Friday, March 20, 2015

CTB Shout Out to the SCLM

The SCLM (Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music) has released its Report the to the 78th General Convention. You can read the 32 page report here ... but these specific proposals deserve a CTB a "shout out" for offering liturgical resources that would end the defacto sacramental apartheid of "separate but unequal" liturgies for same-sex couples/marriages in the Episcopal Church.
The Commission is therefore proposing four liturgies for authorization by General Convention 2015:

1) a revision of “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant,” taking into account specific feedback received from those who have used the text;

2) “The Witnessing and Blessing of a Marriage,” an adaptation of the revised rite for use by any couple who can be married according to civil law;

3) a gender-neutral adaptation of “The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage” from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer; and

4) “The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony,” a gender-neutral adaptation of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, providing same-sex couples with an option similar to that available to different-sex couples who use the 1928 BCP marriage rite by following “An Order for Marriage” (BCP 1979, pp. 435-36).
An email from the General Convention Office added:"The liturgy documents mentioned as appendices, however, are still being translated. Those will be published in a supplementary file later this Spring. We are planning to have all reports, including this supplemental file, posted by the first week of May, 2015."

In 1976 the 65th General Convention resolved that its LGBT member deserved "full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance and pastoral concern and care of the Church. Claiming the Blessing looks forward to working with our allies in the House of Bishops and Deputies at the 78th General Convention as we continue the work of making that resolution a reality with equal protection and equal blessing for all couples called into the vocation of marriage in the Episcopal Church.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Claiming the Blessing comment on Integrity workforce reduction

We received with sadness the news that the Integrity Board is reducing its workforce as it works to align and manage limited resources in the ongoing work of advocacy and inclusion. The 2015 financial climate makes downsizing a sad reality for nonprofits in general -- and for faith organizations in particular. And there is deep grief at having to make hard decisions that directly impact the livelihood of those we’ve worked with and care about as colleagues and friends. We hold Vivian Taylor and Sam Peterson particularly in our prayers as they look for new positions to use their gifts and talents in meaningful and productive ways.

Like the Episcopal Church at large, Integrity is in the process of reimagining itself for the next scope of its work – and as difficult as that process is, we support the Integrity leadership in that challenge. We speak as an organization that went through our own restructuring back in 2004 when Claiming the Blessing transitioned from having a full time Executive Director to being an all-volunteer collaborative network of groups and individuals.

That transition -- from an institutional model with full time, program staff to a movement model of volunteers -- has continued to serve our work and witness for inclusion, as a leadership voice in the work for the full inclusion of all the baptized in all the sacraments in the Episcopal Church AND as an advocate for LGBTQ equality in the civic arena.

Claiming the Blessing will be working at General Convention this summer in collaboration with our Integrity allies and hand in hand with TransEpiscopal to advance a robust legislative agenda that includes marriage equality as an important -- but not exclusive -- focus.

We are committed to continue the work we began in 2002: promoting wholeness in human relationships, abolishing prejudice and oppression, and healing the rift between sexuality and spirituality in the Church. We look forward to working with Integrity – one of our founding organizational members – as we continue that work together in Salt Lake City and beyond. We join with all who give thanks for over 40 years of prophetic witness Integrity has offered to the church and to the world -- and we hold their leadership in our prayers as they embrace the challenge of reimagining that work into God's future.

Because the arc of the moral universe is long. And it does bend toward justice. And it's not there yet.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"Blessing Claimed! Now What?"

"We have seen the case for inclusion we were making from the fringes of the Church become a commitment to inclusion coming from the center of the Church."

A sermon celebrating 10 years of incremental victories by "Claiming the Blessing" and calling for a new set of audacious new goals for the future preached by Susan Russell on August 5, 2012 at All Saints Church in Pasadena.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Decade of Claiming the Blessing: 100+ Pictures Worth 1000+ Words!

Marking a decade of work and witness, the Claiming the Blessing community has been going through photo archives and pulling out pictures of the milestones of the last ten years. With more to come -- both work and pictures! -- here's a look at what it takes to "claim the blessing:"

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Celebrating 10 Years of Claiming the Blessing!

by CTB Convenor Susan Russell

CLAIMING the BLESSING was officially launched when the newly appointed CTB Executive Director (that would be ME!) set up shop in the southeast cubicle of the multipurpose "temporary" office space in the north driveway of All Saints Church in Pasadena on August 1, 2002.

