History-making 65th Convention Ends

Episcopal News Service. September 23, 1976 [76299]

Howard Freeman

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn., Sept. 23 -- The Episcopal Church brought its historymaking 65th General Convention to a close here today in the wake of decisions that are expected to produce an epochal impact on the life and worship of its 3,100, 000 members.

The 1,084 delegates -- 172 bishops and 912 deputies or alternates -- ended 13 days of consideration and debate with adoption of two measures which represent a break with tradition unequaled in the two centuries of the United States church's existence -- approval of the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate, and adoption of a sharply revised Proposed Book of Common Prayer to replace the Standard work in use since 1928.

The triennial gathering of representatives of the denomination's 113 domestic and overseas dioceses and single overseas convocation adjourned after dealing with an agenda containing the most controversial and potentially explosive issues to come before the supreme legislative body of the church since the very first such meeting in 1785.

It dealt with them, despite ominous forecasts of schism and disruption, in an atmosphere of marked restraint and mutual respect for opposing views, often reflecting profound depth and passion, and with a general spirit of acceptance of majority rule. With a handful of exceptions, both clerical and lay champions of defeated causes reacted to their losses in a spirit of professed Christian acceptance, pledging continued loyalty to the Episcopal Church.

This is not to say, however, that decisions on the controversial ordination issue and Prayer Book revision necessarily meant final surrender by their outvoted opponents. The ultimate course which many of them will follow remained a subject for speculation, with some three dozen bishops signing a statement declaring that they could not acknowledge the authority of the Convention to decide the ordination matter unilaterally" in the face of the expressed disapproval of our Roman, Old Catholic and Orthodox brethren."

At the same time the statement, drafted by the Bishop of Eau Claire, the Rt. Rev. Stanley Atkins, asserted that its signers "stand committed to the Episcopal Church, and we are determined to live and work within it. "

On the other hand, the Rev. Carroll Simcox of Milwaukee, editor of The Living Church, said in an interview with a local newspaper that one possible response by those in disagreement with Convention action, as reported to him, would be the formation of a separate, non-geographic diocese within the Church, within which its adherents could continue to reject women priests and use only the 1928 Prayer Book.

And in an advertisement which appeared in Tuesday morning's Minneapolis Tribune, the Anglican Orthodox Church of Statesville, N.C., invited dissident Episcopalians to write to its "Presiding Bishop," the Most Rev. James Parker Dees after setting forth its credal points that emphasize that it "does not ordain women in the Church" and "uses only the historic Book of Common Prayer and does not tolerate deviations such as the Green Book, the Red Book, the Zebra Book, 'Jazz Masses,' etc."

The spirit of Bishop Atkins' statement, articulated similarly by many of those who had opposed changes to the present Book of Common Prayer, found support in the words of the spiritual leader of the world's 47 million Anglicans, the Most Reverend and Right Honorable F. Donald Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of All England and Metropolitan, who spent a busy three days at the Convention.

Affirming his own advocacy of women's ordination to the full ministry of the Church, the Archbishop reinforced the previous pleas for reconciliation uttered by the Rt. Rev. John M. Allin, Presiding Bishop of the U.S. Church, and leaders on both sides of the controversy. The witty, urbane visitor addressed both the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies and preached, as well, at the Eucharistic Service of the United Thank Offering in the Minneapolis Auditorium on Sunday, September 19. He also took time out to address the Minneapolis Rotary Club as the guest of the Bishop of Minnesota, the Rt. Rev. Philip T. McNairy.

In his sermon, Archbishop Coggan urged Episcopalians to adopt a "Minneapolis Quadrilateral" which would embrace love of brethren, unity of the Church, worship of God, and evangelism of the world.

While the wide revolt and schism so freely predicted in some quarters failed to materialize as a result of the admission of women to the full Holy Orders and the passage of the revised Prayer Book, the actions nevertheless left open to considerable speculation the actual, long-term consequences of the historic decisions.

Full impact of the vote to adopt a new Prayer Book will be years in coming, for it will probably be six months before the accepted Proposed Book with its amendments adopted here can be in wide use, and it must come before the 1979 Convention at Denver for second and final approval. Beyond that, both Houses have approved appointment of a joint study group to consider possible permissible alternative use of the present Book of Common Prayer permanently.

Effect of the ordination vote, however, will be more immediately visible. By electing to accomplish the change by canonical rather than constitutional amendment, Convention made it possible for women deacons to become eligible for the priesthood or episcopate as early as January 1, 1977. The House of Deputies failed to concur with the House of Bishops resolution that would have advanced the effective date to November 1, 1976. Had the Convention followed the constitutional course, the amendment would have had to be submitted to the Denver Convention three years hence for final ratification.

