The Episcopal Church, USA and lesbian,
gay, bisexual & transgender (LGBT) topics
The 2015 General Convention: continuing
consideration of human sexuality topics
2015-JUN/JUL: Overview of the General Convention:
The Church's 78th triennial General Convention was held between 2015-JUN-25 and JUL-03 in Salt Lake City, UT.
As usual, the most divisive and controversial topics and resolutions dealt with sexual orientation and gender identity among the membership. Considerable progress continues to be made within the denomination to accept the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and transsexual (LGBT) community into full and equal membership in the Church.
Some of the influences that are driving the denomination towards full acceptance are:
The departure of some conservative congregations from the denomination.
A feeling of isolation on the part of the remaining conservative groups as the denomination and the general public adopt a more accepting view towards the LGBT community.
The ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Obergefell v. Hodges. By coincidence, their decision was issued on JUN-26, during the second day of the 78th Convention! This was the culmination of a two and a half decade struggle by the LGBT community in the U.S. to legalize same-sex marriage (a.k.a. gay marriage) across the country. The High Court ruled that marriage equality is now the law of the land. Governments in all 50 states, 5 territories, and the District of Columbia are required to issue marriage licenses to qualified same-sex couples on the same basis that they have always issued licenses for opposite-sex couples. That day, marriage licenses were issued to same-sex couples in at least one county in all but one of the 14 states that had previously denied marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The exception was Louisiana. By late July, all -- or essentially all -- states and territories that have denied equality to same-sex couples are expected to routinely issue them marriage licenses.
The continuing entry into positions of authority by youth and young adults with greater tolerance, understanding, and acceptance towards the LGBT community. The Millennial Generation (a.k.a. Generation Y) which is currently composed of older teens and young adults, are the first cohort in which a majority know a LGBT person as a friend or extended family member.
Loss of membership and their financial contributions are a continuing problem for the denomination.
During the 77th General Convention in 2012, the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM ) called for a Task Force for the Study of Marriage. The delegates passed resolution A050 which asked the Task Force to identify and explore:
"... biblical, theological, historical, liturgical, and canonical dimensions of marriage."
One topic to be discussed by the Commission is the blessing of same-sex relationships by a church ritual. Actually marrying same-sex couples in those states where such marriages have been legalized is not yet being discussed. A second topic relates to transgender individuals. They have not been specifically excluded from ministry positions in the Episcopal Church in the past. Some are currently serving in the ordained and unordained ministry. However, they are not mentioned as a group in Canon law nor are they guaranteed to be considered for the ministry.
Older teens and young adults are leaving almost all Christian denominations in large numbers. Many reject the anti-scientific and anti-sexual attitudes of the denominations in which they were raised. Full inclusion of all persons in the denomination, including guarantees of being considered for the ministry, the solemnizing of marriages for loving, committed same-sex couples where such marriages are legal and rituals to recognize the unions of such couples where same-sex marriages are not available would go a long way to stop the alienation of younger members. However, such actions by the Episcopal Church risks losing older members.
Should transgender individuals be specifically identified as a group in Canon law?
The denomination has gone on record as being willing to consider anyone for lay and ordained ministry, without regard to their: "race, color, ethnic origin, national origin, sex, marital status, sexual orientation,disabilities or age. 1 Canon 1, Section 2 of the Ministry Canons states:
"No person shall be denied access to the discernment process for any ministry, lay or ordained, in this Church because of race, color, ethnic origin, national origin, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, disabilities or age, except as otherwise provided by these Canons. No right to licensing, ordination, or election is hereby established." 2
The addition of "gender identity and expression" to the permitted groups was considered by the 2009 Convention. It was approved by the lay and ordained deputies, but was amended by the Episcopal bishops who preferred a simpler statement that would allow consideration of "all baptized persons" for access to all of the Church ministries. Some transgender persons and their supporters then persuaded the lay and ordained deputies to reject the amendment.
The Right Reverend Mary Gray-Reeves, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real is the chairperson of the Legislative Committee that will review the similar 2012 resolution and decide whether to recommend it to the Convention. She said:
"There really is a tremendous need for education and understanding. People just don’t know what transgender is. ... I really just think most people [at the Convention] will feel like they’re not equipped to make and defend a decision about language supporting transgender people in ministry. In most of the country, away from the coasts, this is a very complex issue."
"... the American Psychiatric Association still classifies being transgender or transsexual as a 'disorder.' Whether we agree with that or not, and even though 'treatment' means things like helping a person to feel like they’re in the right body with hormones or surgery, that kind of thing is going to deter people from wanting to approve the resolution without having done a lot more thinking through it."
If the Episcopal Church does pass a positive resolution concerning transgender people, they would be the first mainline/liberal Christian denomination to do so.
Some commentators have suggested that the Episcopal Church is suffering from "inclusion fatigue" -- a reluctance to add additional groups to full equality within the denomination. Bishop Gray Reeves rejects this belief, saying:
"It’s not that we have ‘inclusion fatigue. It’s that the Church as a system can only absorb so much change at any one time. ... At the last convention, there was discussion about looking the theology of marriage, and it didn’t make it through. ... We were already on board with studying same-sex relationship blessings and resolutions related to compassionate pastoral care for lesbians and gays. So, it was not because [studying the theology of marriage] was terribly controversial. It was just more than we could handle in our dioceses. And the transgender piece could get caught in that practical reality again. ... I would love to see a resolution that suggests that we study in all of our dioceses what it means to be transgender. ... Because if you ask the Church to go from zero to sixty on new language without presenting the challenge of studying it, and providing resources to people, convention after convention, it’s just not going to pass. I’d like to see us being more strategic in getting the Church to really learn about transgender people so they can be supportive." 1
Integrity USA is the main LGBT advocacy group for members of the Episcopal Church. Integrity's media consultant and communications director Louis Emerson Brooks has produced a documentary film called "Voices of Witness: Out of the Box." It tells the personal stories of some of the transgender men and women who are have been ordained as ministers in the church. Douglas Hunter, a cisgender individual and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints directed the video. (A cisgender person is a member of the vast majority of persons whose gender identity matches their birth-identified gender and genetic gender.) He said:
"I think it’s always a great time to get to learn about other people, to expand the boundaries of your own compassion. There’s no ‘bad time’ to try to increase awareness and understanding."
"It’s my personal understanding of biblical ethics that Christ calls us to reach out to others who don’t fit in -- those who are poorly understood, who are subject to violence and domination within our culture. ... One thing we know about transgender people is that it’s so risky and dangerous just to be who they are. So, as Christians, we have to address the impact these misunderstandings and institutional policies and biases have on people’s lives day-to-day. Transgender folks, as they walk down the street today, in major cities, in America, are at risk for significant violence. The Episcopal Church has an opportunity to help lift that burden."
The Reverend Carolyn Woodall, is a transgender woman whose story is told in the documentary. She was recently ordained as a deacon at the Diocese of San Joaquin. She said:
“There comes a time in history when you’re called to make things happen. It’s not a matter of generating controversy. It’s a matter of all of us being fully who we are. It’s just that simple. Now is the time to act on that in the Church — to make a serious attempt to imitate Christ." 1
The Church's next triennial General Convention -- the 78th -- was scheduled for 2018-JUN-25 to JUL-03 in Austin, TX.