In a ringing defense of an openly gay bishop and same-sex unions, Los Angeles Episcopal Bishop J. Jon Bruno declared here Saturday that the Episcopal Church is “a roomy house” for all, and warned that those who leave would be leaving “the presence of God.”
Bruno’s remarks to the 108th annual convention of the six-county Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles came just a month after the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, was consecrated as the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire.
Robinson’s consecration sent a tremor through the 77-million member worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch. Conservatives within the Episcopal Church are actively planning for a still-undefined “realignment” of the U.S. church, which they hope will cut their ties with liberal bishops and dioceses.
“If we withdraw our participation in the community, then we withdraw from the presence of God,” Bruno told a thousand clergy and lay delegates. “It is the community that joins us together in common worship.”
Acknowledging the tensions that are pulling at the church over homosexuality, he called for dialogue and listening, an appeal echoed by delegates.
“Our roots in the Church of England have always made Anglicanism a church in which all were invited to participate -- a big tent, a roomy house,” Bruno said.
In his speech, Bruno confronted Scriptural injunctions against homosexuality and said neither Hebrew Scripture, sometimes called the “Old Testament,” nor Christian Scriptures took modern understandings of human sexuality and relationships into account. While Bruno’s view is challenged by some conservative theologians, no one addressed the convention on Saturday with an opposing view
“Our written Scriptures have limitations. They cannot be equivalent to the incarnate word of God in Jesus,” Bruno said. “They convey God’s word in a particular cultural and historical context. And these Scriptures are the word of God in the words of human beings.”
Bruno reminded the convention that the Bible had also once been used as a rationale for slavery and the subjugation of women to a patriarchal system.
Hebrew understandings of sexuality, he said, were based on a belief that the unborn child was fully formed in the male seed. A woman was viewed only as an incubator. The Bible also saw procreation as the chief value of sex, Bruno said.
“In addition, we no longer understand procreation to be the chief reason for sex,” he said. “Even the marriage service in the Prayer Book states that the purpose of marriage is to provide mutual joy, help and comfort, and only lastly procreation.”
Looking to New Testament prohibitions written by the Apostle Paul, Bruno said that Paul’s teaching was not primarily about sexuality. Rather, he said, Paul was talking about idolatry. Paul was not talking about committed, monogamous, lifelong same-sex relationships, Bruno said.
Faithful response to events and Scripture always takes place, Bruno said, in “a shifting context. Even the Bible was created in a historical and cultural context and it is always experienced in an ever-new historical and changing cultural context,” Bruno said.
It was unclear how convincing Bruno was in laying a Biblical and theological framework for monogamous, committed same-sex relationships. His arguments have been voiced before by liberal theologians. Conservative theologians challenge such views. While Bruno’s position has been known, his speech Saturday marked the first time that he has stated it with such force and before so large an audience.
One delegate, the convention was told, said during a response session, “Nothing I heard today has changed my beliefs. I will not change.”
But Bruno, known nationally for his efforts to promote reconciliation, said he was speaking to what one priest called the “great middle” of Southern California Episcopalians who may not be polarized by the debate raging through the church.
Bruno warned against those who claim to speak for others, and against a static faith that fails to temper Scriptural understandings about human sexuality with modern scientific insights and human experience.
In doing so, he dramatically traced an emerging line that separates conservatives and liberals over the volatile issue of homosexuality: What is the role of Scripture in the new millennium, and how is Scripture to be interpreted?
Whether the 2.3-million member Episcopal Church ultimately avoids schism is being closely watched by other mainline Protestant churches and Jewish denominations, which continue to struggle with the controversy.
Developments in the United States are also being followed by other Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic Church and several Eastern Orthodox churches, which in the last several weeks have downgraded their relations with both the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion to protest Robinson’s consecration.
Until Bruno’s speech Saturday, only a brief mention had been made at the two-day convention of the history-making decision by the national Episcopal Church to confirm the New Hampshire Episcopal Diocese’s election of Robinson. A report on the national church’s tacit approval of blessing same-sex unions was equally short.
But beneath the surface there were signs of tension in the Los Angeles diocese. On Friday night, an estimated 50 Episcopalians opposed to Robinson’s consecration and same-sex blessings, sang praise songs outside the Los Angeles Convention Center and prayed for the church and Anglican Communion. Last month, an estimated 250 conservative Episcopalians filled St. David’s Episcopal Church in North Hollywood to protest. There are an estimated 85,000 Episcopalians in the six-county diocese.
Several conservative parish leaders said in interviews in Riverside that their congregations were reducing their financial support of the Los Angeles diocese’s headquarters and the national church in 2004 by as much as 50%.
“Solid people who have never done anything like this said, ‘I don’t want any of my money going to support the Los Angeles diocese or the national church,’ ” the Rev. William Thompson of All Saints Episcopal Church in Long Beach said in an interview. Thompson is head of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Anglican Council, the conservative group spearheading the drive for realignment of the Episcopal Church.
So far, however, only four of the Los Angeles diocese’s 147 parishes have aligned themselves with the conservative American Anglican Council. The diocese includes the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino.
Leaders of several liberal parishes said they were hoping to increase their giving to the diocese and national church.
The Rev. Gary Commins, rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Long Beach, said Robinson’s consecration had been well received at his parish, where 15% to 20% of the members are gay or lesbian.
“It’s been all positive. It has moved us forward in the direction we were going,” Commins said. He said his parish would probably increase its donations to the diocese and national church.
Still, Bruno said he expected budgetary problems. “Withholding of money will probably make some problems with the budget,” he said. “But the people who will suffer will be the ones in the small parishes. The diocese has to subsidize them.”
But Bruno said he believed the diocese would meet the challenge. “God is an abundant God. I refuse to lead from a scarcity,” he said in an interview.