Saturday, October 28, 2006

Sharing a Different Vision

The Diocese of West Missouri meet in Convention yesterday and today – well, really only today. The Annual Convention and Gathering spends the first day on the Bishop’s Address, educational offerings, and the Convention Eucharist and Banquet – the Gathering, which is open to anyone who wishes to participate. The actual Convention, the business meeting of the Diocese, met today.

There were few resolutions, and most were about internal government of the Diocese. The exception, and it is a significant one, was the resolution on stem cell research. The final form is reproduced below.

Resolved, the 117th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of West Missouri meeting in Kansas City, Missouri, October 27 and 28, 2006, affirms the value of stem cell research, both embryonic and adult, and

Resolved, it is the opinion of this Convention that stem cell research is consistent with the theological teachings and moral practices of the Episcopal Church, and

Resolved, press releases of other public statements issued by all diocesan officers or officials regarding this 117th Convention of the Diocese of West Missouri should include these resolves regarding stem Linkcell research.

The authors of the resolution cited Resolution A014 of the 2003 General Convention as support and resource for their statement. I have posted my own reflections on General Convention statements on this subject.

If you’ve paid even the least attention to any political race in America beyond your own ward and precinct, you may well be aware that there is currently in Missouri an initiative to amend the state constitution so as to protect the rights of institutions to participate in research on both embryonic and adult stem cells, and the rights of Missouri residents to any therapies developed from such research. The initiative follows several years in which bills have been introduced in the legislature to ban research on embryonic stem cells, and to criminalize both such research and any resulting therapies. Those resolutions have failed each time, but the margins of victory have gotten slimmer each year.

The political interest of the initiative has been extended because both candidates in the election to the U. S. Senate have been connected with the intent of the initiative. State Auditor Claire McCaskill has supported the initiative and stem cell research, and Senator Jim Talent has opposed it. Each candidate has had celebrities and sports figures making commercials in support of the candidate’s position, and so in support of the candidate as the person to defend that position.

That political visibility did somewhat affect the debate on the resolution in Convention. Indeed, in it’s original language the first clause qualified “stem cell research, both embryonic and adult,” with the clause, “as described in Amendment 2 on the November 7 ballot in the state of Missouri….” The authors of the resolution believed that the specifics of the proposed amendment described some limitations on the sources for embryonic tissue that correlated well with a resolution passed in General Convention in 2003. Those who disapproved of the clause felt it tied the Diocese too closely to the political rhetoric current these days in Missouri. The campaigns, both for and against the initiative, and for and against each of the senatorial candidates, have become sufficiently nasty that few really wanted to be associated with it; and so the specific reference to the initiative was removed.

The debate did not neglect the predictable moral perspectives. Those positions were stated clearly and concisely, and, blessedly, not repeated endlessly or mindlessly (there’s little that exhausts me in a legislative debate like a series of “me, too!” statements that express emotion but offer no new insight). Two spoke to the belief that personhood does or might begin at fertilization, and requires respect in light of the sanctity of life. Two spoke to the belief that personhood is a process, and that the personhood of a person already born should exceed that of a cluster of 20-odd cells, and the opportunity to heal also demonstrates the sanctity of life. Those four statements, following on an educational session on Friday on the resolution and the issues, concisely summarized the moral issues.

There was also a certain amount of attention to the last clause of the resolution. For those who drafted the resolution, it was not sufficient to simply pass it. In a political atmosphere in which “Vote NO!” signs have been popping up like mushrooms in church yards across the state, they wanted to be sure that another Christian voice was heard, a Christian voice with a different Christian perspective. While there was some question about that clause, it wasn’t removed.

I was glad of that. On Thursday morning I was with a small gathering of Episcopal clergy of the Diocese of Kansas. I shared that this resolution would be introduced in our diocesan convention, and that I thought it would result in some debate. One of my younger colleagues questioned whether diocesan convention, or General Convention for that matter, should speak to such issues.

Those of you who have read my blog before will not be surprised that I disagreed vehemently. If we as the Body of Christ are to exercise prophetic ministry in the world, that must include commenting publicly on affairs of the world. I have said before that we lead our people poorly when we do not share with them opinions expressed in General Convention or diocesan conventions. As Episcopalians we cherish the belief that each of us works out our individual relationship within the parameters of the faith. We cherish the fact that such statements are not dogmatic, and are rarely doctrinal, so that people of differing perspectives on matters of faith and morals can live and work and worship together. At the same time, these legislative statements come closest to expressing the mind of the Church, whether of the province in General Convention, or of the diocese in diocesan convention. Even if for our people these statements are advisory and not mandatory, we cannot expect them to include them in their reflections on the faith if we do not share them. We cannot expect the world to distinguish us from our differing Christian siblings, or to see a different vision of finding life in Christ, if we do not share them with the world.

The Diocesan Convention of West Missouri is now on record in support of stem cell research, both embryonic and adult. We know that good Episcopalians may disagree. But as Diocesan Convention represents the people of the diocese through their elected representatives, we can have some confidence that this will represent the majority. And we know that those who have heard one perspective from Christians as if it were the only Christian perspective will have the opportunity to hear something different: a voice that looks at the same Scriptures, and in light of the moral tradition of the whole church, hears the possibility that God might call us to a different decision.

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