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Theo Rigby for The New York Times
The Right Rev. William E. Swing is retiring as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California. His successor is to be elected Saturday.
The New York Times
May 5, 2006
Episcopalians Divide Again Over Electing Gay Bishop
By NEELA BANERJEE
SAN FRANCISCO, May 4 — The Episcopal Church's diocese of California will elect a new bishop on Saturday, the first such vote here in 27 years.
The election would normally play out as a decidedly local event, but many from the broader Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion to which it belongs are focused on it because three of the seven candidates are openly gay or lesbian ministers in long-term relationships.
Three years ago, when the Episcopal Church consecrated the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, making him the first openly gay bishop in the church's history, it set off a bitter fight in the denomination about homosexuality that threatened to rend the church and the worldwide communion.
If the diocese of California elects a gay bishop, experts on the church said, the denomination could edge even closer to the point of fracture.
"It has enormous and possibly decisive consequences," said the Very Rev. Paul F. M. Zahl, dean of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa., and a leading conservative in the church. "You almost can't exaggerate the importance it would have if they elected a partnered gay person as a bishop."
The Rev. Ian T. Douglas, professor of world Christianity at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., said: "If, in fact, California elected an out gay and lesbian person living in a lifelong relationship, it would become in some measure a referendum on the Episcopal Church's place in the Anglican Communion."
Clergy members and lay delegates from congregations voting on Saturday, especially those from parishes that support full inclusion of gays and lesbians, said they planned to choose the best candidate, regardless of sexual orientation.
But one senior minister in the diocese, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic, said, "The average parishioner in the diocese of California is very aware that voting for a gay bishop would split apart the Anglican Communion at a time when dialogue has started."
The debate over homosexuality has become divisive for the Protestant mainline churches, and it has begun to emerge in Catholic and black Protestant denominations, too.
Last year, the United Methodist Church defrocked a lesbian minister in Pennsylvania. Last fall, the Vatican issued a letter prohibiting the ordination of men with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies." This year, black gay activists and clergy members started a campaign to combat what they said was widespread homophobia in black churches.
The Episcopal Church is a small but rich and powerful member of the Anglican Communion, which has 77 million members, the second-largest church body in the world, and is presided over by the archbishop of Canterbury.
Bishop Robinson's consecration drew a virulent response from primates of fast-growing Anglican provinces in the developing world, where homosexuality is taboo. Many in Africa, Asia and Latin America have curtailed their interaction with the American church. A few traditionalist congregations in this country have placed themselves under the oversight of foreign bishops.
To prevent a schism over homosexuality, a commission appointed by the archbishop of Canterbury asked the Episcopal Church in 2004 to place a moratorium on the election of gay bishops. More recently, a special commission of the Episcopal Church proposed that dioceses exercise "very considerable caution" before electing someone whose lifestyle "presents a challenge to the wider church," commonly interpreted to mean an openly gay or lesbian bishop.
Against this tense backdrop, the Right Rev. William E. Swing decided in late 2004 to retire this summer around his 70th birthday after serving for nearly a generation as the bishop of California, a diocese that includes 82 parishes in San Francisco, Oakland and five nearby counties.
A diocesan search committee identified five candidates, and they grew to seven when two local ministers petitioned to be included. The committee did not exclude qualified candidates because of sexual orientation.
The candidates are the Right Rev. Mark H. Andrus of the diocese of Alabama; the Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe of the diocese of California; the Rev. Jane Gould of Lynn, Mass; the Rev. Bonnie Perry of Chicago; the Rev. Donald Schell of San Francisco; the Rev. Canon Eugene T. Sutton of Washington, D.C.; and the Very Rev. Robert V. Taylor of Seattle. Ms. Perry, Mr. Taylor and Mr. Barlowe are openly gay clergy members in long-term relationships.
Through a spokesman, the candidates declined to be interviewed.
Episcopalians here have responded to the search for a bishop with excitement and widespread involvement, even those parishioners who will not be voting.
About 2,000 people from a diocese of about 10,000 active members attended long meetings with the candidates as they traveled through the area two weeks ago, said the Rev. Rosa Lee Harden of Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in San Francisco. People asked the candidates about their commitment to social justice, evangelism, immigrant rights and inclusion not just of gays but of the many ethnic groups starting to fill the pews here, those who went to the meetings said. The candidates' sexual orientation was not an issue.
Still, many people asked how the new bishop would bring about reconciliation with parts of the church that are not as inclusive of gays, said the Rev. Anna Lange-Soto, vicar of El Buen Pastor in Redwood City. "It is an issue," Ms. Lange-Soto said, "but on the other hand, it isn't consuming us."