CTB was convened as an intentional collaborative ministry of leading Episcopal justice organizations (including Integrity, Oasis, Beyond Inclusion and the Episcopal Women's Caucus) in partnership with the Witness magazine and other individual leaders in the Episcopal Church focused on: promoting wholeness in human relationships, abolishing prejudice and oppression, and healing the rift between sexuality and spirituality in the Church. Other posts on this blogsite give a great overview of the work and witness of the last decade ... but here's the Clif Notes version:

Our initial commitment was obtaining approval of a liturgical blessing of the faithful, monogamous relationship between two adults of any gender at General Convention 2003. Toward that end we convened a national conference -- Claiming the Blessing 2002 -- in St. Louis, Missouri. Three days of workshops, worship and the introduction of the draft CTB Theology Statement ... and we were off and running!

Then on June 7, 2003 -- when Canon Gene Robinson was elected by the Diocese of New Hampshire to be their 9th bishop -- our agenda expanded to include securing consents to his election. The results were history making. Between November 2002 and July 2003 the CTB Theology Statement was distributed to every bishop and deputy to the 74th General Convention of the Episcopal Church in preparation for legislation moving forward to authorize the blessing of same-sex relationships when they met in Minneapolis.

We left Minneapolis having met both of those goals: a new bishop for New Hampshire and having taken another step forward on blessings in a resolution “recognizing that local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions."

In preparation for the 2006 General Convention, Claiming the Blessing continued to “tell our stories” by commissioning VOICES OF WITNESS as a video gift to the Episcopal Church. From the project summary: We believe that telling these stories, sharing these witnesses, is a gift we have to offer – and we believe that there has never been a more important time for us to commit ourselves to offering that gift in a way it can be the most widely received throughout the church and the communion. We believed that then and we continue to believe it now.

At the 75th General Convention in Columbus we worked with an extraordinary team of allies and succeeded in orchestrating a legislative strategy rejecting a raft of resolutions that would have turned the clock back on equality in response to “The Windsor Report.” What we were not able to do was to fend off the now infamous “B033” – the resolution calling for a defacto moratorium on consents to the election as bishop of anyone "whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion."

Claiming the Blessing was present at the Lambeth Conference 2008 as part of the Inclusive Communion Witness; produced and distributed "Voices of Witness: Africa" giving voice to the too-often invisible LGBT faithful in Africa and in 2009 worked with allies to reverse B033 and adopt Resolution C056 -- calling for the collection and development of theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same-gender relationships.

And then in 2012 -- after a decade of commitment -- Claiming the Blessing traveled to Indianapolis to finish the work we started in St. Louis in 2002: obtaining approval of a liturgical blessing of the faithful, monogamous relationship between two adults of any gender. Ten years of work and witness. Tears and tantrums. Theology statements, blog posts, fundraising letters -- and more parish halls, small groups, legislative committee meetings, open hearings and closed-door-meetings than you can shake a stick at. Ten years and "Claiming the Blessing" became "Blessing Claimed!" with the adoption of GC Resolution 2012-A049.

It proved impossible to get everybody in one shot -- given travel schedules and calendar issues ... but between these two photos we just about made it: The Claiming the Blessing Crew ... Ten Years Later!

