and prayer. They developed a statement titled "Caring For All the churches: A Response of the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church to an expressed need of the Church." The specific need referred to is an option for individual parishes which "...find themselves in distress because of the actions of the 74th General Convention." That Convention approved the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, in 2003-AUG. He is a gay man involved in a loving, committed relationship with another man.  Some parishes find it difficult or impossible to remain under the leadership of one of the majority of bishops who voted to affirm Robinson's consecration. 3

The Oversight procedure starts with a meeting between a congregation and their bishop "...with a consultant, if needed, to find ways to work together." If reconciliation cannot be achieved, then the leadership of the congregation "...may seek from their diocesan bishop...a conference regarding the appropriateness and conditions for Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight." Alternatively, this step can be suggested by the bishop. "...the bishop may appoint another bishop to provide pastoral oversight" for the congregation. If conflict continues, "there may then be an appeal to the bishop who is president or vice-president of the ECUSA province in which the congregation is geographically located, for help in seeking a resolution." Oversight plans are aimed at reconciliation and "for a stated period of time with regular reviews" and reports to the Presiding Bishop, the Council of Advice and the House of Bishops. 2

The document stresses that the term "Oversight means the episcopal acts performed as part of a diocesan bishop’s ministry either by the diocesan bishop or by another bishop to whom such responsibility has been delegated by the diocesan bishop. In other Anglican Provinces, the term 'pastoral oversight' signifies what we mean by 'pastoral care.' In our Episcopal Church polity, 'oversight' does not confer 'jurisdiction'.4

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Positive response to the Oversight document:

Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswald issued a statement which praised the bishops for their work. He wrote:

"I could not possibly be more proud of our bishops, who with great care and deliberation sought to articulate our shared ministry of reconciliation in ways that are generous toward those who feel themselves in some sense alienated from our common life."

"The honesty and generosity of spirit that have prevailed throughout this meeting make it clear that we as bishops, regardless of our several points of view, are deeply committed to the costly work of reconciliation, not only within the church but for the sake of the world."

"We are moving beyond winning and losing. Together we are coming to a new place of mutual discovery and trust."

Bishop Charles Jenkins of Louisiana, president of the Presiding Bishops Council of Advice, said:

"This is more of a plea for reconciliation, for mutual respect, for dignity, for making room for one another. It is not a change in our polity, or in the constitution and canons of the church, but a recognition of our brokenness. It is bishops taking the lead in seeking reconciliation." He emphasized that the oversight process "...has no canonical or constitutional standing. It is finding a way forward."

Bishop Mark Sisk of New York, chairperson of the planning committee of the House of Bishops, said:

"The bishops are very serious about their responsibilities as pastors and there is a real desire to reach out to the folks in our Church who feel displaced. It was also important to say something that would be helpful to the Anglican Communion." 3

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Negative response to the Oversight document:

