Moratorium? Not again

(Through Labor Day, the Daily Episcopalian will be the every-other-daily Episcopalian.)

By Donald Schell

Some of our global Anglican bishops have called for a moratorium on blessing same sex unions and ordaining LGBT bishops (or maybe even LGBT clergy). Can we accept their moratorium? Not if we remember what another moratorium cost our church in integrity when we turned away from black America at a moment of Gospel opportunity.

We have to learn how say ‘yes’ to Communion and ‘no’ to moratorium.

If we so ‘no’ to moratorium and don’t just walk away, we’ll have to explain ourselves patiently and compassionately to our fellow Anglicans around the world. That will include facing the debate to rescind B033 at Anaheim in 2009.

But if we reject the moratorium, won’t they throw us out?

Common history and our understanding of sacrament anchor us in Anglican Communion, and our willingness to love sisters and brothers across the globe makes us flourish in Communion. Is Gene Robinson an Anglican bishop? We know he is, even though he was disinvited from Lambeth, but his critics know he’s a bishop too – that’s why they’re so troubled and call for his resignation.

If our American and Canadian bishops get disinvited from the next Lambeth, I’d hope they’d find their way to join Gene in Canterbury outside the security line, following his lead to take Lambeth to the streets.

Meanwhile, though some would say we’ve already explained ourselves, in love for our sisters and brothers (at home and globally) we’ve got to use print, video, scholarly publication, and face to face conversation to speak to those who don’t get what we’re saying and doing and –

– tell them all we’ve learned from the ministry of LGBT leaders among us,

– lay out (again and in detail) how we read scripture,

– say again why we believe that faithfulness to scripture, reason and tradition demand we practice full inclusion of LGBT sisters and brothers,

– argue biblically from St. Paul’s refusal to accept a moratorium on baptizing uncircumcised Gentiles,


– confess our Episcopal church’s mistaken moratorium in the years when emerging global Anglicanism came to reject slavery.

For a moment in this present struggle, we’re privileged to stand on a hilltop. We listen to the voices of sister and brother LGBT clergy who are us and stand among us; we see their faces and know them today because we’re learning together to practice honesty. Of course they’ve been there all along, and they’re all across the communion. The ‘moratorium’ asks us all to ignore their existence and asks them to return to hiding in plain sight. We can’t do that anymore. Their ministries have blessed us all. We are brothers and sisters in Christ.

From the hilltop we see the Spirit at work in our LGBT friends’ willingness to risk marriage in a culture where people are afraid to commit or acknowledge lasting love, and we see a way forward as our secular society now leads us in beginning to affirm committed LGBT relationships with domestic partnerships and marriage. Straight couples among us have been grateful for support and wise counsel from LGBT friends in relationship.

Moratorium at this point would be choosing anesthetized ‘peace’ over Good News. For us moratorium would be walking away from Jesus.

That’s exactly what we did in the 19th century, turn away from Jesus. Our Episcopal Church turned its back on the key moral issue of its time.

Our English brothers and sisters, relentlessly urged on by Quaker activists (and a few brave Anglicans who defied and shamed their own recalcitrant C of E) disturbed a complacent, complicit church to bring an end to slavery. The English struggle for abolition began about the time our new Constitution acknowledged slavery as an institution. England stopped the slave trade in 1807 and emancipated all the slaves in English colonies in 1833. Of course there were abolitionists in the U.S., but they weren’t Episcopalians. It take two more generations for the American church to begin facing up to our national shame.

The Civil war divided the American Episcopal Church in two. Like other churches in the Confederacy, Southern Episcopalians found biblical justification for slavery. One prominent Episcopal Bishop (Leonidas Polk) was not only a slaveholder, but died on the battlefield as a Confederate general. Meanwhile, the Northern Episcopal Church, though loyal to the Union, never supported the Abolitionist movement in word or action. Instead we longed and prayed for reunion of the church, even at the cost of truth.

After the war our church rejoiced in reuniting, boasting that smoothing over differences proved our Christian charity. A few bishops and lay leaders attempted to begin a truth-telling conversation about Emancipation, but the 1865 General Convention quickly resolved that church unity was worth silence. The Episcopal Church’s failure to repent of its complicity in slavery and celebrate the freedom of our own African-American members prompted a mass exodus thousands of African-American to other churches.

It could have been different. There were voices at the 1865 General Convention like Maine Bishop Burgess who proposed holding a service of thanksgiving for the ending of the war and slavery. It’s easy to imagine a momentary hush in the House of Bishops when he’d finished his proposal. Bishop Elliott of Georgia had warned against just this sort of thing in The New York Times a few weeks before the Convention:

“Reunion…ought to take place in such wise as to preserve our good faith in our brethren and each other….It is our duty to guard the memory of our deceased bishops Meade, Otey and especially our beloved Polk [the slaveholding Bishop who died on the battlefield as a Confederate General]. Not that we should expect any endorsement from the General Convention of their views and actions, but that we should feel assured that no reproach, either direct or implied, will be cast upon their graves…the reputation of the dead is in our keeping, and we can fraternize with nobody who would willingly disturb their ashes. They have lived and died for us, and however wrong others may think them, we revere their memory and weep over their graves.”