And then there are my personal highlights ... what we used to call "Kodak Moments" before there were digital cameras and instant uploads: the freeze frame moments in my mental photo album of the Claiming the Blessing years:
  • That January 2002 meeting at the College of Preachers where we came up with "Claiming the Blessing" for the name for our embryonic collaborative -- and Ed Bacon said the Executive Director we were looking for was someone who woke up thinking about this work every morning. And I realized that was me.  
  • The reception room in the St. Louis Cathedral as speakers and particpants were gathering for the November 2002 CTB Conference and looking around to see Louie Crew, Carter Heyward, Marge Christie and Ed Browning -- just to name a few -- and thinking "OMG ... we are actually DOING this!"
  • Another St. Louis moment: Michael Hopkins' face when Ed Bacon pulled up his chair into our early morning conference team planning meeting and said, "I feel an altar call coming on." "Say more about what that would look like," said Michael. And what it looked like was a church full of people filling out pledge cards and then bringing them to the altar while we sang "Just As I Am" -- and raised enough to fund a year of our work.
  • The clandestine meeting at the diocesan office with the bishop who agreed to meet with me and allow me to present the CTB case/theology statement -- as long as nobody knew the meeting was taking place. Parking in the alley -- coming up the freight elevator -- checking to see that the "coast was clear" before going into his office with the Canon to the Ordinary. Never let it be said we didn't do what it took. (And no, we didn't get his support.)
  • Sitting in Michael's office at St. George's in Glen Dale, MD in 2003 with the leadership team from the American Anglican Council and hearing David Anderson explain that the reason blessing same-sex relationships were a deal-breaker was that genital activity was so important to God that He put a fence around it and inside that fence was only a man and a woman within the sacrament of marriage.
  • The National Reconciliation Conversation at St. James in L.A. -- intended to bring together leadership from "both sides" of the divide in the Episcopal Church. The Claiming the Blessing leadership team was there. The American Anglican Council was not. Do the math.
  • The Minneapolis roller coaster that was +Gene's consent process -- the low points of the bogus allegations of misconduct and the high points of the celebration once the votes were in.
  • Watching the expression on Susan Candiotti's face while we were live on CNN and Kendall Harmon responded to her question of why homosexuality was the straw that was going to break the camel's back of the Anglican Communion with the immortal words: "Because it's like trying to put milk in a car. It just doesn't work." (Seriously!)
  • The standing-room-only Columbus screening of "Voices of Witness" -- produced by my brilliant partner Louise Brooks -- and the tears and cheers it inspired.
  • In the depth of the betrayal and despair that was the aftermath of B033 having Vermont Bishop Tom Ely come find us in the hotel basement sit with us in the pain ... just BE there.
  • Nottingham and Lambeth and Plano and Anaheim -- Birmingham and Boston; Nashville, Newark and New Orleans -- more metal detectors, parish halls, power points and round table discussions than I can remember.
Many years ago, then All Saints Pasadena rector George Regas challenged justice activists to "set audacious goals and celebrate incremental victories." For Claiming the Blessing the "Blessing, Claimed!" in Indianapolis -- after ten years of work and witness of the Claiming the Blessing collaborative built on the foundation of decades of prophetic ministry by our various organizations and congregations -- is an incremental victory we're celebrating on the road to our original, audacious goal: promoting wholeness in human relationships, abolishing prejudice and oppression, and healing the rift between sexuality and spirituality in the Church.

Happy 10th Birthday, CTB! La lucha continua!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Knowing Our History

A Background Paper on LGBT Inclusion in the Episcopal Church -- by the Reverend Canon Susan Russell

The Episcopal Church has been officially debating the issue of human sexuality, particularly as it applies to gay and lesbian people, since the General Convention of 1976 when resolutions passed by the Bishops and Deputies began to frame the parameters of the debate.

In the intervening years resolutions have been passed and then amended as the church's position has evolved in response to the dialogue. In 1976, the General Convention asserted in a resolution (A069) that "homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance and pastoral concern and care of the Church." But there continues to be a wide divergence of opinion on just how we live out that understanding in the Church.

In 1991, at the General Convention held in Phoenix acknowledged its inability to resolve the complex issues surrounding human sexuality by means of the normal legislative process. The Convention opted instead for a process of continued study and dialogue across the whole church, with a report to be issued from the House of Bishops.

In 1994, That report, “Continuing the Dialogue,” was published and is highly recommended as a resource for more detailed information.

While resolutions from General Convention are important aspects of our polity - the process through which we govern the church - they are generally perceived to be recommendatory and therefore lacking the force of a canon or law. The only canon to deal with the issue of homosexual orientation in any specific way was adopted in 1994:

"All Bishops of Dioceses and other Clergy shall make provisions to identify fit persons for Holy Orders and encourage them to present themselves for Postulancy. No one shall be denied access to the selection process for ordination in this Church because of race, color, ethnic origin, sex, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, disabilities, or age, except as otherwise specified by these Canons." -- Title III, Canon 4, Section 1 of the Constitution and Canons for the Government of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, p. 60
In 1996, the Court of Trial for a Bishop refused to hear charges filed against Bishop Walter Righter for ordaining a gay man living in a relationship. The court said there was no doctrine against such an ordination and that there is no canonical bar to gay and lesbian ordination in the Episcopal Church.

