Henry Nutt Parsley, Jr.
For a generation and more the Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion have been engaged in a challenging conversation about sexual ethics, especially regarding same-sex relationships in the life of the church. The hope of this work is that serious engagement in theological reflection across differences will build new bridges of understanding.
The Lambeth Conferences of 1988, 1998, and 2008 have urged the churches of the Anglican Communion to engage in an intentional process of listening to the experience of gay and lesbian persons and exploring our pastoral ministry with them. There have been sharp disagreements. Communion has been strained. There have been repeated calls to listen carefully to one another, to undertake serious theological work and scriptural exegesis, and to repent of prejudice and injustice toward homosexual persons in church and society, as well as calls to uphold the classic teachings of the church on sexual ethics and marriage.
These two papers and responses are a contribution to this ongoing process. This project was commissioned in the spring of 2008 by the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, to be overseen by the Theology Committee. The committee subsequently appointed a group of eight distinguished theologians to undertake the study. They represent a broad spectrum of viewpoints and intentionally include a variety of theological disciplines, gay and lesbian persons in committed relationships, and both single and married heterosexual persons. The panel has met several times since the fall of 2008, shared a number of papers, and engaged in sustained dialogue.
“Same-Sex Relationships and the Nature of Marriage: A Theological Colloquy” is their work. It is designed to be a distinctively theological document, bringing careful scriptural exegesis enlightened by reason and the witness of the theological tradition to bear on the questions before us. It seeks to be faithful to the Anglican way of searching for truth and seeking the mind of Christ.
All debates have at least two sides. Honest dialogue enjoins us to listen to both viewpoints with genuine attention and respect. Such an approach has been employed by faithful Christian persons over the centuries, and is the way theological discernment is to be undertaken by the church. Its purpose is both to encourage mutual understanding and to provide wise counsel to the church for its mission.
In this vein, after much conversation, the eight theologians formed two affinity groups consisting of four theologians each. Each group prepared a main paper. One adheres to what it understands to be the church’s traditional ethical and sacramental teaching about marriage. The other revisits this teaching in order to call for the church’s recognition of faithful, monogamous same-sex relationships. Each affinity group has then prepared a formal response to the other’s work. Their work has been accomplished with a remarkable degree of mutual respect and charity.
The purpose of this project is not to create a new consensus or make a recommendation to the church. It is rather to express as fully as possible two contrasting theological views, both rooted in the teaching of the church and in Holy Scripture, in order that we might listen to and learn from both sides of the debate. In keeping with our Lord’s parable about the scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven, the theologians have brought forth from their treasure what is new and what is old (Matt. 13:52).
The Theology Committee is very grateful to our distinguished panel of theologians for their extraordinary and graceful devotion to this project. Very special thanks go to Dr. Ellen Charry, convener of the panel and editor of the work, and to the Right Reverend Joe Burnett, consulting bishop. We are indebted to the Right Reverend Pierre Whalon, Bishop in Charge of the Convocation in Europe, for suggesting that we undertake this study.
A number of ecumenical and pan-Anglican theologians have responded to these papers. Their comments, along with the editor’s foreword and epilogue, a group of Anglican and ecumenical responses, and a postscript from the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops, are appended. The original document was presented at the March 2010 meeting of the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church and has been edited for publication in the Anglican Theological Review.
We offer this work to the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion for reflection and response and in the hope that it will help us live together more faithfully in the midst of difference. We trust that it will make us all think carefully, regardless of our point of view, and contribute to our corporate discernment. In this, as in all things, may we have the “power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:18–19).