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West Texas Bishop Now Sees Through Rainbow Colored Glasses

West Texas Bishop Now Sees Through Rainbow Colored Glasses
Bishop Gary Lillibridge has shifted his focus on same-sex blessings saying it is something Jesus would do

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
www.virtueonline.org
May 20, 2015

It has taken nearly three years for Bishop Gary Lillibridge (IX West Texas) to do an about face on the issue of Same-Sex Blessings. Just weeks before the first gavel of the 2015 Episcopal General Convention is to fall in Salt Lake City, Utah, the West Texas Episcopal bishop has gone from voting against A-049 at the 2012 General Convention in Indianapolis, Indiana, to allowing limited provisional use of "The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant" from the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music's liturgical resource "I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing" in his diocese. So far three congregations have requested permission, while the Corpus Christi, Texas-based Bishop Elliott Society has taken a stand against the bishop's change of mind, heart, and diocesan policy.

On July 9, 2012, Bishop Lillibridge was one of six Episcopal bishops in the State of Texas who voted against Resolution A-049 to "Authorize Liturgical Resources for Blessing Same-Gender Relationships." Other Texas-based bishops voting against the resolution were: Andrew Doyle (IX Texas); Paul Lambert (Suffragan Dallas); James Stanton (VI Dallas); David M. Reed (Suffragan West Texas -- now Bishop Coadjutor West Texas); and Don Wimberly (VIII Texas-retired). Episcopal bishops serving in Texas who voted for A-049 included: Edwin Gulick (I Provisional Fort Worth); Wallis Ohl (II Provisional Fort Worth); Scott Mayer (V Northwest Texas); and Michael Vono (IX Rio Grande). Rayford High (Suffragan Texas -- now III Provisional Fort Worth) abstained.

Lillibridge was elected the Ninth Bishop of the Diocese of West Texas in October 2003, on the heels of the 2003 General Convention's approving of Vicky Gene Robinson's election as the Ninth Bishop of New Hampshire. Then New Hampshire's Canon to the Ordinary Robinson was the first publically open gay-partnered clergyman to be elected an Episcopal bishop. This was the backdrop that Gary Lillibridge, then Archdeacon for the Diocese of West Texas, was elected bishop against. The homosexual issue has always been on the forefront of church discussion during Bishop Lillibridge's entire episcopate. In fact, he is seated only one chair away from Bishop Robinson in the Episcopal House of Bishops; only Bishop Dean Wolfe (IX Kansas) separates them at the HOB table's assigned seating arrangement.

Ten years later, in his Bishop's Address to the 2013 Diocesan Council, Bishop Lillibridge described Bishop Robinson's affirmation by General Convention as a "tremulous event."

"This issue of (partnered gays and homosexuality in the church) has been on the front burner since that General Convention's approval," he told the 109th Diocesan Council.

THEOLOGICAL CONSERVATIVE

Since his 2004 elevation to the House of Bishops, West Texas Bishop Lillibridge has been considered a theological conservative. At the 2009 General Convention, he voted against Resolution D-025 to "Reaffirm Participation in the Anglican Communion While Acknowledging Differences" which "affirm(s) that God has called and may call such individuals (gay & lesbians) to any ordained ministry in The Episcopal Church; and Resolution C-056 to "Develop Liturgies for Blessings Unions and Provide Generous Pastoral Response" which "honor(s) the theological diversity of this Church in regard to matters of human sexuality."

Following the passage of twin 2009 General Convention resolutions, three dozen bishops banded together and penned a five-point Anaheim Statement where they affirmed their commitment to The Anglican Communion, fearing that the passage of D-025 and C-056 could undermine The Episcopal Church's place in The Anglican Communion. Bishop Lillibridge read the Anaheim Statement in the House of Bishops.

Before the 2012 General Convention met in Indianapolis, Indiana, Lillibridge appointed a 50-member Focus Group to "consider our response as a diocesan family to Resolution A-049." The West Texas bishop charged his Focus Group to approach the same-sex blessing issue with "Christ-like compassion and prayerful theological reflection."