72nd General Convention | 1997 Philadelphia 1997

(C024) APPROVED HEALTH BENEFITS FOR DOMESTIC PARTNERS, to be extended to the partners of clergy and lay employees in dioceses that wish to do so.
(D011) It also voted to APOLOGIZE ON BEHALF OF THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH to its members who are gay and lesbian and to the lesbians and gay men outside the Church for years of rejection and maltreatment by the Church and affirm that this Church seeks amendment of our life together as we ask God's help in sharing the Good News with all people.

In 1998, the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, meeting in July at their every ten-year gathering in Canterbury, passed Lambeth Resolution 1:10 -- which was entitled "Human Sexuality" and included the majority opinion of the bishops gathered at that conference that "homosexual practice is incompatible with Scripture" and "cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions."

Much energy has been spent over the intervening years debating whether that language was descriptive of the bishops gathered at Lambeth '98 or proscriptive for the wider communion.

73rd General Convention | Denver 2000

(A009) The IDENTIFICATION OF “SAFE SPACES,” establishing a formal process for congregations to identify themselves as safe spaces for GLBT people;
(C031) recommending that congregations engage in dialogue with the BOY SCOUTS OF AMERICA REGARDING THEIR POLICY ON HOMOSEXUALS
(D039) Arguably the most influential resolution adopted in Denver was:
Passed overwhelmingly by a voice vote in the House of Deputies and by a 119-19 margin in the House of Bishops. An “8th Resolve” which called for the preparation of rites for inclusion in the Book of Occasional Services failed to pass by a narrow margin in both houses. However, this important resolution broke new ground by moving the Episcopal Church into conversations about relationship that transcend sexual orientation ... and set the stage for the 2003 General Convention in Minneapolis.
74th General Convention | Minneapolis 2003

In addition to consenting to the election of V. Gene Robinson as the Bishop of New Hampshire, the 2003 General Convention in Minneapolis passed a landmark resolution moving the church forward on the blessing of same-sex unions:

(C051) Blessing of Committed Same-Gender Relationships

Key resolves included:

4. That we reaffirm Resolution D039 of the 73rd General Convention (2000), that "We expect such relationships will be characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God," and that such relationships exist throughout the church.

5. That we recognize that local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions.
.These two important steps -- consent to the election of an openly gay, partnered bishop and the recognition that the blessing of unions falls "within the bounds of our common life" -- became a flash point for those insisting that the differences that challenge us cannot be bridged, but must become divisions that separate us.

75th General Convention | Columbus 2006

Following the gains made in Minneapolis in 2003, pressure was put on the wider Anglican Communion to censure the American Episcopal Church. In 2004 "The Windsor Report" was published. In 2005 the Episcopal Church presented its response to the Windsor Report -- "To Set Our Hope on Christ" -- at the Nottingham meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council.

The 2006 General Convention was consumed by responding the Windsor Report and whether or not American bishops would be invited to the 2008 Lambeth Conference -- the every 10 year gathering of Anglican bishops.

After nine day of legislation, a series of "response to Windsor" resolutions were passed:

(A159) Affirm Commitment to the Anglican Communion
(A160) Express Regret for Straining the Bonds of the Church
(A165) Commend the Windsor Report and Commit to the "Windsor Process"
(A166) Support Development of an Anglican Covenant

In addition, General Convention voted to:

(A167) Reaffirm Church Membership of Gay and Lesbian Persons
(A095) Reaffirm Support of Gay and Lesbian Persons
(D005) Oppose Criminalization of Homosexuality

Resolutions submitted insisting on "compliance" with aspects of the Windsor Report that recommended moratorium on the blessing of unions or discrimination against partnered gay or lesbian candidates for bishop were rejected.

