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from the May 04, 2006 edition
Episcopalians face key votes over gays
An election Saturday of a California bishop may force the hand of the US church, set to decide its stance in June.
By Jane Lampman | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
Several Christian and Jewish denominations have been divided over issues of homosexuality, but none has come as close to schism as the global Anglican community, and its US branch, the Episcopal Church.
For three years since the US church approved the ordination of a gay bishop, the worldwide Anglican Communion has sought ways to avoid a devastating split. It has called on the church to express regret and to refrain from such steps in the future.
Next month, the church's 2006 general convention will meet and decide on a response, but parishioners in California could force its hand as early as this weekend. The Diocese of California votes Saturday to elect a new bishop and, in what some view as a provocative step, three of the seven nominees are gay or lesbian pastors living in committed relationships.
"The diocese has sent an important message to the church, that it was committed to presenting the best possible slate of qualified nominees and ... that gays and lesbians should not be excluded," says the Rev. Susan Russell, president of Integrity, a church group advocating gay inclusion.
The Episcopal convention must approve or disapprove the choice.
Conservative groups in the US, long distressed over failure to stop the ordination of gay and lesbian priests, were outraged by the nominations, calling them an act of defiance.
"California is at risk of making a really bad situation even worse," says the Rev. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of the South Carolina diocese. "A determined minority in the leadership is committed to this new theology. We are part of a worldwide family, and the vast majority not only don't embrace this theology, they don't begin to understand it."
After the 2003 convention confirmed an openly gay bishop, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, and voted to allow dioceses to perform same-sex unions, a small group of US conservatives formed the Anglican Communion Network.
Refusing to accept the leadership of bishops who approved actions they viewed as contrary to Christian doctrine, they established close ties with Anglican leaders in developing countries, who felt similarly betrayed.
With the majority of the 77 million Anglicans now residing in the developing world, Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola became the most prominent spokesman for conservatives. The leaders warned of schism unless the US church repented and adhered to traditional teaching.
To head off a break, a 2004 Communion report proposed a course of action involving a "pilgrimage toward healing and reconciliation." Along with proposals for a new covenant among Anglicans, it rebuked the Episcopal Church and called for an apology and a commitment to moratoriums on ordaining gay bishops and rites for same-sex unions.
While the intensity of the reaction stunned some in the church, others see it as a repeat of the debate over ordination of women in the 1970s.
"We recognize [gay ordination] is a minority perspective in the Anglican Communion, but so was our position on women's ordination in 1974," says Ms. Russell. "To go back to Scripture, 'If it's of God, it will flourish,' and I would say those '70s decisions have flourished in the church." Episcopalians recently selected their 13th female bishop.
Many Episcopalians feel caught in the middle, perhaps concerned about events but prizing unity. At Church of the Good Shepherd in Brentwood, Tenn., "some members left after the 2003 convention because I disagreed with the action, and others because I didn't rant and rave about it enough," says the Rev. Randall Dunnavant. "But I'm not going to leave the church over it."
To prepare for the June meeting, a special commission has drawn up 11 resolutions designed to "maintain the highest level of communion within the Anglican Communion given the different perspectives." On the election of bishops, the resolution proposes "exercising very considerable caution" in selecting people whose "manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church." The resolution on public rites of blessing for same-sex unions calls for "not proceeding to authorize public rites ... until some broader consensus" emerges in the global body. It suggests that bishops who have already authorized such rites "heed the invitation to express regret.
Dr. Harmon calls the document "a giant fudge ... which essentially says 'We really care about the Communion, but we're going to continue doing what we want,' " though he sees small steps toward accommodation.
The Rev. Ian Douglas of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., a commission co-chair, says the aim was simply to get the convention conversation started. "We've been accused of fudging by one side and selling out by the other," he says. "People ... want to draw a line in the sand, to create a win/lose situation, but it's a more complex and dynamic process of discernment we're engaged in to be faithful to what it means to be part of a global body of Christ."
If California selects a gay or lesbian bishop, the win/lose situation looks unavoidable. If it does not, the convention will have to sort out the ambiguities.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Communion, was far from ambiguous in a recent speech: "If there is ever to be a change in the discipline and teaching of the Anglican Communion on this matter, it should not be the decision of one Church alone."
A church's struggle over gay marriage 07/01/05
Los Angeles Times
Church Braces for Possible Election of Gay Bishop
Decision by Bay Area Episcopal diocese could reopen rifts caused by a similar vote in 2003.