The 2012 General Convention passed Resolution A-049; again, dissenting bishops signed a declaratory statement denouncing the passage of the controversial resolution. This time, only 12 bishops were signatories; Bishop Lillibridge was not among them. It was Bishop Michael Smith (XI North Dakota) who read the Indiana Statement on behalf of his brother Communion Partner bishops to his brother and sister bishops in the Episcopal House of Bishops.

"It is not accurate to say that The Episcopal Church authorized same-sex marriage," Bishop Lillibridge explained in a video to his diocese following the 2012 General Convention. "The Convention authorized the provisional use of liturgies for the blessing of same-sex relationship intended for same-sex persons in a lifelong, committed monogamous relationship with the same expectations the Church has for heterosexual couples."

Texas Bishop Andy Doyle Folds

Texas Bishop Andy Doyle, who signed the Anaheim Statement, and voted against A-049 at the 2012 General Convention, was the first conservative bishop in Texas to fold and allow Same-Sex Blessing within the borders of his Episcopal Diocese of Texas. Bishop Doyle implemented the "Texas Compromise" where only self-discerning individual congregations would be allowed to perform same-sex blessings. Following General Convention, the San Antonio Express-News noted that Lillibridge "would not change his mind on the policy until after a focus group he appointed to discuss the new liturgy completes its work."

2013 DIOCESAN COUNCIL

In his address to the 2013 Diocesan Council, Bishop Lillibridge reported that he had had an on-going conversation about human sexuality within the church from a wide spectrum of people ranging from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, various Anglican primates, and more than 650 Anglican bishops whom he met at the 2008 Lambeth Conference, to the people in the pews of 90 churches in his diocese. He also drew on the wisdom of Dietrich Bonheoffer and Alcoholics Anonymous in his contemplation.

The XIV Lambeth Conference, in responding to Bishop Robinson's consecration, touched upon the tensions concerning human sexuality to the common life of the Anglican Communion -- a conversation which was being forced by the actions of The Episcopal Church -- while the subject of same-sex blessings was a mere blip on the radar screen. The issue of transgender individuals and ordination was not yet on the horizon.

"The issue of homosexual relations is as sensitive as it is because it conflicts with the long tradition of Christian moral teaching," the Lambeth Conference noted. "For some, the new teaching cannot be acceptable on biblical grounds as they consider all homosexual activity as intrinsically sinful. Tension has arisen when those who hold the traditional teaching are faced with changes in the Church's life or teaching without being able to understand or engage with a clear presentation."

Following the 2012 General Convention, Lillibridge was particularly struck by the words "may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this Church" and to "honor the theological diversity of this church in regard to matters of human sexuality" in the wording of Resolution A-049. Now it was up to him -- as a bishop with jurisdiction -- to figure out how he could discern what those words mean in his diocese. In 2013 he initially concluded that allowing same-sex blessings would be divisive within the Diocese of West Texas, so he was putting the implementation of same-sex blessings on hold until further discussion could be had. A process was launched, should a congregation wish to further explore the possibility of same-sex blessings, as the deliberations continued.

"We as a Diocese need the kind of deep engagement that the Focus Group and the clergy experienced as we seek a deeper understanding of these subjects and of one another," Bishop Lillibridge told the Diocesan Council. "Until these conversations occur they do not feel that, as a whole, the diocesan family is ready to consider the authorization of these (same-sex blessing) rites.

"I concur with this counsel and will not authorize the blessings of same-sex relationships at this time," the bishop admitted, leaving a window cracked for a change of mind and heart. "Now, if and when same-sex blessings are allowed in West Texas it will come after a great deal of prayer, thoughtful and difficult and serious conversations with people whose views represent the spectrum of deep theological reflection ... Homosexuality and the issues surrounding it will require our continuing pastoral consideration."

MARRIAGE IN TEXAS

On Feb. 21, 2014, Bishop Lillibridge again addressed his Diocesan Council (the equivalent to a diocesan convention). He had had a year to reflect on the theological aspects of same-sex relationships and to see the impact of social change in the United States. Texas was still holding the line on traditional marriage. Although before week's end, on Feb. 26, 2014, Federal Judge Orlando Garcia of the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas -- based in San Antonio -- would rule that Texas' ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. The United States District Court for the Western District of Texas overlaps the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.