Sarah Lawton, a lay delegate from St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in San Francisco, said that other delegates and clergy she had spoken to were "serene" about the vote, confident that any of the candidates would make a good bishop.
But some lay delegates and clergy here have voiced frustration that Episcopalians outside their diocese have made sexual orientation, rather than a candidate's fitness for the job, the defining issue.
"I think we're tired of the hype that is being generated by a vocal minority in the church," said the Rev. Katherine M. Lehman of St. Bede's Episcopal Church in Menlo Park. She added, "If we are called to elect a qualified nominee who happens to be gay, we will do that based on our discernment of the process and the Holy Spirit."
Some of the frustration is aimed at liberal Episcopalians who say now may be too fragile a time to elect a gay man or a lesbian. The church's General Convention in June would have to confirm the new bishop, and people here are aware that if that the new bishop is gay, the convention may reject the choice, a rare occurrence in a denomination that places great trust in the decisions of its dioceses.
"My No. 1 directive as a bishop is the unity of church, because schism is a greater sin than heresy," said Bishop Kirk S. Smith of the diocese of Arizona, who backs full inclusion of gays in the church. "I think everyone will breathe a sigh of relief if it's not a gay candidate, and that's sad."
In Bay Area, Diocese May Elect Gay Bishop
By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 6, 2006; Page A04
Episcopalians in San Francisco say it's no big deal. They have had openly gay clergy for more than 30 years. So when they elect a new bishop today, they say, the winner's sexuality will not be the main issue -- even if it could cause a schism in the already strained relations between U.S. Episcopalians and a majority of their co-religionists around the world.
"This election is not going to be decided around issues of human sexuality," said the Rev. John Kirkley, rector of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in San Francisco and president of Oasis/California, a ministry to gay Episcopalians. "Here in the diocese, we don't carry the same angst about this that other parts of the church do. . . . It's not a big, scary issue for us."
The election of a new bishop in the Bay Area, however, is a scary matter in many parts of the 77 million-member Anglican Communion, the worldwide family of churches to which the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church USA belongs. Since 2003, when the New Hampshire diocese chose V. Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in Anglican history, conservative Anglicans have urged the U.S. church to apologize, repent and -- above all -- not do it again.
Mathematically, at least, there is now a nearly 50-50 chance that it will happen again. Three of the seven candidates for the Bay Area's bishop live openly with same-sex partners. Two are gay men, the Rev. Michael Barlowe of San Francisco and the Rev. Robert V. Taylor of Seattle. One is a lesbian, the Rev. Bonnie Perry of Chicago.
Today, about 400 clergy members and 300 lay delegates from Bay Area congregations will gather at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral to elect a successor to the retiring Bishop William E. Swing. The winner will be subject to confirmation by the Episcopal Church's general convention in Columbus, Ohio, in June.
While remaining officially neutral, Episcopal Church leaders have acknowledged the importance of the election. The church's presiding bishop, Frank T. Griswold, told a British newspaper that the California diocese "needs to respect the sensibilities of the larger communion" and predicted that it "will note what is going on in the life of the church and make a careful and wise decision."
Last month, a special commission of Episcopal clergy and laity also urged the U.S. church to "exercise very considerable caution" before consecrating any more bishops "whose manner of life presents a challenge" to the wider communion.
Conservatives' warnings have been less restrained. The reaction to another "non-celibate homosexual" bishop would be "outrage, absolute outrage internationally," said the Rev. David C. Anderson, head of the American Anglican Council, an association of about 300 traditionalist U.S. parishes.
He noted that the primates of 22 of the Anglican Communion's 38 provinces have declared "broken" or "impaired" relations with the Episcopal Church since Robinson's election. If a second gay bishop is elected and approved, he predicted, either the Archbishop of Canterbury will "disinvite" the U.S. church from the communion's meetings, or a majority of the communion's other provinces will refuse to attend, producing a full-blown schism.
National gay rights groups are staying out of the fray. "We're saying it's up to them. It's California's call," said the Rev. Michael W. Hopkins of Rochester, N.Y., a past president of Integrity, a group that promotes equal treatment of gay men and lesbians in the church.
Bay Area parishioners, meanwhile, have shown relatively little interest in the candidates' sexuality. The subject barely came up at a series of question-and-answer forums with the candidates last month, according to Kirkley, who moderated two of the sessions.
One reason, he said, is that "all the candidates are essentially on the same page on these issues. They all support the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in our church, and will work hard to maintain relationships in the larger Anglican Communion and seek opportunities for reconciliation."
The burning issues for the local church, he said, are multicultural ministry and the health of congregations. "People have been threatening schisms in our church since we started ordaining women" in 1976, he said. "This is not a new threat. It's certainly a tiresome one."
California, US: Episcopalians face key votes over gays