“The church should desire to maintain and uphold the self-respect of all its members, remembering that they are the body of Christ. In this way we shall become in our reunion the admiration of the country, as we were for so many years during the fierce wrangling which preceded secession, its wonder, for our reticence and self-control.”

Bishop Elliott speaks as though the Episcopal Church had no black members, though in fact, at that point, most African Americans still attended Episcopal churches. ‘Our reticence and self-control’ kept us from speaking against ‘their’ enslavement or celebrating their freedom.

But Bishop Elliott didn’t actually ignore the existence of black people. He talked about them with a condescension that sounds like a contemporary Anglican bishop claiming Christian charity toward homosexual people and concern that liberals are shielding ‘them’ from Biblical truth,

‘…I have advised my people to take it [the oath of allegiance renewing U.S. citizenship] and be good citizens, and above all to do the best for the poor, unfortunate negroes, whose future is dark and miserable beyond conception. Already they are perishing by thousands, the whole race will now go out before civilization (so called) and competition, as the Indians are doing. We can survive the change, and one day flourish again; but not they; their fate is sealed.’

Apparently Bishop Elliott gave no thought to the thousands of black Episcopalians who would hear his self-satisfied warning of a future ‘they’ could not survive. No black Episcopalian hearing Elliott could miss how profoundly the bishop’s ‘we ‘ and ‘they’ marginalized and obliterated black Episcopalians’ desire and need to celebrate new found freedom in hope.

The Convention rejected Bishop Burgess initiative and followed Bishop Elliott’s lead. The House of Bishops quickly crafted a substitute resolution that we celebrate that the church was being reunited (making no troubling mention of Emancipation). Can we hear their sigh of relief? It was almost over.

The House of Deputies did reopen the question but a flurry of fierce debate came to no resolution, so there the 1865 General Convention took no action to acknowledge that slavery for black Episcopalians (and other citizens of African descent) had ended. We embraced silence rather than thinking, not talking rather than facing painful arguments. We turned our backs on grief, responsibility, and wrong. And so we closed our eyes and shut our ears to the grace of long desired freedom that had come to so many of our members. By the 1867 Lambeth conference, most black Episcopalians had left our church. What difference would it have made to black Episcopalians if the Episcopal Church in 1865 had tried to tell its whole painful story? What if we had established something like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

That first Lambeth Conference met just two years after the American church’s 1865 General Convention. Our bishops carried America’s unaddressed race struggles to the first Lambeth. We know they were wondering silently about the exodus of black Episcopalians, because back home they were preaching and writing about the ingratitude of the Negro race. How could they abandon our church after we built them slave galleries so they could worship with us?

Our church carried that wound of silence for the next century, choosing to institutionalize denial for the sake of unity and joining in the practices of Jim Crow America: A few years after first Lambeth Conference, when we ordained our first African-American Bishop (Delaney) to serve black Episcopalians in North Carolina, we made him promise that he would never lay hands on a white person’s head in the rite of confirmation.

Our hundred-year moratorium of silence ended in the 1960’s when the Civil Rights movement awakened our church’s conscience. It was painful time for the church, because we were not of one mind, but conscience and conflict were no longer in hiding. From the 60’s Freedom Marches until today, we’ve been struggling to keep speaking, listening and talking; it’s clear that it will take a very long time to heal the wounds our century of silence inflicted on the church.

In 2008, American Episcopalians, legitimately confident in our proclamation of Jesus’ welcome to all and proud that our church is working for justice for our LGBT sisters and brothers, must learn from our own shameful moratorium that held our church together and silent before the Civil War and reunited it at the cost of most of its black membership after the War.

The Spirit of Truth challenges us to reject any more moratoria on truth telling. That’s all this moratorium would be – silence from and about the LGBT Anglicans throughout the Communion. But if we see our way to rejecting the moratorium, can we do it without self-congratulation and disdain for our brothers, Anglican bishops and church leaders who, at this moment, hear inclusion as a counterfeit Gospel?

Along with all our efforts to interpret what we’re doing now and why we believe it’s faithful to Scripture, Reason and Tradition, humble truth-telling of the damage we did ourselves and our church with an earlier moratorium begins to sound like Gospel. Can we say ‘no’ to this moratorium and insistently thank the worldwide Communion for welcoming us over the last hundred and fifty years while we struggled (and continue the struggle) to become fully Christian on issues of race?

Speaking our truthful refusal to accept this new moratorium and acknowledging our past sins as a church will not prevent painful conversation and conflict. Painful conversation and conflict is inevitably part of growth and change. But recalling our old moratorium and what we learned from it could plant a seed of Gospel unity in penance and Christian charity. Like the mustard seed, such unity grows from a tiny beginning to a shrub so generous that birds will nest together in its shade. It’s time to insist. Whatever it takes, we’ll ‘yes’ to communion and ‘no’ to moratorium.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is Creative Director of All Saints Company, working for community development in congregational life focusing on sharing leadership, welcoming creativity and building community through music.

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