A BISHOP FOR OUR TIMES
THE REV. CHARLES E. BENNISON, 53, seminary professor and bishop-elect to the Diocese of Pennsylvania says that for a bishop not to ordain an avowed homosexual could mean finding himself facing presentment charges by revisionist priests because a court of 8 bishops voted 7 to 1 at a trial in Wilmington, DE to dismiss heresy charges against Walter Righter, thus declaring gay and lesbian behaviour acceptable.
The recently elected bishop, who is himself the son of a bishop, said this was brought to a head by Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning’s recent rejection of presentment charges brought against Bishop Bartlett by a group of concerned Episcopalians in the diocese for Bartlett’s ordination of two avowed homosexuals to the priesthood.
“I am not an advocate of gay rights, because I don’t think it is an issue of rights. As Christians we don’t have rights. It is not my rights, it is God’s gift to us. All human beings are God’s gift to one another including a wide diversity of persons not the same as ourselves (heterosexuals.) It is a deep mystery. A bishop has no choice at the present time but to ordain practising homosexuals because the PB has rejected the presentment brought against Bishop Bartlett. If a bishop rejects the Commission on Ministry’s recommendations he himself could face charges. In our tradition unless it is specifically prohibited in the canons, then it is permitted.”
A growing number of Episcopalians in nearly all the parishes of the Diocese are growing increasingly troubled by the moral and theological drift of The Episcopal Church from its historic moorings, creating a restlessness that could lead to schism.
In a wide-ranging interview Bennison answered questions about himself, his beliefs and his role as bishop of PA.
Question: Bishop, you are one of the convenors exploring a rite for same-sex marriages. What have you concluded?
Answer: A rite for blessing same-sex unions is still in progress, It is problematic certainly, but inevitable now that we have ordained homosexuals in committed relationships. Personally I don’t want to cross that bridge till I come to it.
Question: Have you ever blessed a same-sex union.
Answer: No I have not.
Question: Will you at some future point do so?
Answer: Same sex marriages could scandalize the Diocese, and I would want to know what was happening at that time before proceeding. I am not opposed theologically to performing such ceremonies. We have long had a sexual ethic for heterosexual people but not for homosexual persons. It is not the same ethical question for both parties. We don’t have a clear ethic for homosexuals in committed relationships.
Asked whether Gen. Con. to be held in Philadelphia. will finally approve the ordination of practising homosexuals to the priesthood, Bennison said: “I see no ecclesial sanction. The situation is overripe. It’s more likely to happen in the year 2,000.”
(‘Local Option’ a non-canonical procedure has given many bishops, including Bishop Bartlett, the opportunity to act unilaterally in such matters. )
Question: How did you confront the issue at EDS where you have taught?
Answer: When I came on the EDS faculty in 1992 gay and lesbian unions was a very problematic issue. The chapel was shut down. After I arrived I taught a course with a dozen students dealing with decision-making on divisive issues. In the spring of 1993 I sent a letter to 17 people including bishops and parish priests seeking to convene a dialogue on the issue. The meeting was private but no secret. 30 people signed up. All points of view from the middle to the left met together. What merged is a 3-year study, the process of which still continues.
Question: Will you join the ranks of the Koinonia bishops, headed by Newark Bishop John Spong and vote to formally allow the ordination of gays to the priesthood?
Answer: I am very independent minded. I am a process person. I do not go against the process. It is very hard for me in my conscience to break the rules.
Question: Are you aware that the most vocal opponents to the ordination of avowed homosexuals to the priesthood are in fact celibate, non-practicing homosexual-oriented priests who find such behaviour morally repugnant and who feel betrayed by the church because of its avowed non-celibate stance?
Answer: I don’t know about that. It is their right. I don’t think anyone should be telling others what to do. No one should force anyone. Sexuality should not be turned into a political football.
Question: Even if Holy Scripture opposes such behaviour?
Answer: Scripture requires interpretation.
Question: Did you cut a deal with the ten ESA Synod bishops in the Diocese to allow them to continue Bishop Bartlett’s policy of allowing them to fly in Bishop Parsons as their bishop of choice to serve them?