In 2005, Texas voters approved Texas Proposition 2 by a 76 to 24 percent margin which amended the Texas State Constitution to define marriage as consisting "only of the union of one man and one woman" and prohibiting the State of Texas, or any political subdivision of the state -- county or local government -- from creating or recognizing "any legal status identical or similar to marriage" including civil unions. The Texas Family Code also states that a "license may not be issued for the marriage of persons of the same sex," and that a "marriage between persons of the same sex or a civil union is contrary to the public policy of this state and is void in this state." It also states that Texas does not "recognize or validate a marriage between persons of the same sex or a civil union in this state or in any other jurisdiction.

Texas has a population of 27 million of whom approximately 143,000 are Episcopalians. The Diocese of West Texas is the third largest Episcopal Diocese in Texas with a baptized membership of 23,700. Only the Diocese of Texas (76,500) and the Diocese of Dallas (31,700) are larger. The Diocese of Northwest Texas (6,700) and the TEC's Diocese of Fort Worth (4,800) are smaller. The Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande, based in New Mexico, has 10 congregations with about 500 members on the rolls in the Trans-Pecos region of far-west Texas.

In 2014, a New York Times/CBS poll, with the largest polling sample of more than 4,100 participants, showed that 50 percent of Texans were against same-sex marriage. Only 37 percent from the Lone Star State approved of the unions while 14 percent of those asked offered no opinion. Polls have consistently showed that more Texans are opposed to same-sex marriage than approve the practice.

"This year I am again inviting our congregations to engage in a prayerful, careful and intentional conversation about homosexuality," Bishop Lillibridge explained. "The General Convention seeks to 'honor the theological diversity of this church' and that is what I am trying to lead us in doing and doing well."

The Reconciliation Commission of the diocese, initially established in 2009 following the Anaheim General Convention, has taken point in facilitating the Diocesan Council discussions surrounding issue of homosexuality in the diocese and the congregations. At the 2015 Diocesan Council, more than 500 Council delegates participated in the directed exercise.

"It is our responsibility to be engaged in the wider church's discussion," the bishop explained. "The Church -- Christians of all denominations -- needs to find ways to engage the subject of homosexuality which can offer to the world an example of spiritual healthy work of reconciliation to which we are called as members of Christ's Body."

2015 DIOCESAN COUNCIL

In 2015 same-sex marriage is being fought in the US Supreme Court. In Texas, Judge Garcia's unpopular 2014 ruling has been appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. In defending Texas' right to self-rule, Texas out-going Gov. Rick Perry noted, "The 10th Amendment (Bill of Rights) guarantees Texas voters the freedom to make these decisions, and this is yet another attempt to achieve via the courts what couldn't be achieved at the ballot box. We will continue to fight for the rights of Texans to self-determine the laws of our state. Texas and Texans are fight for traditional marriage and, as of yet, same-sex marriage is not the will of the majority in the Lone Star State, nor the law of the land in Texas."

A-049 calls for "...bishops, particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-sex marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this Church..." Currently, same-sex marriage, civil unions, and domestic partnerships are illegal in Texas, however three of five Episcopal dioceses in Texas allow same-sex blessings -- the Diocese of Texas (Bishop Doyle); and the TEC Diocese of Fort Worth (Bishop High). The New Mexico-based Diocese of the Rio Grande (Bishop Vono), which dips down into Texas, also allows for same-sex blessings. New Mexico allows same-sex marriage. Only Diocese of Northwest Texas (Bishop Mayer) and the Diocese of Dallas forbid same-sex blessings in their churches. The Diocese of Dallas' new Bishop-elect George Sumner states, for reasons of conscience and theology, that as bishop, he cannot approve of same-sex blessing or same-sex marriage in any circumstance.

