Taking a public stand against the 77 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion's recent push to limit the role of gays and lesbians in the church, representatives of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah spoke out Tuesday in a document directed at fellow church leaders and the media.
The eight-page position paper, signed by the Right Rev. Carolyn Tanner Irish and several local Episcopal deputies, was designed to "respond critically and constructively" to recent restrictions on ordaining gay bishops and blessing same-sex unions.
Those restrictions were formulated during a meeting in Tanzania last month of top Anglican leaders called primates from around the world in response to the U.S.-based Episcopal Church's push for greater acceptance of gays and lesbians in leadership and in "committed relationships."
The document says the signatories "hold firmly that each person is a child of God, beautifully and wonderfully made. We do not sanction the use of any language in our worldwide discussion or from our leaders that demeans, demonizes, demoralizes, or damns people who are gay or lesbian.
"We are ashamed that any in our midst have spoken with words that are hurtful and even shameful in our debates about human sexuality."
In essence, it challenges the right of Anglican leadership to issue directives to the Episcopal Church, which it maintains is an autonomous church bound to the Anglican Communion by "bonds of affection" rather than an authoritarian governing structure.
It says the Utah leadership is concerned about "a creeping authoritarianism, both in the claims made by the (leadership) groups that produce the (restrictive) documents and also in the manner they are employed in worldwide discussion."
While noting the documents have "no legal force, they are spoken of nonetheless as representing the 'standard of teaching' of the Anglican Communion or as bearing a 'moral force,"' the document says.
"We regret that the documents themselves are being used as if they already have definitive moral and juridical force across the Communion. Authority cannot be claimed by itself. It must be recognized and accepted by those whom it governs," the Utah leaders wrote.
"The interpretation of Holy Scripture is impoverished by narrow understandings and by the selective application of such understandings to complex moral issues," they added. "There is no single biblical morality."
The Episcopal Church is one of 38 members of the Anglican Communion worldwide. Some conservative leaders, particularly in African nations, have accused U.S. bishops of defying scriptural teaching and tried to force the Episcopal Church to either rein in its increasingly gay-friendly policies or leave the Communion.
Bishop Irish has been among a group of outspoken U.S. bishops that openly supported the 2003 ordination of a practicing gay man, Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, as a bishop. She has also supported the blessing of same-sex unions by Episcopal clergy within the Utah Diocese.
"As far as we know, we are the only diocese whose deputies and leadership have offered such a response to the wider church," Bishop Irish said. "I will be proud to take it at the end of this week to the meeting of our House of Bishops in Texas. I am sure it will contribute much to the discussion of many challenging issues facing us as a church."
She told the Deseret Morning News that after getting word from the primates in Tanzania on Feb. 19, "it came across as a demand 'you do what we tell you.' That's not how our church works."
On Feb. 22, Bishop Irish called Utah deputies a group of both clergy and lay leaders together to get their feelings on the restrictions.
"After sounding off for quite a while, somebody said, 'Why don't we reframe the whole subject in our own terms and not just defend against what other people say about us?"'
They came up with "a wonderful document," she said, adding the deputies showed "great wisdom and commitment and knowledge" in formulating their thoughts in a way she hopes will be well-received not only by the national church's other bishops but by the national House of Deputies.
Both bodies function as a democratic forum for governing the Episcopal Church as an autonomous body apart from the Anglican Communion. Copies of the document will be sent to the House of Deputies as well, she said.
Leaders of the 38 provinces that make up the Communion will also receive a copy, she said, adding, "I don't know what effect it will have.... There are probably eight of the 38 provinces who support and agree with us on this subject."
She said most bishops who "take the time to read it will really appreciate it," except for a few conservatives "who are trying to push us to just recant the whole thing. And that's not going to happen."Bishop Irish leaves today to meet with the other U.S. bishops, and the document is slated to be part of their discussion.