Head of Episcopal Church USA visits predominantly gay Dallas congregation, urges listeners to ‘pray blessings’ on those with whom they disagree on church policies
Speaking at the predominantly gay parish that was the site of her first official visit to Dallas, the leader of the Episcopal Church said Monday, April 28 that she expects the denomination to sanction same-sex union ceremonies "in our lifetimes."
Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the U.S. branch of the 80-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion, also said she believes openly gay bishop Gene Robinson’s exclusion from the upcoming Lambeth Conference will only serve to increase his impact on the event.
And Jefferts Schori assured supporters from Fort Worth that the church hasn’t forgotten them even though their diocese took steps last fall toward leaving the denomination as a result of a dispute about the role of gays and women.
Jefferts Schori spent about 15 minutes answering questions inside The Episcopal Church of St. Thomas the Apostle after participating in an elaborate blessing ceremony for the parish’s new community vegetable garden outside. She prefaced her remarks by suggesting that she didn’t necessarily choose St. Thomas for the visit because of its unofficial status as Dallas’ gay parish or its long history of progressive stances on other social issues.
"A number have people have asked me, ‘How did you decide to come here?’" said Jefferts Schori, who was invited by members of the congregation to bless the garden. "Well, somebody asked, and that’s really all it takes — that and the consent of your bishop here in Dallas."
The reference to James Stanton, bishop of the Dallas Episcopal Diocese, drew laughter from the crowd of hundreds who gathered at St. Thomas, 6525 Inwood Road. Stanton, a conservative who’s been a leader in the fight against gay Anglican bishops, approved Jefferts Schori’s visit but was not in attendance.
Stanton didn’t respond to a request for comment from Dallas Voice, but he reportedly told The Dallas Morning News that his absence was due to a scheduling conflict created by a longstanding family commitment.
"This is not a protest of any sort whatsoever," Stanton told The Morning News.
One audience member asked Jefferts Schori how openly gay Episcopalians should respond to church leaders, such as Stanton, who aren’t supportive.
"Recognize that people come to different conclusions out of a deep sense of faith, and honor that," Jefferts Schori said. "I think a lot of our difficulty right now is because we’re assuming the worst of people who disagree with us. When we can recognize another person as a faithful Christian who’s simply come to a different conclusion, we start at a much better place than we do when we assume that person is our enemy. So pray blessings on people who disagree with you."
Another gay audience member who said he met his partner of 10 years at St. Thomas asked when the couple will be able to walk down the aisle together and have their relationship blessed by the church.
"I don’t think it’s going to happen this year," Jefferts Schori said, adding that the national church’s General Convention undoubtedly will revisit the issue when it meets again in 2009. "I think it certainly will happen in our lifetimes."
Currently, individual bishops in the Episcopal Church can decide whether to allow same-sex blessings in their dioceses. But the ceremonies aren’t allowed in Dallas, and the church has developed no formal liturgy for them.
"I certainly hope that we can expand our awareness enough to see that God is blessing [same-sex unions], and that the church needs to recognize that," Jefferts Schori added. "God is blessing people in ways that we don’t formally recognize, and our job as Christians is to look around and see the glory of God wherever it is."
Jefferts Schori also was asked about Robinson’s exclusion from Lambeth, where more than 800 bishops will meet in August to make resolutions governing the Anglican Communion.
Robinson’s election as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 has triggered threats of a schism from conservatives, who believe scripture condemns homosexuality.
Although he wasn’t invited to Lambeth, held once every 10 years in Canterbury, England, Robinson reportedly plans to attend on the fringes in what is called the Marketplace. Three bishops from the U.S. church were unsuccessful in trying to negotiate a compromise under which Robinson could participate at Lambeth in a "diminished capacity."
"My sense is that while Lambeth palace made a decision about that, he’s likely to be present there in a larger way than he would have otherwise," said Jefferts Schori, who consented to Robinson’s election. "I think he will be more in the public sphere not coming with an invitation than he would have been if he’d have been invited."
Other questions for Jefferts Schori related to the future of the Fort Worth diocese. Many of those in attendance Monday wore stickers saying, "Fort Worth Episcopalians honor Katharine." They reportedly traveled to Dallas on two buses carrying about 50 people each.
One woman asked what the national church is doing for members in Fort Worth who disagree with the diocese’s decision.
"We’re working on it," Jefferts Schori said. "We’re not going to violate ecclesiastical boundaries, but we will continue to work with those who desire to remain within the Episcopal Church. … Maybe the most important thing I can say is that the Episcopal Church is bigger than any one person can imagine. It’s bigger than any one particular point of view, and when somebody tells you otherwise, remind that person of the great comprehensive, expansive nature of this tradition we share."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 2, 2008.