Episcopalians ask: Does church or culture lead?

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Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson on the fringes of the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, England, a year ago.

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- As the Episcopal Church lifted a de facto ban on gay and lesbian bishops and appears headed toward adapting rites for same-sex unions, one question has repeatedly surfaced in the debates: Does the church takes its cues from the culture, or stand against it?

Episcopal bishops gathered for the denomination's General Convention acknowledged that tension in the very first sentence of a resolution they approved Wednesday (July 16) that allows flexibility in devising blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.

"The changing circumstances in the United States and in other nations," in legalizing gay marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships "call forth a renewed pastoral response from this Church," the resolution reads.

Bishops overwhelmingly voted to give themselves -- particularly those who work in states where same-sex couples are legally recognized -- the freedom to "provide a generous pastoral response" to gays and lesbians. On Tuesday, the church voted to lift a three-year moratorium on consecrating gay and lesbian bishops.

At an assembly that is quickly confirming the ascendance of liberals in the church, bishops approved the blessings resolution 104 to 30, with two abstentions. It now moves to lay and clergy delegates in the House of Deputies, where it must be approved before becoming church law.

The bishops' resolution also calls on the church "to collect and develop theological and liturgical resources" on blessings for same-gender couples, a compromise that pushes new churchwide rites further down the road than some gay groups wanted.

"It is not `the whole enchilada' -- and there's lots of work still to do before we reach that `full inclusion' place we're headed for," said the Rev. Susan Russell, president of the pro-gay Episcopal group Integrity USA.

Still, the resolution is sure to increase tension with sister churches in the global Anglican Communion, which counts the 2.1 million-member Episcopal Church as its U.S. branch. Several Anglican bodies, including international councils and leading archbishops, have repeatedly warned Episcopalians not to authorize liturgical rites for same-gender couples.

Bishop N.T. Wright of Durham, England, an influential conservative, has already accused Episcopalians of "formalizing the schism they initiated six years ago," when the U.S. church consecrated an openly gay man, V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire.

But in a country where gay marriage is legal in six states and several more allow civil unions and domestic partnerships, a number of bishops say they feel a need to provide some sort of ceremony for gay couples. The vaguely worded phrase "generous pastoral response" has been widely interpreted as allowing bishops the latitude to adapt church marriage rites for that purpose.

Bishop Thomas Shaw of Massachusetts, one of the bishops from the six states where gay marriage is legal who pushed for the change, said he would not try to interpret the phrase before talking to other bishops and Episcopalians in his diocese.

But, he said, "I am pleased they gave us the pastoral generosity we need to deal with our context in Massachusetts." Shaw and other bishops have said dozens of gay and lesbian couples have approached them asking for their unions to be blessed.

Conservatives, however, have accused Episcopalians, in the words of one activist here, of "having an adulterous relationship with the spirit of the age."

Bishop Peter Beckwith of Springfield, Ill., said, "We are allowing our church to be shaped by the culture rather than pursuing our God-given mission of shaping the secular culture." Beckwith compared homosexuality to gambling, which is legal in several states, but which many Christians oppose on moral grounds.

Even liberals here have said the church should not depend on the state to make decisions for it. Former New Hampshire Bishop Douglas Theuner, who retains a vote in the House of Bishops, argues that all bishops -- not just those in states where same-gender partnerships are legal -- should be allowed to adapt rites of blessings for gay couples.

"If we say we'll only do what the state allows us to do, then in effect we're saying that the state effects our theological decisions, and that shouldn't be," Theuner said.

Episcopalians have taken cues from the culture on marriage mores before, particularly in the 1970s when it voted to allow divorced people to remarry in the church, said Bishop Stacy Sauls of Lexington, Ky. "That seems to be exactly analogous to the issue we're facing now about the pastoral care of same-sex couples," Sauls said.

"We need to respond to the realities our people face and the culture in which they live," he said. "That doesn't mean we cave to expectations and give up our standards, but it does mean we have to be culturally sensitive."

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