On the 10th and last legislative day, an unprecedented joint session of the Houses of Bishops & Deputies was presented with Resolution B033 by then Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold. The resolution that passed both houses was entitled "Exercise Restraint in Consecrating Candidates" and read:
Resolved, That the 75th General Convention receive and embrace The Windsor Report's invitation to engage in a process of healing and reconciliation; and be it further

Resolved, That this Convention therefore call upon Standing Committees and bishops with jurisdiction to exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.
In 2008 the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops was held in Canterbury. The Bishop of New Hampshire was not invited to attend.

76th General Convention | Anaheim 2009 

Two primary goals were set out for this General Convention by LGBT activists: moving beyond B033 and forward on the blessing of same sex unions. Both were accomplished.

(C056) Liturgies for Blessings:

Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That the 76th General Convention acknowledge the changing circumstances in the United States and in other nations, as legislation authorizing or forbidding marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships for gay and lesbian persons is passed in various civil jurisdictions that call forth a renewed pastoral response from this Church, and for an open process for the consideration of theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same gender relationships; and be it further

Resolved, That the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, in consultation with the House of Bishops, collect and develop theological and liturgical resources, and report to the 77th General Convention; and be it further

Resolved, That the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, in consultation with the House of Bishops, devise an open process for the conduct of its work inviting participation from provinces, dioceses, congregations, and individuals who are engaged in such theological work, and inviting theological reflection from throughout the Anglican Communion; and be it further

Resolved, That bishops, particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this Church; and be it further

Resolved, That this Convention honor the theological diversity of this Church in regard to matters of human sexuality; and be it further

Resolved, That the members of this Church be encouraged to engage in this effort.


(D025) Commitment and Witness to Anglican Communion
Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the 76th General Convention reaffirm the continued participation of The Episcopal Church as a constituent member of the Anglican Communion; give thanks for the work of the bishops at the Lambeth Conference of 2008; reaffirm the abiding commitment of The Episcopal Church to the fellowship of churches that constitute the Anglican Communion and seek to live into the highest degree of communion possible; and be it further

Resolved, That the 76th General Convention encourage dioceses, congregations, and members of The Episcopal Church to participate to the fullest extent possible in the many instruments, networks and relationships of the Anglican Communion; and be it further

Resolved, That the 76th General Convention reaffirm its financial commitment to the Anglican Communion and pledge to participate fully in the Inter-Anglican Budget; and be it further

Resolved, That the 76th General Convention affirm the value of "listening to the experience of homosexual persons," as called for by the Lambeth Conferences of 1978, 1988, and 1998, and acknowledge that through our own listening the General Convention has come to recognize that the baptized membership of The Episcopal Church includes same-sex couples living in lifelong committed relationships "characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God" (2000-D039); and be it further

Resolved, That the 76th General Convention recognize that gay and lesbian persons who are part of such relationships have responded to God's call and have exercised various ministries in and on behalf of God's One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and are currently doing so in our midst; and be it further

Resolved, That the 76th General Convention affirm that God has called and may call such individuals, to any ordained ministry in The Episcopal Church, and that God's call to the ordained ministry in The Episcopal Church is a mystery which the Church attempts to discern for all people through our discernment processes acting in accordance with the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church; and be it further

Resolved, That the 76th General Convention acknowledge that members of The Episcopal Church as of the Anglican Communion, based on careful study of the Holy Scriptures, and in light of tradition and reason, are not of one mind, and Christians of good conscience disagree about some of these matters.

77th General Convention | Indianapolis 2012

A number of LGBT related resolutions were adopted by the 77th General Convention meeting in Indianapolis in July of 2012. They included:

A049 Authorize Liturgical Resources for Blessing Same-Gender Relationships
A050 Create Task Force on the Study of Marriage
D018 End Discrimination Against Same-Sex Marriages
D002 Affirming Access to the Ordination Process (ending discrimination against transgender ordination)
D019 Adding Gender Identity and Gender Expression to Non-Discrimination Canons

2012 - 2015

Over two dozen Episcopal Bishops signed amici ("friend of the court") briefs on the two marriage equality cases being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. Details here.

The "Task Force on the Study of Marriage" called for by Resolution A050 was convened and charged with reporting back to the 2015 General Convention (to be held in Salt Lake City.) Details here.

