In Christ There Is No Gay or Straight?: Homosexuality and the Episcopal Church*

Article excerpt

Although the gay rights movement initially had little or no specifically religious motivation or sanction, it has had a dramatic impact on virtually every religious institution in the United States, to the point that a 1991 statement by the National Council of Churches called the issue of homosexuality "a great seismic fault" in "the face of American Christianity."1 Situated directly on this fault line is the Episcopal Church, especially since the confirmation in 2003 of an openly gay bishop. Homosexuality threatens to create a schism in the United States church and to fracture the world-wide Anglican communion, and it is surely safe to say that the question of homosexuality will continue to be one of the most contentious questions facing the church for the foreseeable future. Now therefore seems an opportune time to review the church's struggle with homosexuality over the last three decades in order to see what lessons can be learned from the recent past.

I. BEGINNING THE DIALOGUE

The event that marks the symbolic beginning of the battle over homosexuality within the Episcopal Church was Louie Crew's founding of a monthly newsletter entitled Integrity: Gay Episcopalian Forum in November 1974. A gay Episcopalian living in Fort Valley, Georgia, Crew conceived of the newsletter as a forum to help gay and lesbian Christians reach "out to one another, to the gay community, and to the Church."2 The first issue quoted John Allin as saying that he would "carry the concern you have expressed [in a general letter on behalf of gay Christians] with me as I enter the office of Presiding Bishop" as well as quotations from many others expressing support.3

Integrity the newsletter soon led to Integrity, an organization. Crew incorporated it in Georgia in January, 1975, at which time the newsletter had 120 paid subscriptions. That month, James Wickliff, a gay, lay Christian who was a veteran of the Korean War and a professor of Humanities at the College of Continuing Education at Roosevelt University, convened the first local chapter of Integrity at his home in Chicago. By April, Integrity boasted chapters in Boston, Minneapolis, North Central Rural Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, with additional chapters forming in New York City, Atlanta, South West Ohio and Northern Kentucky, and Washington, DC.4 That August, the Chicago chapter hosted the first national convention of Integrity at the Cathedral Church of Saint James, with over two hundred in attendance and Suffragan Bishop of Chicago Quintin Primo as the primary celebrant at the Eucharist, along with fifteen clergymen as concelebrants. Wickliff and Ellen Marie Barrett were elected the first co-presidents of the new organization (thus maintaining gender balance).5 At twenty-nine, Barrett already had significant experience as a gay activist, had graduated with a Masters of Divinity from General Theological Seminary, and had been active as an associate editor of Integrity for six months.6 By the end of its first year, Integrity had 500 members, and listed twenty-three chapters based in cities around the United States as well as one in Australia and one in Canada.7

At the same time Integrity was forming, the church was officially discussing the question of homosexuality. In 1974, the Joint Commission on the Church in Human Affairs (JCCHA) formed a "Task Force on Homophiles." At the recommendation of the task force, the House of Bishops passed a "Resolution on Homophiles" that the presiding bishop ask the JCCHA "to assure the continuation of the dialogue between the Church and leaders of the organizing forum for homophiles who are active members of the Episcopal Church [Integrity]," which he did.8 Under the leadership of Bishop George Murray of the Central Gulf Coast diocese, the JCCHA met with Integrity in Atlanta in January, and, based partly on that meeting, proposed resolutions to the 1976 General Convention that the church recognize gay and lesbian people as children of God and also that the church formally oppose sodomy laws. …