Bishop Salmon's Special Diocesan Convention Address

Address to the Special Convention
October 2, 2003
St. Paul's Church, Summerville, S.C.

I was ordained 43 years ago. In all those years I have been to two special diocesan conventions. Both were for the election of a bishop. One can ask the question, since we are not electing a bishop, why are we here?

Bishop Skilton and I, along with a sizeable number of other bishops believe that the General Convention in Minneapolis, in two actions, changed the Episcopal Church by violating its constitution and violating the historic teaching of the church covering human sexuality by approving the consecration of the Bishop-elect of New Hampshire who is living in a same-sex relationship, and by approving C051 which acknowledges local option for the blessing of same sex relationships, making them acceptable in some dioceses and forbidden in others. I voted against this resolution and have no intention of allowing such blessings in the diocese. Instead of the traditional teaching that new life in Christ for all of us comes from our repentance at the foot of the cross, we simply voted to change the standards so that what was once an expression of our fallen nature, is now, by us, declared to be normative and acceptable.

It has been said of the debate and reflection in the House of Bishops, that we were respectful and prayerful. We indeed were. We are personal friends and friends in Christ who have worked with each other for years. (14 for me). Therefore the assumption is made that the decision must be acceptable simply because the debate was respectful. Let me quote Psalm 50, verse 21: "these things you have done, and I have kept still, and you thought that I am like you." If this atmosphere gave such a message, let me apologize and repent. We said over and over again that the Church would never be the same again after these votes because we were making a decision (1) contrary to Holy Scripture, (2) contrary to the almost two thousand year tradition of the Church, (3) contrary to the 1998 position of the Lambeth Conference, (4) contrary to the request of the Archbishop of Canterbury, (5) contrary to the request of the Brazil meeting of the Primates in the Spring, and finally, (6) contrary to the requests of the Anglican Consultative Council. The message in return was this is just like other difficult issues we have faced (the ordination of women, Prayer Book revision, racism) the sense of division will pass.

While we are waiting for this to pass, let me describe some of the fallout in the American Church and beyond which indicates that this is not that kind of issue.

  1. In the dioceses all over the country we have had clergy, individuals, families, and congregations leaving the church or refusing and redirecting their support. Major building projects have been put on hold.
  2. When the Presiding Bishop invited 10 Bishops to New York to reflect about where we are, Bishop Ackerman reported that the one thing all could agree on was that all the Bishops present and their dioceses were profoundly affected by reactions in their dioceses to the decisions of General Convention.
  3. A number of Primates and bishops have issued public statements to tell how our decisions have been a severe blow to mission in their parts of the world.
  4. In describing the extensive reaction in his parish, one priest reported that these decisions abolished the space of mutual respect that has allowed people of differing views to co-exist. Since no diocese or church in the nation is monolithic, the middle has been replaced by a battleground. Parishioners are now at odds with fellow parishioners. We have seen some of this in our own diocese. One bishop has reported that his diocese is now seriously divided, whereas before they had been able to work together with a common mission.
  5. In another diocese the ministry team that cared for prisoners was refused entry to a jail until negotiations revealed that they were not supporters of the General Convention action. Another priest, while visiting the county jail was amazed to discover that because of the media, prisoners were concerned about the teaching that would be brought to them as they were trying to grow in the Christian faith. A parishioner of his who visits federal prisons reminded him that gay sex, while one is incarcerated, is not a peripheral matter, and that when churches cannot offer clear teaching that roots one in the will of God with clear direction, not only is credibility lost but hope also.
  6. The 2003 Al Azhar- Anglican Communion Dialogue of Muslim and Christian participants, which was supposed to meet in New York's General Seminary on September 11 was cancelled when the Muslim Scholars pulled out at the last minute because of the action of General Convention. The Anglican Bishop of Egypt, one of the participants, had this to say of Minneapolis, "we had not expected this [New Hampshire election] to be done to us by brothers and sisters who are in communion with us. We had expected that they would think of us before taking such a grave step. It showed great disrespect for the majority of the members of the Anglican Communion and the Church world wide. In fact the decision shows disregard for the value of being in communion and part of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. It places in doubt the future of the Lambeth Conference. When its resolutions are no longer respected by members of the Conference, what purpose does it have?" Just this morning, the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine withdrew its permission to use one of their churches for the consecration of John Howard because of the interview of the Presiding Bishop with the Associated Press on Monday. "Many of my people would be deeply offended to learn that an Episcopal bishop , who hold a position that is radically opposed to what both the Catholic Church and Scripture teach about homosexuality, is using one of our facilities," Roman Catholic Bishop Victor Galeone said.
  7. To date, four dioceses have called special conventions and rejected the decisions of General Convention. Others are scheduled to meet.
  8. Because of the seriousness of the situation and its threat to the whole Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury has called his fellow Primates of the Communion to meet in London in mid-October to respond to the crisis.

These reactions, not including the gathering in Plano, Texas, next week, should indicate that this is not just another crisis around issues that time will cure.

As Bishop of South Carolina, I have the solemn responsibility to connect us to the whole Communion, to be responsible for the unity of the Church, to proclaim the Gospel and to teach. Why have I taken the position I have taken? The few remarks I wish to make only touch the subject. They should not suggest that as a diocese we do not have much reflection to do together. They will reveal, however, what I understand the teaching of the scripture and the church to be, and I believe why the reaction has been so strong around the Communion.

Part of the surprise of those who favor the actions of General Convention is related to the cultural air we all breathe, which is filled with the philosophies of relativism and individualism. It is this context which has allowed us to end up with positions where a priest will be in good standing in one diocese and subject to presentment in another. We have our truth and you have yours, why can't it continue that way?