By Louis Sahagun, Times Staff Writer
May 4, 2006
The possible election this week of an openly gay bishop to lead a Bay Area diocese of the Episcopal Church would have repercussions likely to reverberate throughout the 77-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion.
On Saturday representatives of parishioners and clergy of the Diocese of California, which is centered in San Francisco, will select their next bishop from among seven nominees, including two gays and one lesbian.
However, leaders of rapidly growing churches in Africa, Asia and South America, which represent the vast majority of Anglicans, endorse traditional teachings on marriage and sexuality.
As a result, tensions over differing interpretations of scriptural teachings and homosexuality have pitted liberal Western parishioners against conservative African church members, and many church observers say the schism has taken on racial, as well as philosophical, overtones.
In a break with policy, the U.S. Episcopal Church in 2003 for the first time consented to allow an openly gay man to be elected bishop. The 2-million-member U.S. denomination has been bitterly divided over gay clergy ever since. Indeed, three Southern California Episcopal churches have pulled out of the Los Angeles Diocese and aligned themselves with a bishop in Uganda.
"What California decides will touch every Episcopalian," said gay ordination opponent Cynthia Brust, a spokeswoman for the American Anglican Council, which has 300 affiliated churches in the U.S.
"It's already been extremely painful for families who've been part of the Episcopal Church for generations: people who were married in it, who baptized their children in it, buried their dead in it," she said.
"To watch your church suddenly say, 'Anything goes,' is a horrifying thing," she added.
The Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, who was bishop of the Diocese of Newark in New Jersey before his retirement in 2000, said Brust misses the point.
"There's not a scientist in the world today who supports the idea that homosexuals are mentally ill or morally depraved," said Spong, a noted author and outspoken church leader on the subject. "So I'd rather see the church split. I have no desire to be a part of a homophobic church."
The Rev. Susan Russell, senior associate for parish life at the 4,000-member All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena and president of Integrity, a 30-year-old national gay and lesbian advocacy organization, would not go that far.
"I'm convinced the voters in San Francisco will listen to the Holy Spirit and not be compelled to elect a gay candidate out of political correctness, nor be afraid to elect a gay or lesbian if that is the right person," she said.
"I think it will grieve the heart of God if we can't work through our differences," she said. "A church that has held both Catholics and Protestants together for hundreds of years should be able to hold both gays and straights."
But for church members such as Paul Zahl, dean of the Trinity School for Ministry in Pittsburgh, the election in 2003 of V. Gene Robinson as bishop in New Hampshire was a step away from biblical authority.
"The election of a gay bishop in California," he said, "would be an extraordinarily aggressive slap in the face of a conservative group that is getting smaller all the time in the United States."
Of the impending decision, he added: "They've been asked by people around the world — even by people who agree with them — to hold off on ordination of another gay, given the terrible tumult this caused three years ago. If they go ahead and do it anyway, it'll be like tossing a bomb into a peace process."
In the election to take place at Grace Cathedral atop San Francisco's Nob Hill, the new bishop would need a majority of votes from separate houses of electors — one of about 300 clergy, the other of about 400 parishioners — in the same ballot.
The new bishop will replace the Rt. Rev. William Swing, who will retire in July.
The unusually large field of nominees includes the Rt. Rev. Mark Handley Andrus, Bishop Suffragan, of the Diocese of Alabama; the Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe, officer for congregational development, Diocese of California; the Rev. Jane Gould, rector of St. Stephen's Church, Lynn, Mass.; and the Rev. Bonnie Perry, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church, Chicago.
Other candidates are the Rev. Donald Schell, rector of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco; the Rev. Canon Eugene Taylor Sutton, pastor of the National Cathedral in Washington; and the Very Rev. Robert V. Taylor, dean of St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle.
All have said they want to be considered on the basis of their qualifications, not their sexual orientation.
The 27,000-member Bay Area diocese includes San Francisco, San Mateo, Alameda, Contra Costa and Marin counties.
The bishop-elect would still need to be confirmed at the denomination's once-every-three-years national gathering, to be held in Columbus, Ohio, in June.
"Whether or not we elect a gay or straight bishop here on Saturday, the question of full inclusion of gay and lesbians in the life of the church will not go away," said the Rev. John Kirkley, rector of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in San Francisco.
"Eventually, one of them will be elected," he said. "Our general convention in June will have to deal with that reality, regardless of what happens."