Dear friends in Christ,

Several times in the past year I have spoken of a diocesan-wide conversation concerning human sexuality to take place in early 2013. Now that we are at that point in time, I am writing to let you know the planning for this dialogue is well underway, and that structured conversations will soon begin and evolve through several phases described below. I urge you now, as I will throughout, to prepare for, pray about, and take part in the conversation as you are able.

The reason for this dialogue, as a practical matter, is to help inform my decision as your bishop on how the diocese should approach two issues current in the Church: the blessing of same-sex relationships and the ordination of partnered gay or lesbian persons. An equally important purpose is for us to come together as a diocese in constructive conversation to find and follow continuing paths to healing and reconciliation.

I have been keenly aware since the early phase of the search process that led to my election, that matters involving sexuality, Biblical authority and related issues have been significant flashpoints in this diocese and have caused a great deal of pain in the way they have been handled. I know that, even years before the 2008 split, a growing division that cut multiple ways made discussing critical issues in an open forum nearly impossible; the conflict created feelings of being marginalized or dismissed, or of being burdened or distracted by continuing tension. Since 2008, those who remained have worked hard and made great strides toward restoring respect and a sense of unity and purpose. However, questions of same-sex blessings and ordaining partnered homosexuals remain part of our unfinished business, and to address them now can understandably reawaken tremendous anxiety. The last thing we want is further injury to an already wounded Church.

Our real need, then, is to heal a generation of mistrust. We must find a way to come together, as we answer these particular questions, to engage and embrace the larger nature of our communion with one another. This is the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful) of which I have spoken: not a simple unanimity of opinion, but a coherent, common understanding of how we proceed together in the context of our differences – our unity in the Body of Christ. Ultimately, we are seeking Christian reconciliation among those who have hurt or been hurt by one another; only if we know how such reconciliation is achieved, can we be faithful to our call as Christ's ambassadors of reconciliation in the world. 

We have an opportunity to further this healing through the conversations getting underway.

As I announced in my Convention address in November, I have invited the Public Conversations Project to assist us by designing and facilitating a dialogue concerning sexuality and communion. PCP is respected for its work in high-conflict situations in and beyond the Church. Our PCP consultants, along with a small group I appointed from within the diocese, have developed a three-phase process to gradually engage the diocese in dialogue.

Phase One (Preparation) has been underway since November. The planning team has been learning from many perspectives, including "mapping" interviews conducted with a diverse group of twenty others. These sessions focused on the perceptions, memories, hopes and fears that form the landscape in which the wider, diocesan dialogue will occur. This phase has culminated in the team going through the entire plan, and substantially redesigning it in light of what we learned, to better address the specific needs of this diocese. Phase I will conclude by the end of February. 

Phase Two, Part 1 (Conversation Among "Like-Minded" Groups) is the stage we are about to enter. An initial group of about two-dozen participants will be assembled into small groups, where they may explore the issues and air their concerns with others who likely share a similar outlook and opinion. 

Phase Two, Part 2 (Mixed Dialogue) will mix the Phase Two participants into new groups. The focus will be on constructive dialogue with others who may think differently. This phase also involves identifying and training facilitators to lead new dialogue groups to be formed for the final phase. 

Phase Three (Replication) will allow these structured conversations to expand throughout the diocese. We hope that eventually 500 laity and clergy will volunteer to take part. These groups will be internally balanced between points of view; we need for a large pool of volunteers on all sides of the questions to optimize the benefits. The outcome of this phase will constitute an important piece of groundwork for policy decisions to be made. The whole planning team joins me in encouraging your participation. We will all be the poorer without your voice. 

Concurrent with the structured dialogue, two other groups will be working: a working group to study the Biblical, theological, and ecclesiological implications of these questions; and, a prayer team to intercede on behalf of our diocese as we step out into this complex and holy ground. Please watch our website for more information on these efforts, which will be available shortly.

It is my hope that the conversational "infrastructure" created by this process will remain, to be adapted and employed in the future to address other issues that we must eventually face and that will require a high-degree of buy-in from all. These might include a mission strategy for the diocese and the recruitment and training of new leaders in ministry, lay and ordained.

I am very grateful to the members of our planning team, who have brought a variety of views and life experiences to this task: the Rev. Nancy Chalfant-Walker of St. Stephen's, Wilkinsburg; Greg Davis of St. Michael's, Ligonier; Alan Lewis of Calvary Church, East Liberty; Mary Roehrich of St. Andrew's, Highland Park; the Rev. Philip Wainwright, also of St. Andrew's; and Dana Phillips of St. Thomas, Oakmont, who co-chairs the team with me. And we all are thankful for the leadership and skill of our principal facilitators from PCP: Bob Stains and Mary Jacksteit. Please do not hesitate to contact anyone on the team with your questions or concerns.

I look forward to joining with you as together we speak, listen, study and pray over the coming months. In the meantime, I pray that the providence of the Father, the love of the Son, and the power of the Holy Spirit will continually guide us and work in our conversation to bring us into closer communion with each other and with Him.

Affectionately your bishop and brother in Christ,

The Right Rev. Dorsey W. M. McConnell
dmcconnell@episcopalpgh.org

February 25, 2013