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Beloved in Christ,
By the time you hear these words you will be well aware of the actions of the 74th General Convention which met in Minneapolis July 30-August 8, 2003. While the Convention dealt with a great many issues and opportunities facing the church, the media attention was focused on issues of human sexuality. All of the mail and calls I have received also centered on those issues. And while I hope we will have opportunities to highlight the Convention actions on which most of us would agree, this letter is written to address the two major "hot button" issues: the passing of a resolution that acknowledges the blessing of same sex unions is happening in this church and the approval of the election as a bishop of the church, an openly gay man living in a homosexual relationship. Some people see this as a sign of progress and prophetic witness of the church. But for many others, and me, it is a clear departure from the historic faith and a travesty.
There are two interpretations of Resolution C-051, dealing with the blessing of same-sex unions. The controversial section (5) reads: "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." While some are saying that this section authorizes "local option" for blessing same-sex unions, it is clear to me that this simply acknowledges the reality of what is actually going on in the church. The resolution does not authorize services or endorse "rites" for such blessings.
All people, regardless of their sexual preference or opinions about sexual behavior are welcome in all of our churches all of the time. But it is not appropriate to bless or hold up as a "wholesome example" behavior that is contrary to biblical teaching and historic faith. Therefore the present rule and practice of this diocese will continue in the future. I will not ordain persons sexually active outside of marriage nor will I allow the blessing of same-sex unions.
The approval of the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies of the election of Canon V. Gene Robinson has serious consequences for the whole church. Bishops are elected and consecrated for the whole church. That is why the ratification of elections is part of our polity. The General Convention in its action represents the action of the whole church. What happens in one part of the body affects us all.
It is important to remember that the 1998 Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops overwhelmingly reaffirmed that sexual intamacy is only appropriate within the context of traditional marriage. The vote was 526-70. Therefore, it is not surprising that a significant number of Primates (Archbishops) and Bishops from around the world have expressed their disapproval and dismay of the decisions made in Minneapolis. The Archbishop of Canterbury has called an extraordinary meeting in October of all of the Primates of the Anglican Communion to address the crisis the Convention's action has produced in the life of our worldwide church. This action has not only caused consternation in our own church, but also has had a very negative effect on our ecumenical relationships. In approving an active gay man for consecration as a bishop, the General Convention has changed the clear teaching of the church and ignored the biblical basis for that teaching.
What are we to make of the decisions of our General Convention? First, we are to remember what the trial of Bishop Walter Righter taught us, that resolutions of the General Convention are not doctrine or mandatory, but advisory. Second, and more important, we are to remember that God is still in charge and it is the will of God that will ultimately prevail. Third, we cannot control what others in the church believe and do, but we do not have to let their actions and beliefs destroy our unity and purpose.
Many have told me that they are leaving the church. Others wish to restrict or withhold pledges. I beseech you not to do so. That will only weaken our congregations, the diocese and our mission. I am working diligently with clergy and lay leaders and other bishops to deal with this situation. In the meantime, I ask you not to act from anger and disappointment but on the basis of our faith in Jesus Christ. All of us continue to be called to be faithful, to continue our work, to preach the Gospel and to teach the faith and to reach out in ministry and service to the world for which Christ died. That mission has not changed. All of us are called to reconcilliation with each other, to work together in spite of our differences, to let the love of Christ rule our hearts and minds.
The Tennessee Deputation to the General Convention will hold two informational meetings for the clergy and people of the diocese. The first will be held at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 6, 2003, immediately following the Diocesan Leadership Conference II, at St. George's Church, Nashville. The second will be held at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, September 14, 2003 at Trinity Church, Winchester. At these meetings there will be ample opportunity to hear from our elected deputies and bishop to answer questions and hear the concerns of the clergy and people regarding the actions of the 74th General Convention. I hope that all of you who have concerns and questions will attend one of these meetings.
Someone has said, "issues divide, mission unites." For ten years I have been calling the clergy and people of this diocese to the mission of the church: "to restore all people to unity with God and each other through Christ." Together, and with God's help, we have done some good work, grown significantly and increased our outreach and service to others. We cannot, we must not let the actions of one convention deter us from what I believe God is calling us to do.
Now in the midst of this crisis, I am calling on every Episcopalian in this diocese, to renew their commitment to Jesus Christ and join me as I seek to do God's will in this place. The future is uncharted and unknown. However, we do not face the future with fear and trepidation. For although we don't know what the future holds, we do know who holds the future. We are assured again and again of God's love for us and for all people. We know and experience that love not only through our "creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life," but above all through God's "immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ."
I ask your prayers for our diocese and people. May God have mercy on us all.
The Rt. Rev. Bertram N. Herlong
Bishop of Tennessee