The precedent-shattering change in the status of women in the Church was actually accomplished in the simple language of a new Section 1 of Title III, Canon 9:

" Section 1. The provisions of these canons for the admission of Candidates, and for the Ordination to the three Orders: Bishops, Priests and Deacons shall be equally applicable to men and women." The vote to adopt the new Prayer Book was overwhelming -- in the House of Deputies the clergy approved it, 107 dioceses for, 3 against and 3 divided, with the laity voting 90 for, 12 against and 9 divided. The House of Bishops' vote was almost unanimous.

Ordination of women, however, barely squeaked by. Needing 58 affirmative votes in the clerical order in the House of Deputies, it received 60, which meant that had three more priests voted in the negative in certain circumstances it would have lost through a tie. Clergymen from 39 dioceses voted "no" and 15 dioceses were divided in the clerical order. Among the laity 64 dioceses voted "yes," 56 "no," and 13 were divided. Fifty-seven "ayes" were required for passage.

While women's ordination and the Prayer Book overshadowed all remaining items on the two-week agenda, the Convention had to deal with a number of other issues vital to the Church.

One, however, which was directly related to the ordination question -- what to do about the 15 women "irregularly" ordained in 1974 and 1975 at Philadelphia and Washington -- was resolved by the bishops after several hours of, at times, impassioned debate. The bishops finally accepted a Theology Committee report which recommended "as the mind of the house" either a "completion" of or a conditional ordination of the 15 before permitting them to exercise their office as licensed priests.

The recommendation is advisory only, and not necessarily binding on any diocesan bishop, including any of the 10 in whose dioceses the 15 women are canonically resident. None of the 10 bishops has permitted any of the women to be licensed.

Concurrence of the deputies in the bishops' action was not required.

Earlier the deputies, in choosing a successor to the Rev. John B. Coburn as president of their house, marked up another precedent for the United States Church -- they elected the first Black in history to that post in the person of Dr. Charles R. Lawrence II, a 61-year-old professor of sociology from Brooklyn College, City University of New York. Senior warden of historic Trinity Parish of New York City, Dr. Lawrence had served as vice-president of the deputies during the Minneapolis Convention and assumed his new charge as president when its sessions closed September 23. Dr. Coburn will become Bishop of Massachusetts early in October and therefore was ineligible for further service with the deputies.

As vice-president of the House of Deputies his colleagues chose the Very Rev. David B. Collins, 53, Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, Ga., largest Episcopal church in the United States.

The Presiding Bishop chairs the meetings of the House of Bishops.

Money matters, a thorny subject for heated and even acrimonious debate at recent General Conventions, hardly provoked a deep breath at Minneapolis as both houses pushed a $14,000,000 program budget for 1977 and a $2.4 million triennial budget for General Convention expenses through 1979 without a single amendment. The General Convention budget includes expenses of the Presiding Bishop's Office, Convention itself and a number of other special costs not embraced within the program items, such as joint committees and commissions and expenses of the two houses.

Principal program budget items include $7.1 million for National and World Mission; $2 million for Education for Ministry; $2 million for Church in Society; $1.6 million for Administration, and $1 million for Communication, Finance and Development/Stewardship. Assistance for special programs to aid ethnic minorities, a much disputed topic in the General Convention Special Program initiated at Seattle in 1967, are now incorporated in the Church in Society program under a consolidated leadership.

One of the other significant events of Convention, in the new of observers, was the action of the bishops in authorizing a year's planning work designed to lead to the creation of a Navajo Area Mission covering parts of Utah and Arizona. Recommended by the Bishops' Committee on World Mission, the proposed mission would ultimately have its own bishop and, in effect, provide the Navajos, who comprise an independent nation within the United States, with their own ecclesial jurisdiction. The study is intended to assess human and other resources involved, as well as funding, guidelines for operation and a plan for an indigenous ministry. Both the Diocese of Arizona and the Diocese of Utah have ceded to General Convention the area covered by the proposed mission, as large as all New England save Maine.

The issue of the divided vote by orders, long a sore point with many members of both houses, again failed of resolution when the House of Deputies tabled a report of a special committee named at Louisville in 1973, which called for counting such ties as abstentions. Under the Church's constitution, measures require a majority of all votes cast, with the result that ties in effect are counted in the negative. At several past Conventions important measures enjoying support of an apparent numerical majority of bishops and deputies nevertheless lost because of the voting rules. The Deputies' Committee on Amendments to the Constitution, however, brought the report to the floor with an adverse recommendation because of complicated procedures requiring a 60 percent majority on certain "important" matters.

