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A Letter from Bishop Barahona, El Salvador

[This letter was sent to me by Cristosal, the Episcopal Foundation for support the church in El Salvador. It is being republished here on the eve of the Lambeth Conference. – Editor]

An open letter from the Most Reverend Martín Barahona, the Diocesan Bishop of El Salvador and Primate of the Anglican Church of the Central Region of America (IARCA)

“To my colleagues, the Primates of the Great Anglican Communion; to my sister and brother bishops of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America; and to the bishops and other clergy and lay leaders of our beloved Province of the Central Region of America, which includes the countries of Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and El Salvador; to all, peace and goodness in the name of the living and true God that surely is among us.

It is my wish to share with you some reflections concerning the election, the subsequent endorsement of this election by the Houses of Deputies and Bishops at the General Convention of the ECUSA in Minneapolis, Minnesota in August of the year of our Lord 2003, and the ordination and consecration of the Rt Revd Gene Robinson as Bishop Coadjutor of New Hampshire on 2 November, 2003. This was a ceremony I attended, and in which I participated, along with the primate of the ECUSA and other bishops of Canada, the United States and the Bishop Emeritus of the Lutheran Church of Europe.

These events unfortunately have brought about sadness, frustration, and in some cases strong offenses, and we now find ourselves in difficult times that may lead us to regrettable divisions.

The simple event of electing this bishop, who hails from a small diocese of limited financial resources, who is a person very dedicated to his ministry and his community, has provoked a ‘scandal’ by the mere act of his stating the truth concerning his private life: he is homosexual and lives with his long-time partner. This duly elected bishop, Gene Robinson, with simplicity and humility, has dared to challenge our understanding of ethics and what is ‘moral.’

The impact of this election was great. On few occasions have the mass media dedicated so much space to the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion in the world. When a journalist of the BBC of London interviewed me and asked: ‘Having been in the House of Bishops of ECUSA, what did you see in the faces of the bishops?’ I responded, ‘I saw faces of fear and pain; of fear because if approved there was concern of division in the Church, and of pain because if not approved it would be sad at this moment in time in the 21st century that we are not able to understand human nature.’

Episcopalians, and those of us who were part of ECUSA, have learned from our Mother Church that we have a democratic model of government, with bicameral representation. Many of us who are bishops have won election by one vote, and the rest have accepted; furthermore, sometimes a motion is raised to declare the election by acclamation, with the goal of smoothing things over.

All of the proper canonical proceedings were carefully taken in the case of the election of the Bishop Coadjutor of New Hampshire; so then, why is there division? Particularly in the United States, a country that champions democracy, so much so that it is able to invade a country which has a dictatorial regime.

Could it be that we know that while a diocese can call someone to serve as a bishop via a democratic election, we also know that a vocation to a ministry is a call from God, and God calls those whom He wants. This means He can call those who are not necessarily the best ones from our own human perspective.

On 9 October in Dallas, a good number of bishops who were against the election and consent decided to meet. Sadly, the result of this gathering was that some offensive documents were issued. On a personal front, a parish in the United States took away aid for a mission I was developing. But I ask, ‘Whom is this hurting? Martín Barahona? No! It is hurting the mission of Christ!’ So while I understand the hurt and the confusion this election has caused I am praying hard, and I have asked the people of my diocese and province to pray hard for our unity. I told a priest from New York that we must look for reconciliation, and he told me, ‘God cannot reconcile with the devil, God cannot reconcile with sin.’ But I ask myself, ‘who is God and who is the devil, and what is the sin at this moment?’

On 15 and 16 October, the Most Revd Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, called the Primates to an urgent meeting to deal with, not only the subject of the ECUSA election, but also the decision by the diocese of New Westminster of Canada, which approved a resolution to have a rite for the union of people of the same sex. This meeting was an excellent initiative, and we had the opportunity to convey our feelings with respect, which were then expressed in an official statement of the primates.

At this gathering, we concluded that we do not want a central authority like the ‘papal Curia.’ And some noted contradictions in their own provincial authority as the Presiding Bishop of ECUSA, the Most Revd Frank Griswold was asked to do something that he could not do according to his canons. As a result of our discussions and concerns, the Archbishop of Canterbury, promised to name as soon as possible – and he has already done so – a commission of experts on the Bible, liturgy, and theology to present within 12 months a report on some central subjects, including the authority of the Bible, canonical legislation. As well as, ‘What does it mean to be in Communion? What does it mean to be autonomous?’

As all that attended the gathering are doing, I have meditated on these issues, and I want to offer my reflections to the Committee:

On the subject of the authority of the Bible, we know that we study the Bible by making use of biblical science. I would suggest that, as all science advances with new discoveries and interpretations, so does biblical science.

Similarly for the authority of our canonical legislation, as legal systems are equally dynamic, our canon law evolves and changes through experience.

To be in communion, Anglican style, a priest once said, ‘is to be united in the essential, to have diversity in the nonessential, and to love one another.’ Here, I would like to refer to an article by L. William Countryman, sent to me via email, entitled ‘Treating Conflict as an Anglican.’ The second paragraph reads, ‘What do I understand by the classical Anglican tradition? I mean the broad mainstream of Anglicanism as it was formed in the Reformation, the one that was shaped in the 16th and 17th centuries, in contrast to the other two types of Christianity that believed to know well the mind of God, one the Roman Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation, the other the tradition of Geneva, whose main representatives were the Puritans. Mainstream Anglicans differentiate ourselves from both, and particularly from their presumption that they know in detail the mind of God.”