At this time, Texas is not a "civil jurisdiction where same-sex marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships are legal." Judge Garcia's ruling has been put on hold as the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decides its fate and the US Supreme Court determines the state of same-sex marriage in America. In Texas, it cannot be done legally, but that fact hasn't stopped Bishop Lillibridge from theologically exploring same-sex blessings through the eyes of The Episcopal Church.

In addition to the 50-member Focus Group, designed to "begin a conversation of the implications of General Convention's Resolution A-049 for our life together" and the Diocesan Reconciliation Commission, Bishop Lillibridge has also appointed a 30-member Council of Advice. This group was recently developed to explore the lengthy ethics, moral and theological issues surrounding same-sex blessings and to assist him in his continued discernment process as the same-sex blessing issue looms closer to home. Last fall, three Episcopal congregations -- The Church of Reconciliation and St. Paul's both in San Antonio, and All Saints in Corpus Christi -- made it known they were seeking the bishop's permission to allow same-sex blessings to become a part of their parishes' liturgical life. The diocesan standing committee and the executive board also got drawn into the discussion.

St. Paul's and Church of the Reconciliation are both Integrity USA Believe Out Loud LGBT welcoming parishes. The only other Integrity recognized inclusive congregations in Texas include: St. Thomas, Dallas; St. Hildegard, Austin; and St. Andrew's, St. Stephen's, and Trinity Church in Houston.

"There are few topics that continue to dominate the news, both in the church and in the culture, as much as the topic of homosexuality. It continues to be particularly large and familiar conversation in The Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion," the bishop explained to the 2015 Diocesan Council held in late February. "For more than a decade I have called the diocesan family to prayerful, theological, pastoral, and spiritually healthy ways to engage this subject as we seek to respect the dignity of every human being.

"This past fall (2014) I received formal request from three of our 88 congregations to allow them to proceed with same-gender blessings in their congregation," the bishop continued. "Note that these are not for same-gender marriage, since that is not permitted in Texas at the present time, and has not been authorized in a formal sense by General Convention.

"I am prayerfully and deliberately weighing a response to these three requests in light of all the factors currently in play," Bishop Lillibridge explained as he continues to wrestle with the concept of same-sex blessings in his diocese against the backdrop of an anticipated Supreme Court ruling and the possible actions of the upcoming 2015 Episcopal General Convention.

PERMISSION GRANTED

Two months later, on April 24, after the discipline of Lent, Lillibridge has his mind made up. In a six-page letter, laced with many scriptural references, he communicates his decision to the diocese. He, as the Bishop of West Texas, and with support from his bishop coadjutor, is cracking the door open and is allowing same-sex blessings at the three churches requesting them. He is permitting the sexual desires of a few to override the collective will of the many.

"Within the congregations of our diocesan family are persons who understand and interpret Scripture differently and who disagree on the questions of homosexuality. Yet they worship together and kneel side by side to receive the Eucharist on Sundays," he writes. "We are all aware that no decision on these matters can please everyone. But Bishop Reed and I hope that Christian charity and generosity of spirit will guide us, and that mutual love and respect will flourish as we continue our life and ministry together."

The bishop pointed out that he spent Lent carefully re-reading the four Gospels seeking to determine what Jesus would do in a similar circumstance. What would His words and actions and theological thinking be?

The bishop noted that he realized that Jesus ministered inside and outside the established religious teaching and norms of His day. For example, He healed on the Sabbath.

"Scripture itself reveals instances in the life and ministry of Jesus where He works outside of established, long-held religious tradition and practice to extend grace and mercy to people who otherwise are not included," the bishop writes his diocesan "friends."

The bishop begs the question whether or not Jesus' examples provide the way forward in the matter of same-sex blessings.