Answer: I cut no deals with them. I am not going to rescind the deal they made with Bishop Bartlett. I desire to be in relationship with them. I believe that out of respect for 1 Cor. 8:12, I would act to keep the church together, united in diversity. I respect their differences. I am not interested in their financial support. As Bishop I want to keep the whole thing together. My role is to unify the church, to be bishop for all the people.
David Rawson,. lawyer and national chancellor to the ESA praised Bennison as the “most intellectual. most sensitive and most honest and straightforward of all the candidates seeking the office of Bishop Coadjutor.”
Question: Would you allow the Synod to keep their churches if they decide to leave ECUSA en masse at the 1996 Gen. Convention. over the ordination of avowed homosexuals and the possibility of gay marriages?
Answer: If the properties are owned by the diocese, my answer is no. It is a matter of title. I respect them (the Synod) for their differences, but I would move to retain the properties because of those few in the parishes who would want to stay in the Episcopal Church. I would want to protect the legacy of prior generations.”
Question: You said in an interview with a Philadelphia. newspaper that there would be no schism. How do you plan to avert that if continuing to ordain avowed homosexuals does prove a schismatic issue?
Answer: I do not foresee it happening. True schism creates two large bodies. But it won’t happen on these issues. Only 10 percent at each end of the theological spectrum are in danger of schism. 80 percent are unaffected by these issues. We need to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty. We need to tolerate each other’s differences. We need to more deeply assimilate each other, even though churches move in other directions.
This is an exerpt from a longer article by David Virtue which first appeared in the United States and is reproduced by permission.
Why has the Episcopal Church done so?
Answer: Episcopalians have been more liberal on homosexual issues than most mainstream denominations. The church is behind the culture on this. We need to be ahead of the culture, paving the way for homosexuals to feel accepted by the church.
In an extraordinary admission. Bennison said he had never read Episcopal Life, the national church’s official organ and has read only one or two copies of The Living Church during his nearly 30 years in the ministry. “I am not interested in gossip. I only read the Bible, the Prayer Book and solid theological magazines like INTERPRETATION and articles from the Society of Biblical Literature.
Question: How are you going to serve the conservative churches in the diocese (other than the synod churches) who do not support the ordination of homosexual priests and who reject any possibility of gay marriages and might withhold their financial support to the Diocese?
Answer: That would be up to the Diocesan Convention. I would hope they would give their money out of generosity.
Question: What is your view of the formation of the AAC to bring together orthodox and conservative parishes across the country in an umbrella organisation. to oppose the revisionist tide sweeping the Episcopal church.
Answer: I have never heard of that movement. I don’t know anything about it.
Question: the Diocese of PA has 45,000 members and is slowly haemorrhaging into extinction. How do you propose turning that around without traditional biblical evangelism. You have said you want to add 5,000 new members to the Diocesan rolls in this the national church’s Decade of Evangelism.
Answer: we need to place a real emphasis on mission, creative leadership both lay and clergy and inclusive language liturgies. I am impressed with what the Rev. Judy Beck is doing at St. Peter’s in Germantown. She is translating the gospel into a new idiom. She is adaptive and highly imaginative.
Question: More than 100 out of the 163 parishes in the Diocese are barely paying their way with declining congregations. The parishes that are growing are Evangelical and Biblically faithful in preaching the gospel. Why are they growing and liberal parishes dying?
Answer: There is effective preaching in some places, but not in all places. Some congregations honor tradition. if you want to grow you must articulate the gospel in the language of the people to touch their lives.
Question: We are still in the decade of Evangelism. How are you going to promote that in a diocese that has been steadily declining in numbers for the past decade under Bartlett’s stewardship?
Answer: We need to honour people in their diversity. A recent study showed that basically because leadership is lacking. we need to up the ante and expect people to take God more seriously in their own lives. There must be no hidden barriers to inclusion. Good music and liturgy is part of it.
Question: When you were at EDS reports from a US chaplain said that certain women faculty members were involved in the worship of the earth goddess GAIA in the college chapel. What was your response to that?
Answer: The argument is that the sexist oppression of women came with the Christian conversion of Europe. They are returning to a pre-Christian time. We did not stop it because we believe in people’s freedom. We also have people on the campus calling themselves pagans. I have stayed out of the fray.
Question: What is the church’s ultimate authority?
Answer: Tradition, the Bible, and reason. God works through the culture and the church. We draw on both natural and revealed theology.