May 3, 2012
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
-The Serenity Prayer
I thank God for His many gifts and blessings at our parish. We have inherited a precious and powerful identity as a traditional Episcopal community that worships God and cares for God’s people in the Name of the Crucified and Resurrected Christ. In the past few years, God has blessed us with an increasing number of new members who are drawn to His grace through our practice of the Faith. We are grateful for the legacy that we have received, we are confident of our identity in God, and we are secure in His love. Through God’s grace, St. Thomas’ continues to stand ready, as our Mission Statement declares, to “share the joy of loving and serving God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
We are entering a challenging time for Episcopalians in general and for the Diocese of Texas in particular. Last week, Bishop Doyle convened a meeting of the clergy of the diocese to share his plan to keep our diocese united during what is likely to be an anxious summer. The General Convention of the Episcopal Church, when it meets in Indianapolis this July, is almost certain to approve a liturgy for the blessing of same-sex relationships.
Bishop Doyle informed us that he does not approve of these proposed liturgies, and that he will vote against them. His position is that the Episcopal Diocese of Texas is a traditional diocese that upholds the Scriptural teaching and practice that Christian marriage is a lifelong union between one man and one woman and that sexual activity is healthy and appropriate only in that context. Nevertheless, he believes that there will be enough bishops and delegates from other dioceses who favor these rites to ensure their approval.
Bishop Doyle believes, and I agree, that this action at the national level will inflame an existing division within our diocese. The majority of clergy, congregations, and people in our diocese do not approve of such rites, but there are many clergy and several congregations who say they feel conscience-bound to proceed with them. In my judgment, at that point Bishop Doyle’s choice will be either to ignore those infractions of ecclesiastical discipline or to pursue costly and divisive legal and disciplinary measures that would be overruled on appeal to national canon law.
In anticipation of these events, and to avoid ongoing conflict that would overwhelm our work to proclaim the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, Bishop Doyle convened a committee of about forty Rectors and other church leaders that met regularly for about a year. This “Task Force for Unity in Mission” represented a wide variety of perspectives. Meanwhile, he sought input and counsel from other bishops in our Church, including our former diocesan bishops, our Presiding Bishop, and the sitting and the previous Archbishops of Canterbury. As a result of these deliberations, Bishop Doyle authored his plan to navigate the Diocese through the events of this summer. He also wrote a 120 page theological paper that articulates his teaching on Christian marriage, ecclesiastical unity, and episcopal authority.
At our diocese-wide meeting at Camp Allen, Bishop Doyle discussed his plan, his paper, and the Task Force’s Affirmation, which he had released the week before. After General Convention’s decision, the essence of his plan is as follows:
- Congregations may choose to take no action, one way or the other.
- Traditional congregations may declare, either in letters to him, statements to the public, and/or amendments to their by-laws, that they will not conduct or participate in these rites, nor sponsor for ordination or employ anyone who is in a non-celibate relationship outside of Holy Matrimony.
- Two congregations (St. Stephen’s, Houston and one yet to be decided in Austin) will receive permission to enter an eight-month process of discernment about whether and how to bless same-sex relationships, following the rites approved and the direction of the Bishop. In the future, additional parishes may request permission to perform these liturgies, but their rectors, vestries, and laity must be in complete support of them.
While St. Thomas’ will continue to welcome, love, and minister to every person in our midst, including those who are homosexual and those whose family members are homosexual, we will not offer same-sex blessings. We make this choice not out of defiance against our diocese, but in concert with it and its leadership. Part of what it means to be an Episcopalian is to be a Christian in the apostolic tradition, which means we follow Christ the way the earliest disciples did under the Apostles. We respect the differences among our brothers and sisters in Christ and we respect the authority of our Bishop. When Bishop Doyle invited me to sign the Affirmation of the Bishop by the Task Force for Unity in Mission, I immediately accepted his invitation. I did this not because I agree with the congregations that choose to perform same-sex blessings, and not because I like every part of Bishop Doyle’s plan, but because I support Bishop Doyle’s efforts to keep our diocese united during this time of disagreement. I grew up and was first ordained in an Episcopal church that broke away from the national church during the controversies of the 1970’s. As noble and honorable as those breakaway churches’ intentions were, their decision to leave the Episcopal church damaged the churches and dioceses they left behind and also damaged themselves. People who leave churches during times of disagreement lose their ability to see life and God as they really are because they stop dealing with people who think and behave differently than they do. Unity among churches is different from and deeper than institutional uniformity; it is a grace among those who, “speaking the truth in love […] grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love (Ephesians 4:15-16).”
I am convinced that traditional congregations in the Diocese of Texas must not abandon our diocese or each other during times of disagreement. If we did, we would diminish our witness to God’s truth to those who need it, we would surrender what influence we have over our common life, and we would devalue the grace we receive when we work with other Christians with whom we differ. St. Thomas’ will continue to work with our diocese and all the congregations in it to manifest the Kingdom of God established by our Lord.
A word about media: I hope that by now we all understand that the news media uses controversy to sell advertising. Therefore, be prepared for additional sensationalistic and misrepresentative news stories about this subject this summer and in the following months. I will not be writing letters like this every time this topic is addressed in the Houston Chronicle! Furthermore, in our past six years together, I have never discussed national or ecclesiastical politics or controversies on Sunday mornings, not because I do not have opinions about these things and not because they are unimportant, but because the purpose of the Church is to proclaim the love of God as revealed in the Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ, and to make disciples in His Name. People do not come to church to hear about fights or fears—we have enough of that in our life outside the church.
As for me and for our congregation:
- With God’s help, we choose not to let any decision or any person in our national church, in our diocese, or anywhere else change the way St. Thomas’ believes in God, worships God, teaches about God, administers God’s sacraments, or ministers to the world in God’s Name.
- With God’s help, we choose not to let any decision or any person in our national church, in our diocese, or anywhere else undermine with faithless fears or worldly anxieties our trust in God’s truth about all, mercy towards all, power over all, or love for all.
- With God’s help, we choose to abide in the serenity that comes from accepting the things we cannot change, the courage that comes from changing the things we can, and the wisdom that comes from knowing the difference.
We do not always understand what God is doing in and through His Church. He does not command us to understand what He is doing, but only to faithfully love and trust in Him with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves. In the meantime, please pray for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, for our diocese, for our Bishop, for our Vestry, and for our parish family as we prayerfully discern how to respond to all the challenges of our time.
Finally, remember what the Resurrected Jesus said to His faithful disciples: “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world (Matthew 28:20).”
The Rev. Christopher A. Bowhay
 While objectionable for other reasons, this service is not equivalent to marriage. Unlike the Rite for marriage, this liturgy is not intended to express “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” that is associated with the sacraments of the Church. Instead, it will be a prayer service that asks for God’s blessing upon the two people involved, and it will not be included in any version of the Book of Common Prayer. Furthermore, because the passage of the “Marriage Amendment” to the Texas Constitution in 2005 prohibits any recognition of same sex couples in the State of Texas, and because Title I, Canon 18, Section 1 of The Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church declares that “Every Member of the Clergy of this Church shall conform to the laws of the State governing the creation of the civil status of marriage, and also to the laws of this Church governing the solemnization of Holy Matrimony,” the proposed liturgy would not confer any legal status to the couple involved in the service. The current form of the proposed liturgy, which may yet be modified based on some objections by some bishops, including our own, may be found at http://houseofdeputies.org/blessingexcerpts.
 At this point in the discussion, Bishop Doyle asked me to edit and make suggestions for his paper, and to join the Task Force as they finalized their written Affirmation that declares support for Bishop Doyle’s effort to keep our diocese together.