By Mark Michael
The House of Bishops rejected a resolution that “denounced many crisis pregnancy centers” on General Convention’s third day, responding partly to discussions on the floor about the danger of poorly nuanced statements about hot-button issues in a deeply divided nation. Several bishops also protested the decision to place more than 400 resolutions on the agenda of the four-day meeting, which forced so many to be placed on a consent agenda, where they could not be discussed before being voted upon.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry also offered a heartfelt plea that he and his colleagues might “find our voice — not a partisan voice, but a follower of Jesus voice” during a non-business session on Saturday evening, after bishops sparred over the lack of theological substance in a draft statement about climate change. They spent more time on Sunday strategizing about how to speak constructively about important moral and spiritual questions.
Bishop Ketlen Solak of Pittsburgh articulated a concern that ran through several discussions: “We are grappling with ways of responding to a time that is very difficult in our national life … being political, but from a faithful point of view. How do we build our resilience in a time that will become more fraught with tension and conflict? And how do we teach our people without sounding like we are trying to tell them to think politically?”
Responding to Abortion
The house discussed two resolutions associated with abortion during Sunday morning’s legislative session: Resolution D076, which denounced crisis pregnancy centers, and Resolution D083, which affirmed “that all Episcopalians should be able to access abortion services and birth control with no restriction on movement, autonomy, type, or timing.”
Both resolutions had been approved by the House of Deputies on a consent calendar on the convention’s first day, after a failed attempt to bring them to the floor for discussion by the Rev. Kristine Blaess of Tennessee. This convention requires a one-third threshold in its revised rules of order. At past conventions, resolutions could be removed from the consent calendar if requested by three deputies..
Bishop Michael Smith of Dallas and Albany offered a substitute resolution for D076. It commended “the work and mission of pregnancy care centers which stress unconditional love and acceptance, for women and their unborn children,” while “oppos[ing] and denounc[ing] any efforts on the part of pregnancy care centers to mislead pregnant women about the safety of reproductive health care.”
Smith said he offered the resolution in honor of a female deputy who “had received help from a crisis pregnancy center at a very difficult time of her life,” but who couldn’t share her experience in the house because of its restrictive consent-agenda rules.
Bishop Mark Hollingsworth of Ohio said he did not support the amendment because a third of crisis pregnancy centers were not medically licensed and the American Medical Association had classified them as “unethical.” A deputy from his diocese who had done a great deal of research on crisis pregnancy centers had submitted the resolution, he added, and he wished the bishops had been provided with more supporting documentation.
Bishop William Stokes of New Jersey said dramatic personal testimony about abortion restrictions had been offered during pre-convention hearings hosted by the Social Justice & United States Policy Committee. Bishops and deputies were only provided with a three-paragraph explanation that compared crisis pregnancy centers with unwed mothers’ homes run in past eras by some Episcopal dioceses that subjected mothers and children to “emotional abuse and forced adoption.”
Bishop Bonnie Perry of Michigan said she objected to the term unborn children in Smith’s resolution, while Bishop Jennifer Reddall of Arizona shared her experience of being assaulted and then taken to a Roman Catholic hospital whose policies banned her from securing the medical services she needed. “When women are in that situation,” she said, “they should not have to work harder to get the care they need.”
Bishop Anne Hodges-Copple of North Carolina told her colleagues that she had worked as the director of a battered women’s shelter. “We did have some pregnancy support services that provided great things for women who wanted to continue their pregnancy. And we also had situations where women got terrible information.
“I’m expressing to you my fatigue at thinking that a resolution is going to help us do the things we need to do, she added. “As much as the Episcopal Church that I am a part of respects the agency of women in our own decisions about reproductive health and our entire health, I am not convinced that we also do everything we can do to support women who want to continue their pregnancies. And so, I really am concerned that we are once again going to have to push ourselves into boxes that are not really helping us help the women that we are trying to help.”
“This is a very complex issue, and this kind of voice — though it may feel good — it’s needlessly broad,” said Bishop Kai Ryan of Texas. “It condemns all pregnancy care centers. And it will not help us do the work that we need to do to support women to have access to health care.”
The resolution failed 42-70.
Stokes also introduced D083, which he said “emerged in a context of the Supreme Court decision on Roe vs. Wade, and wanting to reaffirm this church’s complete stance in support of women who feel compelled to seek abortion.”
The sole bishop to speak about the motion was John Bauerschmidt of Tennessee. Responding to earlier criticisms by women bishops about the number of men speaking about abortion, Bauerschmidt opened by acknowledging that “I may not be best informed about this matter.”
“It seems to me reasonable,” he added, “that a society has an interest in regulating access to abortion, especially in view of the viability of the fetus. It seems to me also that it might be a faithful response of legislators and the voting public to include regulation of access. I also believe there is a great diversity in this church about the matter of no restriction.”
The motion failed on a show of hands, after a voice vote was unclear.
The bishops also approved without comment Resolution A001, which identifies five potential sites for the 82nd General Convention: Phoenix; Orlando, Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; Pittsburgh; and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
A001 had been the subject of extended and impassioned debate in the House of Deputies on July 9, with many deputies expressing concern about whether the church should meet in states where more restrictive abortion laws had taken effect after the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Resolution D054, which asked that church leaders consider relocating the 2024 General Convention from Louisville, Kentucky, failed in the House of Deputies.
“To Find Our Voice”
The House of Bishops met in conference Saturday evening, first considering a mind of the house resolution by Bishop Marc Andrus of California on the urgent need for action on climate change. The bishops had not been able to the review the text in advance, so Andrus read it aloud.