The Report to the 78th General Convention of the Task Force on the Study of Marriage was released in February 2015. It included a resolution calling for canonical changes that would end discrimination against the marriage of same-sex couples.  Details here.

In March 2015, President of the House of Deputies Gay Clark Jennings was a primary signer of the amicus brief filed by over 2000 faith leaders calling for the Supreme Court to overturn existing bans on civil marriage between same-sex couples in some states. Details here.

78th General Convention | Salt Lake City 2015

June 25 - July 3 ... visit the GC2015 webpages for more information

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Big House of Classical Anglicanism -- by William Countryman

Condensed from his keynote address at the Claiming the Blessing Conference in St. Louis, MO, in November 2002 Bill Countryman argues that "this blessing of unions is not finally, for lesbians and gay men, about social convenience, or status, or even justice. It is about our access to God."

We are here to claim the blessing — that is, to celebrate the gospel at work in the lives of people. Particularly gay and lesbian people, but that’s a way of celebrating the gospel at work in the lives of everyone. It’s a way of saying that God plays no favorites, that even you, whoever you are, are really and truly welcome here.

I’ve noticed that people who object to what we are working toward here often speak of it as the work of a 'gay/lesbian lobby,' the functional equivalent of the 'outside agitators' of the not so distant past. They like to say that this is the world’s agenda intruding on the life of the church. It’s such a silly misconception, really. The church ought to be delighted, of course, if it found people outside the church beating down its doors, clamoring for its blessing. But I don’t see that happening. Some people outside the church could hardly care less; others are actively suspicious. No one is beating down the doors.

As we all know, this movement has come from within, welling up from the Spirit, from the hearts and minds and lives of faithful church folk. The issue of blessing our unions has arisen for us as a result of our growth in faith, hope, and love; and it summons us to further growth. The last few decades have seen extraordinary outpourings of grace among us. What strikes me when I visit parishes that have joined in this undertaking is that the tone of life in them is not partisan or polemical. What I encounter again and again is a sense of deep gratitude for God's ability and willingness to surprise us with new gifts of insight, with new faith and new hope, even in the difficult times in which we live. And we celebrate these gifts by sharing them with others.

God's gifts are not just for us, and we haven't kept them just to ourselves. Over and over again, we see lesbians and gay men, people who would have been hiding in the shadows of our
church a generation ago, now coming forward to contribute their gifts, their strength and loyalty and wisdom, freely and openly to the whole community of faith. And heterosexual people who have seen this happening have also been freed to give more generously of themselves.

The move to have a form of blessing for same-sex unions is, in an important sense, an appeal for justice. But it is even more a renewal of grace, an opportunity for the whole church to renew its trust in God for the future. And it is a celebration of one of God's greatest gifts — our human love for one another.

I want to return to this theme toward the end of this address. But first I want to say a little about what it means that we are Anglicans dealing with issues of sexuality here as Anglicans. Our position is rather ironic, in fact. What we're living out here together is classic Anglicanism. What do I mean by 'classic Anglicanism'? I mean the broad mainstream of Anglicanism as it was shaped in the Reformation. It was formed, in the 16th and 17th centuries, in contradistinction to two other types of Christianity, both of which thought they knew the mind of God pretty well: Roman Catholicism and the Geneva tradition, whose chief English representatives were the Puritans. We worked to distinguish ourselves from both — and especially from their assumption that they knew the mind of God so well.

This isn't just a modern way of interpreting those remote times. It was their own way of seeing the issues, too. It was particularly the Puritan challenge that caused Richard Hooker to write Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Hooker put the theological challenge that confronted classic Anglicanism very succinctly in a marginal note he wrote in a religious tract: 'Two things there are which greatly trouble these later times: one that the Church of Rome cannot, another that Geneva will not erre.'

Classic Anglicanism, by contrast, focused not on having a detailed and certain knowledge of the mind of God, but on maintaining life and conversation in the faithful community. We believe that no one will ever know it all, but that the Sprit will work with us in the unity (not uniformity) of the church to bring us toward truth. Hooker was broadly sympathetic to the theology of Calvin and the Puritans. What he objected to was their utter certainty of knowing the mind of God — their unwillingness to err. Classic Anglicanism values the ongoing life and conversation of the faithful community, however awkward and irritating it may become, far above such doctrinal assurance, attractive though it may seem. We are pretty sure the assurance is mistaken. We are also pretty sure that God's help will not fail us if we continue to work and pray together.