What does it mean to be autonomous? It is the most sublime expression of freedom. ‘The truth will set you free.’ It is exactly where ethics can challenge what is considered to be moral in our culture. Ethics are authentic. But what is considered to be ‘moral’ can also be subject to special interests, stereotypes, cultures, and regimes, etc. We live in a cosmopolitan world, in a pluralistic society, the virtue of which is that we must develop tolerance, another important subject that I would like to further address.

People who are displeased by this decision of ECUSA would shield themselves behind arguments of what they understand as fundamental and orthodox. Beware of those two concepts (which I would also like to address at greater length in the future). Orthodoxy and fundamentalism have been the theoretical base of great evils such as the inquisition, crusades, the holocaust, and more recently are the root of terrorism that is the invisible enemy.

Within our Anglican Province of the Central Region of America (IARCA) and the different countries that we comprise, the ordination of the Rt Revd Gene Robinson has elicited diverse reactions. Each bishop has confronted the situation in his own way, according to his own reality. The Bishop of Guatemala sent a pastoral letter in which he reaffirmed the doctrine contained in the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer; but at the same time recognized that little is known about human nature and particularly homosexuality, and urged study. The Bishop of Nicaragua issued an official statement where he expressed pride in belonging to a Communion that had the courage to confront these subjects. The Bishop of Panama sent a pastoral letter expressing that while he did not approve of the ECUSA action, he urged that more attention be placed on the matter. The Bishop of Costa Rica did not send a pastoral letter, but invited the Episcopal and non-Episcopal communities relying on mass media for communication to engage in a dialogue on the subject in order for individuals to draw their own conclusions. The Bishop of El Salvador, author of this letter, did something similar, using print, television and radio to orient the Episcopal community and the general public, asking them to reflect with respect and seriousness and to handle the matter strictly from a human perspective. He did not enter the matter from a biblical or theological point of view. We hope to broaden the discussion from this perspective, as much in speculative theology as in practical theology. A great deal of information was offered, and people continue to reflect seriously and to request more information. It should be noted that in El Salvador there is an organization of lesbians and gays which in San Salvador, the capital of the Republic, has more than 5,000 members. The majority of these are professionals, industrialists, and others who are well respected in society.

From the perspective of all the bishops of our province we have set out a declaration as a Province, addressed to all those present at the Lambeth gathering, and distributed to all the bishops.

Regarding the participation of the Primate of IARCA in the consecration of the Rt Revd Gene Robinson, all of the bishops, priests, and laity in congregations knew of my participation. There were no reactions against this until recently, when on the 3 February I received a statement from the Church of Guatemala, which, after some introduction, declares three points:

1. The desire to maintain the unity of the IARCA Province 2. Simultaneously, The Episcopal Church of Guatemala dissociates itself from the actions of the Primate of IARCA for his participation in the consecration and ordination of Gene Robinson and thus provoking deterioration in IARCA. 3. It expresses the necessity that the bishops and the provincial council of IARCA remark on the matter, and that corrective measures be taken.

I would like to express to all in our great Anglican Communion, and especially to my brothers and sisters in ECUSA and IARCA, that I attended and participated in the consecration and ordination of Gene Robinson for various reasons:

1. By my own conviction that I was participating in a ceremony that had followed all the legal and canonical processes of ECUSA, just as a week before I had participated in the ordination and consecration of the Bishop of New Jersey. There was nothing canonically irregular in my participation. Furthermore, all bishops of IARCA stated their respect for the decision of ECUSA as an autonomous province, with exception of the Bishop of Panama, whose pastoral letter rejected the decision of ECUSA but exhorts to look into it with good eyes.

2. I participated with a sense of solidarity with the marginalised, for whom I have fought for many years. I have fought for the social, economic, political, religious, racial and migratory marginalised; and now for those marginalised by sexual preference. I am totally convinced that Christ has always stood next to the marginalized, and I try to follow Christ even though I am a sinning man. I am very clear that God calls us to exercise a ministry, and God knows all of us best. Who am I to correct the plan of God?

3. It was my desire to accompany the Primate of our Mother Church, Presiding Bishop the Most Revd Frank Griswold. I know that I am a humble servant of God, but when I witnessed Frank’s difficult moments I prayed for him and continue praying. I know that God gave him strength, humility and tolerance. I admire and am proud of the Primate of ECUSA, for at all times he was understanding, respectful, and firm in defense of the canons of his Church. I told him, ‘Frank, I will be with you in New Hampshire,’ and I fulfilled my word. Thus I can say that I was a witness by sight, sound, and action. I can confirm that it was a solemn act, serious, and that deep faith was present. If I am mistaken, may God judge me because His judgments are just and righteous.

San Salvador, 4 February 2004, and in the 11th year of my Episcopate.”

The Most Revd Martín Barahona Bishop of El Salvador and Primate of IARCA

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