"In the spirit of these and other examples of Jesus grace, mercy, loving care, and gentleness, I am going to allow the requests of these three congregations, and the clergy serving those congregations, though a time of provisional use for the next twelve months," the bishop wrote as he dropped his theological bomb. "... But this provisional permission is only for the three congregations"

He then set forth narrow and rigid guidelines for the implementation of same-sex blessings in the Diocese of West Texas to prevent non-local gay and lesbian couples from crossing denominational, diocesan, and parish borders to secure liturgical same-sex blessings. The regulations are:
1: Both partners of the gay or lesbian couple are to be practicing Episcopalians in good standing.
2: At least one of the partners must be a member of the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas.
3: One of the partners must also be a member of one of the three congregations that first petitioned for same-sex blessings.
4: The partners are to be active members of the church.
5: The couple's priest must ask permission from the bishop in writing to perform the ceremony. 6: The couple must engage in counseling and preparation before their priest can petition the bishop.
7: The blessing is to be imparted only on a couple that is in a monogamous, faithful and lifelong commitment.
8: The partners must also sign "Pastoral Understanding" and a "Pastoral Declaration" documents.

"Bishop Reed and I realize that this decision will be met with mixed responses," Bishop Lillibridge wrote. "Bishop Reed and I invite you to join us in the reconciling work of Christ, not only in matter of human sexuality, but in all sorts and conditions of human life and human relationships."

Bishop Lillibridge's bombshell was met with strong reaction from the Bishop Elliott Society (BES) which upholds traditional Anglican doctrine and Christian faith.

THE BISHOP ELLIOT SOCIETY RESPONSE

" ...We are compelled to issue a clear statement regarding Bishop Lillibridge's 'generous pastoral response' to the three congregations seeking permission to offer same-sex blessings," the Bishop Elliot Society posted on its website, taking the West Texas bishop to task. "In brief, while empathetic and thoughtful, we find the Bishop's letter to be out of step with Holy Scripture's clear teaching on marriage, and his decision granting provisional permission to be in error."

The authors of the BES statement were quick to point out their respect for their bishop, his ministry, and leadership, but they were primarily concerned with the unity of the diocesan family. This was a concern voiced to Bishop Lillibridge throughout his discernment process by myriad pro and con voices within the diocese. They also point out that Bishop Lillibridge's new insight into homosexual relationships can cause problems for other Anglicans in distant lands, something Lambeth Conference emphasized.

"We sincerely rejoice that people who experience themselves as homosexually oriented have found a home in The Episcopal Church. That is not the issue," the strongly worded BES statement continues. "The issue at hand is that Scripture is clear that marriage was originally intended to be one partnership from both genders committed to a lifelong relationship, and that the Church has no authority to bless any other sexual union or to teach any other doctrine.

"Same-sex blessing liturgies effectively ordain the covenant between the same-sex couple; that is, they recognize and bless the holiness of such union as in the sacramental rite of marriage," the statement explained. "Whether the word 'marriage' is used or not, its meaning is commonly understood to be modified with such rites. We believe that to be detrimental to God's people, not only because it expands the definition of marriage, but because it also convolutes the teaching of Holy Scripture."

Outside of Holy Wirt, which records Jesus' understanding of marriage in Matthew 19:4-6, the Bishop Elliott Society cites two Anglican documents it considers authoritative in determining Anglican religious practice in Holy Matrimony -- Article XX of the Articles of Religion "Of the Authority of the Church" contains the words, "... it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another;" and Lambeth's 1998 Resolution 1.10 on Human Sexuality that states: "We cannot advise the legitimizing or blessing of same-sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions." The 1998 Lambeth Resolution was referenced during the 2008 Lambeth attended by Bishop Lillibridge. Then Lambeth said that Resolution 1.10 was clearly reiterating "the traditional stance of the Church" on marriage and shunned the legitimizing of same-sex unions with blessing rituals.

"We regret that we are being asked to accept modifications to the historic and Scriptural understanding of marriage in the name of diversity," the 14 BES signatories wrote. "This strains relationships between earnest Christians, because we cannot say together that we both have the mind of Christ on this matter."

Now that same-sex blessing are becoming a reality in the Diocese of West Texas, Bishop Lillibridge and his coadjutor Bishop Reed are to work closely the three congregations as they move toward full implementation of Resolution A-049 within their sanctuaries. The entire on-going same-sex issue will then be dumped in Bishop Reed's lap in late 2017 when he becomes the Tenth Bishop of West Texas and Bishop Lillibridge.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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