A heartening note at the meeting was the announcement by the Women of the Church that their United Thank Offering for the year represented the largest sum in history -- $1,628,001.12, including the $9,202.15 from September 19's Service of Eucharist at which the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke. Funds from the UTO will be allocated in grants for a wide variety of projects and works within the Church during the coming triennium.

But the major news to come out of Convention having to do with finances was the adoption by both houses of the broad-ranging "Venture in Mission" report calling for the raising of $96 million through a capital fund drive to meet the mission needs of the Church. The Rt. Rev. Christoph Keller, Bishop of Arkansas, chairperson of a special committee named by the Presiding Bishop to develop a plan to solve those needs, described VIM as a "bold venture whose objective is to release the human and financial resources of this Church for the mission that God has given this Church." The plan calls for raising $56.3 million for national and world mission, $23.25 million for education for ministry, and $13 million for the Church's mission in society, with $3.5 million set aside for campaign costs. The adopted measure allows consultation with the dioceses on their needs and priorities.

On the subject of abortion, Convention reaffirmed its 1967 policy, deeming it permissible when it threatens the physical or mental health of the mother, if there be reason to believe the child will be badly deformed in mind or body, or if the pregnancy results from rape or incest. It also approved new guidelines for those believing their pregnancies should be terminated, and opposed legislation that would deny the right of individuals to decide to undergo abortions.

In the area of human sexuality, both houses devoted considerable debate to the special problem of homosexuality without arriving at radical action. They concurred in a resolution calling for a three-year study in depth of the subject, a study that will involve bishops, standing committees, the committees on the ministry of the two houses, and the Church's Ministry Council. An effort to amend the resolution in deputies to request the bishops to refrain from ordaining practicing homosexuals was defeated. The prolonged debate and inability to agree on resolution of several proposals dealing with other aspects of the whole range of human sexuality suggested that the matter will occupy a prominent place on the agenda of the 1979 Convention.

In other actions, the Convention displayed a strong concern for the various forms of ministry and their future.

The Krumm Report, "Changing Patterns of the Church's Ministry in the '70's" was commended by both houses and its recommendation ordered implemented. The Convention also created a commission to study the ministry of the laity while in the ordained ministry, the houses restored the first step of postulancy in a slightly modified form and called for a comprehensive study of the office of deacon.

The diaconate was also the subject of a concurred action that allowed deacons to sit on certain boards and commissions formerly open only to presbyters. However, another resolution -- allowing deacons to be seated as deputies to Convention -- failed for lack of concurrence by the bishops.

In ecumenical relations there was a strong call for the Church to work at all levels with other denominations of the Christian faith. This was backed by resolutions applauding the creation of Episcopal Diocesan Ecumenical Officers and urging dioceses to create and fund committees on ecumenism. The Convention also received AnglicanRoman Catholic statements on ordination and ministry and authorized continued AnglicanLutheran dialog. A study -- to be received in 1979 -- of the Church's whole ecumenical posture was also commissioned.

Social issues were a continuing concern but did not appear to excite the Convention as they have done in the past. The Convention did, however, set a high priority on housing for the coming triennium and authorized information assistance to churches and dioceses involved in non-profit housing programs.

In other similar resolutions, the Convention voted support and assistance to the people and bishops of Namibia and voted to continue the funding for the three Black colleges at the current level. A number of general resolutions -- among them an expression of the dangers of nuclear war and a call to action to reduce that danger -- also won concurrence.

A resolution asking amnesty for all those "who for reason of conscience" refused to serve in the Vietnam War was passed as was one placing the Church in opposition to repressive and racist governments.

Quite a few structural matters were presented for consideration, among which the houses concurred in authorizing the Presiding Bishop to choose a chancellor to assist him in legal questions. They also created the position of General Convention Executive Secretary to coordinate the plans and people needed to stage the General Convention.

Among the most significant structural changes were the doubling of provincial representatives to the Executive Council and the action to eliminate retired members of the House of Bishops from the voting rolls.

The Convention has also formally reduced the time between the election and installation of a Presiding Bishop from 12 to three months, made the secretary of the General Convention the secretary of the Executive Council, ex-officio.

In other action, the Convention:

  • Designated the Good Friday offering to the Christian work in the Holy Land and to the needs of Orthodox and Christian churches;
  • Authorized the Church Pension Fund to increase by 5 percent the portion of clergy salary set for housing and upon which the assessment is based, and recommended CPF increases in clergy and widows' benefits;
  • Passed several resolutions to change canonical wording if the Church goes from a triennial to a biennial convention;
  • Commended the work of the Resources Center for Small Churches and instructed it to help small congregations in both urban and rural areas.