This Anglican focus on maintaining the unity of the church has created a big house, one with room for all sorts of people. What's held us together is that classic Anglican concern for the life and conversation of the faithful community. I have yet to hear any advocate of blessing gay and lesbian unions threaten to leave over the issue. The threats of schism come from elsewhere.

If there are those within the Episcopal Church who already know the mind of God too well to go on participating in this conversation, to go on maintaining the unity of the church — well, we have to say to them, 'We do not want you to go. We want to have you in the faithful community. But we are maintaining the classic Anglican tradition here. And we will not give that up to keep you here.'

To move toward the blessing of lesbian and gay unions is important because all members of the church ought to be treated equally and with equal respect. But there is even more to it. It is important because it touches on the love that is at the very heart of our faith, of our relationship with God. It's a truism that Christianity is focused on love — and equally a truism that we fail to live up to that. Our attitudes toward those with whom we disagree lapse easily into quite savage hostility. I hope that we who have experienced this kind of hostility from others will learn not to let it infect and consume us, will keep discovering ways to speak with love and respect even when we are not met with the like.

We recognize afresh what Christians have recognized, in their various ways, from the beginning: that human desire, the same desire that informs our human loves, is an integral part of what draws us to God. The Song of Songs enshrines this principle in the heart of our Scriptures. The love of the human beloved is our closest, most decisive analogy to the love of God. Both loves are difficult to express adequately.

What I am saying is that without human love, we would have almost no analogy for our relationship with God. Flawed as all human love is, it is still the best thing in our makeup, the brightest treasure that God placed there. And it is by this that God calls us home. Well-meaning people sometimes say to me, 'Why can't the gay and lesbian community just hold back on this point so that the church can get on to more important things in its mission?'

To that, my answer is, 'Spiritually, there may not be anything more important.' I do not say that to slight the other very real sufferings of the world — the disaster, say, of AIDS in Africa or the unfinished struggle against racism here and throughout the world. I say it rather because our reluctant, body-avoidant Christian psyche needs to understand that this blessing of unions is not finally, for lesbians and gay men, about social convenience, or status, or even justice. It is about our access to God.

We, of course, know that our loves give us access to God. But the church at large needs to understand that, too. And as the church comes to understand it, I believe all Christians will be freed to rediscover the passion of their relatedness to God in new ways. This is not just for lesbians and gay men. It is for everyone. What is our task now? Our task, first and foremost, is to live as people of faith, to live in celebration of God’s generosity, to live as people shaped radically, from the ground up, by our experience of the gospel, to live as people converted to trust in God, to hope in God’s continuing presence with us, to love the way God loves us.

And in our particular place and time, one way we have to do this is to hold up the loves of gay and lesbian people as opportunities for blessing. Through them, God’s blessing can come to us and does come to us. Through them, God’s blessing can and does come to the people around us. For the church to extend its blessing does not make our unions better; it simply acknowledges and gives thanks for the blessings of God already present.

The church’s blessing is important not because God cannot bless without it! God is not constrained by our fears and anxieties, by our hugging of blessings to ourselves and denial of them to our neighbors. God blesses where God wills. But we, the church, need to be a part of that blessing — for our sake, not for God’s. That’s why we continue to move toward this goal — so that grace and blessing will continue to abound ever more and more, in this world as in the age to come.

L. William Countryman is Sherman E. Johnson Professor in Biblical Studies at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California, and the author of many popular books including Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and their Implications for Today (Fortress Press, 1988), Good News of Jesus: Reintroducing the Gospel (Trinity Press International and Cowley Publications, 1993), The Mystical Way According to John: Crossing Over into God, rev. ed. (Trinity Press International, 1995), Forgiven and Forgiving (Morehouse Publishing, 1998), Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All (Morehouse Publishing, 1999), The Poetic Imagination: An Anglican Spiritual Tradition (Orbis, 2000), and (with M. R. Ritley) Gifted by Otherness: Gay and Lesbian Christians in the Church (Morehouse, 2001).