When the bishops were asked for comment, Bishop Daniel Richards of Upper South Carolina responded, “I love you all, but half my people are not going to hear this. No Scripture, very little theology — and a brief call to our baptismal covenant is not enough for this statement to hold weight with Christian brothers and sisters who do not agree with this. These kinds of statements are part of what goes into the record about what we are, and they need to have the weight of theology and Scripture. … Without the weight behind it, it will just be another shout and another political division line in our national politics.”
In perhaps the only flash of anger in the house’s sessions so far, Bishop David Rice of San Joaquin promptly responded, “I would say to the previous speaker, ‘Then put theology and Scripture in it, and do your job.” After thanking Andrus for his “tireless work on these issues,” Rice concluded, “I would strongly urge us to support this resolution — wait for what?”
After additional comments by several bishops, Curry commissioned Andrus and Richards, along with several colleagues, to work together on a more theologically substantive version of Andrus’s resolution that could be reviewed by the bishops later in the convention.
Conversation continued, as the bishops sought to respond to a document about challenges facing American democracy written by Bishop Claude Payne, a retired bishop of the Diocese of Texas. Curry told the bishops that he hoped to receive comments from them that the House of Bishops’ Theology Committee could use in preparing a fuller statement on these issues.
After several bishops complained about finding Payne’s text a challenging starting point for their discussions, Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows of Indianapolis spoke directly to Curry: “If you, presiding bishop, want us to do this, we will do it. I want to know emphatically that you think this is the next most important thing that you want us to be working on as a house, and resourcing our people to be wrestling with. … If this is the most important agenda we need to be working on, then I am all in.”
Curry dithered for a moment, said he maybe should sleep on it, and then began speaking in slow and emotional tones. His address said, in part:
“I’m very concerned about a country that I do love and about us potentially being on the verge of living out the opposite of unselfish, sacrificial love. … I mean that as the only way we will live together and have life together, because the opposite is self-destruction. …
“As a child of the civil rights movement, those who fought for equal rights, and justice, and freedom for all never questioned the fact that the democracy itself would hold. We have been forced to ask that question. Is e pluribus unum really possible? Is democracy possible? Is human equality possible?
“I just believe that if we can help our people — and this is not partisan — to find their voice, and to claim the values and the ideals that most people probably believe, than maybe we can help find their voice, and they can help others. And we can help to heal this land, and help this country join with others, and heal God’s creation. That is the calling of the God who called us into being in the first place. …
“And there may be the capacity to find our voice, not a partisan voice, but a follower of Jesus voice, that may help our people and our churches, and maybe, in turn, the sensible center that is in this country and in this world to find its voice. I can’t sit back and watch this country self-destruct, and neither can we.”
In a time of open response, several bishops spoke about their experience of communicating amid these divisions.
“We are a people of hope,” said Bishop David Bailey of Navajoland, the oldest diocesan bishop present. “Some of us in this room have experienced the dark night of the soul, but through recognizing the love expressed through Jesus Christ, we have found the opportunity for redemption.
“You shared with us that 84 percent of the country embrace the person of Jesus Christ, regardless of whether they are Christian or not. It seems that the answer rests — though saying it may be somewhat simplistic — the answer rests similarly in the person of Jesus Christ, and how we find a way to express that in a way to a hungry world.”
Bishops Deon Johnson of Missouri and Mariann Budde of Washington spoke about their hope of introducing in their dioceses a program called the Love Your Neighbor Campaign, which was piloted in 2020 at the Church of the Resurrection, a United Methodist Church in Kansas City. “It’s a national movement that talks about Micah 6:8 in this next election season,” Budde said.
“People Do Not Want an Ambiguous Gospel”
Bishop Mary Gray Reeves, retired Bishop of El Camino Real, opened the conversation time after Sunday morning’s legislative time by reading Curry’s impromptu speech from the night before as a meditation.
The bishops were then asked to consider a series of questions, including “What do I miss about what I thought we were as a nation?” and “What are the tools, resources, and wisdom we have for this moment?”
Bishop Matt Gunter of Fond du Lac and Eau Claire said his group had discerned that “We are called to go a whole lot deeper than we are used to going. In prayer, certainly, and in spiritual practices that prepare us to be the Bonhoeffers, and the Dorothy Days, and the Martin Luther King Jrs., and John Lewises …
“That means we need to do some hard looking at our own selves and find some deep humility about our own stuff, our own idolatry, our own grief, fear, confusion, anger, suspicion of others. … All of us have been shaped to a degree by individualism, consumerism, factionalism, relativism; all of us have violent tendencies — we don’t all go out and buy an AR-15, but the violence is there in our hearts.”
Bishop Tom Ely of North Dakota commended the Communion Across Difference Task Force Report as a helpful tool for these conversations. “While the work of that commission was drawn out of differences over human sexuality and marriage, it went much deeper.”
Bishop Rafael Morales of Puerto Rico said, “Jesus is the center of the Church, and the Church is missionary. If the Church does not have mission at the center, it will have problems. … I am happy for the opportunity to bring the good news to everybody. Listen. In many occasions, we need to see ourselves, and to see our first vocation, to rescue our first love.”
Bishop Jos Tharakan of Idaho added, “Study the Scripture, tell the truth, and live that truth as faithfully as [you] preach. … When I preach the gospel faithfully, and live it, all the Democrats and Republicans call me to be a speaker because I preach the gospel.”
The session ended with a message from Bishop Moises Quezada Mota of the Dominican Republic, translated as “We speak about the centrality of Christ. Jesus Christ was not just an example. To us, Jesus Christ is more than an ideal; he is the incarnation of God. …
“[We preach] most of all his death and resurrection. In our society, we live in a deep existential crisis. People do not want an ambiguous gospel; they want the truth from God, at all times.”