Meaningful Debate and Compromise at the General Convention
Back in the day, when I was practicing law, I represented a number of businesses and religious groups that were applying to build and operate new radio and television stations. Typically, other entities also would be applying to use the same frequency or channel. In those cases, the Federal Communications Commission would conduct so-called comparative hearings to determine which group would be authorized to own the station. It was a gold mine for lawyers. Legal fees alone in comparative hearings usually ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The criteria for determining the “winner” were well-established, and everyone would attempt to fashion an application that would prevail. But mechanisms also were in place to encourage the competing applicants to settle the case. Basically, one applicant would pay the all the expenses incurred by the other applicants in return for the dismissal of their applications. Business applicants were comfortable and savvy in negotiating settlements. But religious applicants often were difficult to deal with. They might believe that God had ordained that they should win the station. And there could be no negotiating with God’s will.
Presidential historian John Meacham has just written a book entitled The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. Just the title suggests that controversies grounded in fervently held religious beliefs are intense and characterized by deep division that discourages negotiation and compromise. Just like those religious groups that found settlement of comparative broadcast hearings undesirable in light of God’s undoubted will for them to win, neither side in our fractious current political and policy dispute finds compromise acceptable. Yet, how many of us still yearn for a time where honest political and policy differences could be resolved through respectful discussion and debate.
Our recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church, I am happy and proud to say, showed us all how productive compromise can come from intentional listening and graceful discernment. We are denomination that tends more than others to honor diversity of opinion while maintaining our essential unity. And nowhere in this century has that diversity been more apparent and divisive than in the case of the blessing of same-sex unions and more generally our attitude towards the LGBTQ community. The depth of feeling has been intense on all sides, and at times the process of sorting out our understanding of God’s will and vision on these “hot button” issues has been less than graceful.
The potential for continuing divisiveness remained very present when our General Convention began on July 3 in Austin. After three years of study, a committee had proposed a resolution that would have initiated the process for revising our 1979 Book of Common Prayer. That resolution mandated the inclusion of marriage rites for same-sex unions. Another resolution would allow the continued use of trial liturgies for same-sex marriages and blessings that had been authorized at the last convention. Both resolutions enjoyed nearly overwhelming support in the House of Deputies. But the House of Bishops was another matter.
And here we need to understand how significant changes in the prayer book are and why the opposing viewpoints were so deeply entrenched. As I have said so often, the Book of Common Prayer identifies and defines who we are as Episcopalians. To require the inclusion of rites for same-sex marriage in our prayer book would be to make a definitive statement of our theology and our understanding of God’s vision of same-sex unions. But we still have eight dioceses in which the diocesan bishop does not allow blessing of same-sex unions. To go forward with a mandate to include marriage rites for same-sex unions in a revised Book of Common Prayer would have been dismissive of their conscientiously held understanding of God’s will. So the convention faced the dilemma of honoring not only their viewpoints – and the acceptance of diversity of views generally in the Church – while continuing to be inclusive of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers in the life and sacraments of the Church.
Through prayer, reflection, and listening – and the work of a number of bishops –, a compromise resolution was prepared and adopted by the House of Bishops. The resolution deferred any formal action to revise the 1979 Book of Common Prayer with its attendant embrace of a revised theology. At the same time, it maintained the availability of liturgies for same-sex marriages and blessings and authorized the preparation and use of additional trial liturgies going forward. Bishops were not forced to acquiesce in a new doctrine of marriage. But local rectors were accorded discretion whether to conduct same-sex marriages and blessings (Resolution B012). In short, the final resolution embodied compromise. Neither “side” would carry the day. Neither “side” got all they wanted. But this is the nature of compromise. The House of Deputies concurred with the House of Bishops with little further debate, and the bishop’s compromise resolution (A068) was adopted.
I am particularly proud to be an Episcopalian today. Our Church set a shining example of coming together in meaningful debate and discussion to discern a compromise that not only preserves the integrity of all concerned, but also attenuates and subverts division and divisiveness as we journey together farther into this ever-challenging 21st Century. It is an example of not only listening to, but also honoring the viewpoints of those we disagree with, no matter how entrenched our opinions and vehement our feelings may be. It is an example to us in our local church communities, which often confront potentially divisive issues. It is an example to our nation, which appears woefully and destructively partisan and intensely ideologically divided. And this is what we are called to do. To set a good and compelling example. To call our communities and our nation and even ourselves back to our better selves. Or as John Meacham has put it, back to our “better angels.”
So today we should be proud of the work of our branch of God’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, of our branch of the Jesus Movement. We have reminded our communities and nation of the means and the value, and even the necessity of the seemingly lost art of compromise and, perhaps, too, rekindled a flame of hope in a world foundering in a dark sea of unrepentant divisiveness.