The Living Church

Year Article Type Limit by Author

The Living ChurchMarch 14, 1999Epistle From Arizona by David Kalvelage218(11) p. 16

I have just finished reading a remarkable document. It appears in the Arizona Episcopalian, a publication of the Diocese of Arizona. Usually this publication is filled with news of that diocese,just like your diocesan newspaper. But in the January/February issue, the content has been changed. This issue contains an epistle from the Rt. Rev. Robert R. Shahan, Bishop of Arizona. The inside of the four-page publication contains "A Letter to the Episcopal Church in Arizona," written by the bishop and neatly presented in black and purple lettering. On the front is a sizable explanation of the letter by Bishop Shahan, and a note from editor Clay Turner as to why this issue is different.

Before the reader gets to the epistle, Bishop Shahan explains that the topic is "being the church called to a more inclusive posture in relation to all its members." He notes that in his six years as Bishop of Arizona he has not taken a public stand around issues of human sexuality. "My concern was that my stance on an issue of the church not be a source of debate and division," he wrote.

"The Epistle does not represent a change of policy but rather of perspective," he continued. "I have made a commitment to work and speak for a more inclusive church ..."

In 1999, a "more inclusive church" means the two issues in which we all seem so caught up - ordination of non-celibate homosexual persons and blessing of same-sex relationships.

Inside the newsletter, in the actual epistle, the bishop explains how he came to his change of heart, then he brings up the Lambeth Conference's resolution on sexuality.

"It is important to remember that the conference itself has no legislative authority over any of the provinces of the Anglican Communion, and that any resolution passed by that body is to be seen as an expression of the mind of the bishops present and nothing more." We all heard that one.

The bishop goes on to state that the two words which are the "hallmarks of the position I have taken" are "order" and "obedience." He adds, "The task of the church is not to tell you what to think. The role of the church is to teach you how to think theologically and to develop an informed conscience."

Bishop Shahan helps his readers to know where he's coming from.

"I have never quite understood why the issue of homosexuality and related matters is of such concern to certain people," he wrote. "It sometimes seems as if one's own salvation is only possible by keeping the church safe from people who differ from us in this way. It cannot be a reverence for scripture, because that reverence is very selective, indeed.

"If that were not the case, we would all be tithing, and the church would be so involved in missionary activity that we would not have time to argue about matters of sexual preference."

So what happens now in the Diocese of Arizona? Bishop Shahan will seek to move the church to ordain "and to call forth those among us whom we deem to be healthy, without regard to sexual orientation or identity." Regarding same-sex blessings, he emphasizes that he is asking Arizona's clergy not to perform a ceremony that looks like a wedding. "I am, however, trusting them to use good judgment," whatever that might mean. "Remember: We are only talking about people who come to the church seeking a blessing."

On the back page are some questions about the epistle and answers provided by the bishop. For example: Has the bishop changed his mind on these issues?

I would imagine that Bishop Shahan's comments will offend more than a few people in the Diocese of Arizona. Even though I don't agree with much of what he has written, I admire the manner in which he presented his beliefs. He is not shooting from the hip. Rather, his conclusions seem to be reached prayerfully and thoughtfully. He communicates well and in some detail, and asks for the prayers of his people. He did it right.

David Kalvelage, executive editor

Did You Know... Holy Trinity Church, Vicksburg, Miss., offers a "Buck and Duck Eucharist" at 4:45 a.m. during hunting season.Quote of the Week The Rt. Rev. William J. Winterrowd, Bishop of Colorado, on finding a building in Denver large enough for the Sunday Eucharist during General Convention in 2000: "So pray the Democrats don't come."