· Special Reporting During General Convention ·
· Denver, Colorado USA · July, 2000 ·
July 16, 2000

Bishops call for inclusive Boy Scout leadership

By Joe Thoma

(ENS - Denver) Bishops concurred with the House of Deputies on the morning of July 14, their last legislative day, in a resolution (C031) that encourages the Boy Scouts of America to allow adult leaders to serve regardless of their sexual orientation.

In August 1999, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that said the Boy Scouts had violated state anti-discrimination laws by removing an assistant scoutmaster who openly declared his homosexuality. The Boy Scouts appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which then overturned the New Jersey decision, saying the BSA has the right to determine its criteria for leadership.

The bishops' debate centered on the relationship between the scouting organization and the Episcopal Church, and whether the church should attempt to influence the internal policies of the BSA.

Bishop Arthur Williams, bishop suffragan of Ohio and chair of the committee that considered the resolution, said that fellow bishops have brought him conflicting information about the Supreme Court decision. That, plus contradictory information from BSA representatives at the convention makes the official BSA policy on homosexuality unclear, he said.

The BSA policy "is not stated in their bylaws, their rules and regulations, or their procedures for maintaining standards of membership, nor in any leader manual or handbook that boys and parents use, nor in any training course or syllabus, nor in the application," Williams said. "They state that they support traditional family values, but they have not defined what they mean when they use the term family values."

Some bishops have argued that if the BSA policy centers on scoutmasters' behavior, not orientation, the church should refrain from comment. But the organization does, in fact, show itself to discriminate on the basis of orientation, Williams said. "While their stance is apparently don't ask, don't tell, they do act on anonymous tips and common community knowledge," he said. "It's because of that that we wrote the resolution," which was approved by the committee and the House of Deputies.

Resistance to the resolution
Bishop Peter Beckwith (Springfield), disagreed with Committee 25's interpretation of the BSA policy and spoke against the resolution: "If indeed the Boy Scouts have policies that Bishop Williams has described, I would not want to be part of the Boy Scouts." Beckwith also challenged the church's place in passing judgement on the BSA: "I find it incredible that this house, representing a church that is certainly not of one mind on a number of sexual issues, would presume to advise another organization on this particular subject." Finally, he posed a rhetorical question about whether church leaders would welcome policy direction from the Boy Scouts.

As an "openly gay" bishop, Otis Charles (Utah) spoke in favor of the resolution, calling it "a non-confrontative, educational approach." Charles agreed that scouts uphold traditional values, but said the organization also contributes to society's lack of acceptance of gay people. "From my personal experience, the closet is destructive. The closet keeps people from being truthful. The closet keeps people from showing up as who they really are," he said. The discrimination affects the families of gay youth and even has a public-policy dimension, he said: "Also know that the streets of our cities are populated by boys and girls who have been excluded from their families."

Offering a substitute
Bishop David Bena (Albany) proposed an amendment to remove specific references to the Boy Scouts and substitute a general reference to all organizations. "My purpose is that this resolution singles out one organization, a very fine organization that shares values with the Episcopal Church," he said. The resolution "looks like a bit of a paternalistic slap at one organization." Bena echoed Beckwith's point that the BSA won its case in the Supreme Court. "There are many organizations that we are deeply involved with that do not share our values," Bena said. "So if this particular issue is important to us, this resolution should cover all those organizations."

But the BSA has a special relationship to the church, Bishop David Joslin said, in opposing Bena's amendment. Many churches sponsor scout troops, "and thereby assume a responsibility for them." He also said dropping the original resolution would be inconsistent with other General Convention resolutions that have been conciliatory toward gays. Charles, opposing the amendment, said congregations that charter troops have an "organic" relationship with the troops.

Bishop John Rabb (Maryland), a former scout and scouting leader, voiced support for the resolution because it opens a dialogue with the BSA. "I think that's critical, that we dialogue with them regarding this position," he said, adding that the Supreme Court decision shouldn't absolve the church of its obligation to take a moral position. The BSA "was simply permitted, as a private organization, to establish their own policies," Rabb said. "I happen to think that those policies are not policies that I can personally support."

Others said the church's experience with growing inclusivity could help the BSA become more inclusive. "I think the original resolution is in keeping with the spirit of dialogue, of conversation that was called for at Lambeth," said Bishop Barbara Harris (Massachusetts). "If we are to continue the conversation, then it needs to be brought beyond the church"

In other action, the bishops concurred with deputies in

  • calling for justice and accountability in the workplace (D015);
  • spelling out the rules for providing seat and voice at diocesan conventions for members of the clergy who aren't canonically resident (C002);
  • identifying which interim bodies of the General Convention have fulfilled their function and should be dissolved (D060);
  • preparing a comprehensive model of convention agenda and structure to be considered for implementation by the 74th General Convention (C020);
  • encouraging the Church Pension Fund to continue and increase its involvement in stockholder actions and to help move the companies in its portfolio toward more social responsibility (C039);
  • urging the Church Pension Fund to continue to explore ways to enhance the pensions of those ordained later in life (D077);
  • recommending that the Church Pension Fund evaluate the housing needs of retired clergy (C024);
  • creating "The Alleluia Fund - Build my Church," to help dioceses raise funds for new church development, and revitalization of existing congregations (A036).
  • In addition, the House of Bishops adopted resolutions:

  • thanking Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold for his "maiden voyage" as presiding bishop. "As a roomful of preachers we are in awe of his daily homiletic insights and disciplines," the resolution said. "As practitioners of artful gavelling, we are most appreciative of his delicate, humorous command of process and regard for the moment." (B070);
  • and offering "praise and gratitude to the fabulous Diocese of Colorado, to its bold and gracious Bishop, William J. (Jerry) Winterrowd, to Ann Winterrowd, and to the hundreds of local volunteers who have treated us to sunshine and mountains, bucking bulls and extravaganzas, large Western hospitality and multiple acts of courtesy." (B069).
  • Both resolutions were communicated to the House of Deputies.

    -- Joe Thoma is communications director for the Diocese of Central Florida. 


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