bulletRev. Todd H. Wetzel, Executive Director of Anglicans United & Latimer Press regards the document as being seriously flawed. A main concern is that all of the power in the process is concentrated in the diocesan bishop. Rev. Wetzel concludes: "And so, the crisis in ECUSA deepens.....This institution has for decades cast itself as concerned for the oppressed, yet can find not a shred of compassion for those who feel marginalized by this church’s recent decisions." 4
bulletThe Rev. Michael Carreker, a member of the Council of Forward In Faith North America, criticizes the document on three levels:
bulletTheological Level: Church beliefs are to be based on the Bible, church tradition, and reason. The Bishops have adopted secular presuppositions "which change and alter according to the spirit of the age.....For them, the Bible is unclear and variously interpreted. Tradition, in their view, is equally fallible, and clings to perceptions of human relationship that are beset with the prejudice and ignorance of former cultures....Their state of 'disagreement' has translated itself into permission for - and an implied blessing of - homosexual practice....We must conclude that the House of Bishops has no current relation to historic Christian authority and, therefore, is adrift from the theological moorings of the Church. Their presuppositions leave them bereft of theological knowledge and moral conviction.
bulletEcclesiological Level: "Because the House of Bishops has divorced itself from Catholic authority, they have no reference for theological or moral truth beyond their own surmise, and with no reference for truth, they lack a clear understanding of the moral good they must love.....[The bishops have fallen] back on Canon Law. This they do with total indifference to the counsel and fellowship of the Bishops of the worldwide Communion who retain historic Christian authority....the House of Bishops has forsaken theological and moral authority for legal power. Canon law and geographical jurisdiction have replaced the supremacy of the Scriptures and the wisdom of the Church. And here the Bishops err gravely..."
bulletPastoral level: "What the Bishops have espoused in their statement, and accomplished by their actions, disregards the essence of communion. Different presuppositions have created different world views. Within this current condition, there is not and cannot be any truly shared participation in the knowledge and love of God....the only power they now wield is canonical, not spiritual. They are responsible for shutting off the faithful from a living relation to the Church Catholic. Indeed, they have rendered their own position illegitimate." 5

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A radical departure:

The oversight procedure implements a radical departure from church tradition. The worldwide Anglican Communion has established 38 national churches or "provinces" in the world, such as the Episcopal Church in the US, the Anglican Church in Canada, the Church of England in England, the Scottish Episcopal Church in Scotland. Each province has wide powers of self-government. Each church subdivides its territory into many dioceses and selects a bishop to lead all of the parishes in her/his diocese. In the document "Caring For All The Churches" the bishops affirm "....the teaching of successive Lambeth Conferences that bishops must respect the autonomy and territorial integrity of dioceses and provinces other than their own." 1 Having one or more parishes under the oversight of a visiting bishop who is not the diocesan bishop is a very unusual circumstance.

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A possible implementation of the procedure:

The Bishop and the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania has issued a statement describing how the oversight process might be implemented in their Diocese:

bulletThe procedure would apply only if the relationship between a parish and the bishop had deteriorated because of "differences in perspectives about issues in human sexuality."
bulletA Rector and Vestry desiring oversight would be expected to meet with the Diocesan Bishop at least three times over a four month interval. There would be at least one all-parish meeting with the bishop during that time.
bulletAll are to understand that any oversight is to be temporary.
bulletThe Diocesan Bishop will select the Episcopal Visitor in consultation with the Rector and Vestry.
bulletThe activities by the Episcopal Visitor are to be clarified by a "Letter of Understanding between the Diocesan Bishop, the Rector, the Vestry and the Episcopal Visitor."
bulletThe Rector, Vestry, Episcopal Visitor and Bishop of the Diocese would meet annually to review the status of the relationship. 6

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Related menu on this web site:

bulletBible passages related to homosexuality.

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  1. Text of: "Caring For All The Churches:  A Response of the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church to an expressed need of the Church," 2004-MAR-23, at: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/
  2. Frances Taylor, "Six Episcopal Parishes Seek Conservative Ties," The Hartford Courant, 2004-JUL-16, at: http://www.ctnow.com/
  3. Jan Nunley and Matthew Davies, "Bishops propose plan for Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight," Episcopal News Service, 2004-MAR-23, at: http://www.episdioeo.org and http://www.diolex.org and http://www.episcopalchurch.org
  4. Todd H. Wetzel, "HOB meeting and Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight," Anglicans United, 2004-MAR-25, at: http://www.anglicansunited.com/
  5. The Rev. Michael Carreker, "A Critique of the Statement of the House of Bishops," Forward in Faith North America, 2004-APR-05, at: http://www.forwardinfaith.com/
  6. "Understanding of the Bishop and Standing Committee as to the use of 'CARING FOR THE CHURCHES'," Diocese of Central Pennsylvania, 2004-APR, at: http://www.diocesecpa.org/

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Copyright © 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2004-AUG-01
Author: B.A. Robinson

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