David B. Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian in an article "Christ and Nothing" wrote, "We live in an age whose chief moral value has been determined, by overwhelming consensus, to be the absolute liberty of personal volition, the power of each of us to choose what he or she believes, wants, needs, or must possess; our culturally most persuasive models of human freedom are unambiguously voluntarism and, in a rather debased or degraded way, Promethean; the will we believe is sovereign because unpremised, free because spontaneous, and this is the highest good.

"Hence liberties that permit one to purchase lavender bed clothes, to gaze fervently at pornography, to become a Unitarian, to market popular celebrations of brutal violence, or to destroy one's unborn child are all equally intrinsically 'good' because all are expressions of an inalienable freedom of choice.

"And so at the end of modernity, each of us who is true to the times, stands not facing God, or the Gods, or the Good beyond beings, but an abyss over which presides the empty inviolable authority of the individual will, whose impulses and discussions are their own moral index".

Richard B. Hays in The Moral Vision of the New Testament reminds us that the teaching of the New Testament envisions a church whose most urgent pastoral task is the formation of communities that embody the surprising hope of a new creation. In this community is an understanding of discipleship which is sustained so that it is the bearer of a distinct and peculiar vocation within the world. While human sexuality appears to be the most pressing issue before us today, we ignore to our peril the demanding issues around violence, money, divorce, etc. which have implications on a potentially greater scale.

The Bible has little discussion of homosexual behavior. There are perhaps half a dozen references to it in the whole Bible. The Sodom and Gomorrah narrative in Genesis is not one of them. Leviticus18:22, 20:13, which is an unambiguous legal prohibition, is the basis for the universal rejection of homosexual activity in Judaism.

According to Richard Hays the early Church did, in fact, adopt the Old Testament teaching on matters of sexuality, including homosexual acts. Those passages are I Cor. 6: 9-11, I Tim 1:12, Acts 15:28. You know those passages and can read them if you wish.

The most critical text on the subject is Romans 1: 18-32. Here the rejection of homosexual acts is in an explicitly theological context. Romans 1 makes several crucial teachings in this passage. They are:

  1. The Gospel is not merely a moral teaching that hearers may accept or reject, it is the eschatological instrument through which God is working out his purposes in the world.
  2. The righteousness of God is manifest in God's wrath against the unrighteousness of humankind.
  3. Humanity's unrighteousness consists fundamentally in a refusal to honor God and render him thanks because we worship and serve the creature rather than the creator.
  4. Romans refuses to list a catalogue of sins as the cause of human alienation from God; all our depravities are the result of our radical rebellion against the Creation. This rebellion finds universal expression , it includes us all.
  5. The aim of Romans 1 is not a passage warning of God's judgment against particular sins or an attempt to teach a code of sexual ethics, but a diagnosis of the disordered human condition.
  6. Romans sees homosexual activity as flouting sexual distinctions that are fundamental to the Creator's designs, an outward and visible sign of an inward rebellion, and also unnatural.
  7. Romans treats all homosexual activity as prima facie evidence of humanity 's tragic confusion and alienation from God the Creator.

Then the startling conclusion to Romans Chapter 2: "Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others. For in passing judgment on another, you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things." This is the ultimate understanding of the inclusively of the Gospel. We all stand in the same position before God. Our debate is not whether gay and lesbians are welcome in the church or not. If they are not, no one is. The debate is around the question of a new creation. Are we not all called to humble ourselves before the one who is humbled himself and let his grace make us anew?

All people stand equally condemned under the judgment of a righteous God. The gospel levels all of us before a holy God.

Richard B. Hays remind us of three things:

  1. The scripture affirms repeatedly that God has made man and woman for one another and that our sexual desires rightly find fulfillment in heterosexual marriage.
  2. As great-grandchildren of the Enlightenment we like to think of ourselves as free moral agents. Scripture teaches us that we are deeply infected with the tendency to self-deception. Once in a fallen state, we are not free not to sin, we are slaves to sin, rendering us incapable of obedience. The Bible thus rejects the notion that only freely chosen acts are morally culpable, thus saying that a homosexual orientation is not morally neutral because it is involuntary.
  3. God's "giving up" of rebellious humanity is not the last word. The cross declares that God loves us even in rebellion; the death of Jesus is the measure of that love. In a community marked by sacrificial service for each other, we are not locked into biological determination. There is a new creation, but we struggle with disorder, we groan in pain and bondage in the Church. There is no easy way to new life, nor is there any guarantee what it will be like, but simply the promise that it will be.

As a Bishop with jurisdiction, I voted against the consecration of the Bishop-elect of New Hampshire because he is living in a same-sex relationship, he is un-repentant, and whether he realizes it or not he is publicly placing his desires over the welfare of the Church Catholic. It is not personal. I too stand under God's judgment as St. Paul warns in Romans 2. I ask the Diocese of South Carolina assembled in the special convention to likewise reject this election.

The General Convention had endorsed a new religion - one of affirmation rather than a new creation through repentance. A new anthropology - human sexuality, heterosexual or homosexual - is asserted as our core identity, rather than our common humanity in Christ. A new understanding of Christian marriage is proposed, differing from a covenant relationship between male and female signifying the mystical union betwixt Christ and the Church and instead to a committed relationship defined by those who make it. We are in fundamental disagreement in the American Church. I have appealed to the Archbishop of Canterbury and his fellow Primates for a resolution of this impasse. What is our teaching? Who is the Church? I ask the Diocese of South Carolina assembled in this special convention to join me in this request to the Archbishops and Primates.

Bishop Skilton and I stand on a gospel of salvation, not affirmation. It excludes no one. It does not play favorites. We have talked at each other for years and arrived at a church profoundly divided. We are a party to the problem, but we repent and seek a new day.

Originally posted but not written by
The Rev. Dr. Kendall Harmon
Canon Theologian
Diocese of South Carolina

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