Pastoral Letter on General Convention From Bishop Ohl

A Statement from Bishop Ohl

Recently, the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire elected a man as their next bishop who is a gay man living in a committed relationship with his partner. The Rev. Gene Robinson is perhaps one of the most qualified priests in the Episcopal Church, one who has worked for Bishop Theuner, the current bishop, as his canon to the ordinary (assistant) for the past 14 years. Those who have known and worked with Canon Robinson speak of him as a talented and creative person, one deeply committed to the Church and to our Lord Jesus Christ.

Following the election of a bishop-elect by a diocese, several canonical requirements ensue. The several dioceses through their Standing Committees and diocesan bishops must give their consent to the election, as a bishop is not just for a single diocese but for the entire Church. Since the election took place within three months of the opening of General Convention, the consents are requested from the House of Deputies instead of the Standing Committees and from the bishops exercising jurisdiction–that is, diocesan bishops.

On Sunday August 3rd, following debate, the House of Deputies, voting by diocese and by a separation of clergy and lay votes, voted to approve Canon Robinson for consecration and ordination as bishop. The resolution then proceeded to the House of Bishops, but action was delayed with the presentation of two separate accusations of wrongdoing by Canon Robinson. One allegation involved inappropriate touching and the other a sexually explicit website linked to a gay and lesbian organization in New England. The Rt. Rev. Gordon Scruton, bishop of Western Massachusetts conducted an investigation of both allegations and determined that there was no impediment to proceeding. (Bishop Scruton has had to deal with about 20 such situations in his own diocese and is something of an expert in an area that we all wish did not exist.)

The matter then came to the House of Bishops in the afternoon of Tuesday August 5th. Debate was not limited to diocesan bishops (those entitled to vote), but was limited to approximately one hour. At the close of debate, diocesan bishops received a written ballot which was collected and counted. At about 6:50 p.m. the results were read by the secretary of the House of Bishops as follows: For 62; against 43; abstaining 2. The voting tabulation was made public and is available from other sources.

As I prayed about this matter for the past two months I came to the realization that now is not the time for the Episcopal Church to make such a divisive issue our main focus. The issue of the unity of the Church, not only our Episcopal Church, but the Anglican Communion and the larger Christian community is vital to all of us. I could not in good conscience vote to approve one person while dividing the Church in a way that may well be permanent.

There are three concerns that I now have for the Diocese of Northwest Texas.

The first is for those in our diocese who are troubled and in pain because of this decision. I know this is a difficult time and  I understand the pain and respect those who disagree with the decision. I call on everyone in the diocese to reach out with a special compassion to those who are hurting. We are of one body in this diocese, the Body of Christ.

My second concern is that we not lose the focus that we have been seeking for the past six years on becoming a missionary diocese with mission outposts that proclaim the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. That mandate (found most succinctly in Matthew 28) is not in the least lessened by any vote of General Convention. We are beginning to see some major strides in many of our congregations in reaching out to the unchurched to draw them into a life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ and His Body the Church. The excitement that I have felt at visitations in confirming about 120 people during Eastertide this year is palpable. We must not let anything prevent us from doing this work for our Lord. In addition, our outreach to our communities is growing in strength in many places, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and prisoners, welcoming the stranger, and giving drink to the thirsty. These mandates from Matthew 25 must not lose strength nor be ignored.

The third concern I have is for our brothers and sisters who are gay and lesbian. Many of our congregations are home to individuals and couples who are gay and lesbian. They are children of God, baptized into the Body of Christ, and in many instances vital to the life and ministry of their congregations. Some remain on the periphery in order not to be hurt by their parish churches. Every member of the Episcopal Church is an important person in the eyes of God and in the life of the Church. No one can be turned into a stereotype for any reason, and all must be welcomed as Christ himself. If our signs on the highway mean anything, those which say "The Episcopal Church welcomes you," we cannot reject anyone. Our mission is "to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ." ( Catechism, Book of Common Prayer, page 855)

The Diocese of Northwest Texas is a child of the General Convention. We do not always agree with everything the Episcopal Church through General Convention has done, but it is our responsibility and duty to work within the Church to bring our perspective and position to bear upon the larger life of the Episcopal Church. During Bishop Quarterman’s tenure there were various national level programs that were not supported locally but we never failed to support the Church with our financial and human resources. Bishop Quarterman spoke to me of those times as being a test, but that he could not in faith withdraw support and expect to be heard as a man of faith. It is my expectation that we will all support the work of Christ through our local parishes, through the diocese and yes, even through the Episcopal Church.

If there is anything one can learn from reading and studying the history of the Church it is that God has provided for His Church through turmoil, tribulation, and trouble. God has not abandoned us, nor have we abandoned Him. We must seek God through all of this in prayer, in the study of Scripture, in conversation, and in mission and ministry. We cannot withdraw into a shell and wish this would go away; it will not. It is now time for us to be faithful to our baptismal covenant with a renewed vigor. As a bumper sticker of the seventies said, "Keep the faith–and pass it on."

La paz

Wallis Ohl

Bishop of Northwest Texas

August, 2003

 


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