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Polyphony of Life in the Diocese of Tennessee

By Clint Wilson

Recognizing the continuing theological diversity of this Church, and in the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee, in regard to same-sex marriage and the blessing of same-sex unions, and out of respect for the deeply held beliefs across the range of opinion, we, members of the 186th Annual Convention of the Diocese of Tennessee, respectfully request that as you, the Bishop and Deputies of the 79th General Convention, prayerfully consider the reauthorization of “Liturgical Resources I” for the next Triennium, you take in account the exclusion, competing convictions, and loss of community experienced by members of this Diocese under the current terms of authorization for the texts.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from a German prison during World War II, used the phrase “polyphony of life” as a defiant cry against the narrow ideology surrounding him. Bonhoeffer believed the Church could be the Church by singing the same song in its polyphonic character and community, trusting in a unity rooted in Christ that was complex, diverse, and costly. Only a textured and hard-won unity reflects the song Christ cried out on the cross, the song sung by angels and archangels, the song also sung by Burundian Anglicans and American Episcopalians.

This is how we are trying to sing in the Diocese of Tennessee. In one sense, our resolution (above) sings out the reality that we no longer know what to do, but we know this: we will respect the authority of our bishop and will not seek to go around him, for to do so means we cease to be Episcopal.

We decided to acknowledge the “exclusion, competing convictions, and loss of community” experienced by Christians across the theological spectrum in our diocese, and to admonish General Convention to keep all of us in mind as it discerns further legislation. The resolution says we are committed to honoring our bishop and his theologically principled push for humble unity.

On the General Resolutions Committee, we were of one mind that we must model a better way and refuse to fracture along the same fault lines of surrounding institutions, both ecclesial and secular. The Episcopal Church is rooted in a big-tent ecclesiology. We must cherish and protect this with a fierce commitment and a true inclusivity, one that places all the baptized together under the cross, where we see each other as fellow pilgrims, where we sing the same song. We will model a better way.

We also wanted to recognize that the current canonical arrangement does not make everyone happy, and we trust that we have at this point arrived at our real work. As Wendell Berry writes in his essay “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms”:

It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

In his lecture “Why the Episcopal Church Needs World Anglicanism,” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry recalled these words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “We shall either learn to live together as brothers and sisters, or we will perish together as fools.” Curry added, “The choices are chaos … or community.”

Following the lead of Bishop Curry, we in the Diocese of Tennessee have sought to choose community. We hope and pray to be a diocese that learns to listen before we legislate — because as King noted, legislating without changing hearts can lead to “arms that are together, but hearts that are  apart.”

We must learn to live together and sing together. We are the church that must live now as we will live in the “life of the world to come,” determined by the eschatological reality that we are and will ultimately be a people “gathered from every tongue, tribe and nation, before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9). We must become who we are, the body of Christ. God willing, we will not perish as fools, unless it is for the foolishness of the cross. In the polyphony of life, our rhythm may sometimes falter, our tense suspensions take too long to resolve. But we will still sing the same song — the song of Christ, in whom “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).

 This essay appears in the Palm Sunday 2018 issue of The Living Church.


  1. This is a deeply troubling article for a variety of reasons.

    But let us first begin by reminding all the readers that the separation that The Rev. Dr. King was referring to was segregation, the institutional and societal separation of people into haves and have-nots by virtue of the color of their skin. Segregation would lead to national and societal death. It was institutional at every level of society and his pushing for humble unity was enough of a social agitation to get him killed. Nothing of the sort is happening in the Episcopal Church except to the detriment of people of color and LBGTQ faithful.

    In spite of our official denominational statements, it is still the case that we struggle welcoming all. The humble unity we seek will necessarily involve the very challenging work of transforming the hearts and minds of those who still cannot welcome all. It will be agitating. It will be uncomfortable. It will even be heartbreaking as it was to so many during Dr. King’s time. This humble unity is not a prayer to keep the peace, but to peacefully transform.

  2. As a 62-year old gay Christian who has been so blessed by the Holy Spirit to know how loved I am by God, I was moved by the text from members of the Annual Convention from the Diocese of Tennessee. In terms of “exclusion,” are you experiencing what gay Christians go through until they recognize no human proclamation can make us worthy? We are just worthy. It is a horrible experience to go through,feeling excluded, I would not wish it upon anyone. I long ago realized it was my path, though, and Christ has been with me every step of the way. I know that Christ will be with you in your journey as well; there will be your new community. See you in Heaven.


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