Church's Unity Is At Risk

Episcopalians to Face Issue of Gays
Aug 01, 2003 07:16 AM EDT

As more than 1,000 Episcopalians gather in Minneapolis for what promises to be a contentious General Convention, the Episcopal bishop of Washington assailed conservatives who have threatened to split the church if delegates confirm a gay bishop or move toward the blessing of same-sex couples.

Bishop John B. Chane said anti-gay activists have been threatening a schism as part of a strategy to spread "anxiety and fear" at the eight-day convention, which opens today.

"We are being guided by the Holy Spirit to discern where God's will is in our church, and it's a very painful place to be, and it has to be a place where we are moved by faith rather than being moved by fear," he said in an interview.

The convention, which meets every three years, is scheduled to vote Sunday on whether to confirm the June 7 election by Episcopalians in New Hampshire of V. Gene Robinson as their new bishop.

Robinson, 56, would be the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion, a worldwide family of churches with 75 million members, including about 2.3 million U.S. Episcopalians.

The convention will also decide, probably on Monday or Tuesday, whether to develop an official liturgy for blessing gay unions.

Chane, who supports Robinson's election and same-sex blessings, said such blessings have taken place unofficially in more than 60 percent of the 109 Episcopal dioceses in the United States, including Washington. Three dioceses -- New Hampshire, Delaware and Kansas -- have formally approved rites for celebrating same-sex commitments.

Twenty-four active and retired bishops, however, warned in a July 18 letter that they might break ties with the national church if the convention approves Robinson's election or same-sex blessings. Those decisions, they said, would be "unparalleled departures" from church teaching and "symbols of a desperately confused, errant and disintegrating Anglican province."

The 24 U.S. bishops have drawn support from some Anglican archbishops overseas, particularly in Africa and Asia. Five foreign prelates joined conservative U.S. Episcopal leaders at a strategy session in Virginia last week.

"I really am resentful that there would be an effort made from forces outside of this province to come into this province and really by force try to change the legislative process, the due process of the Episcopal Church," Chane said.

"It's one thing to express dissatisfaction, concern and even anger about where we might be at the end of Minneapolis. It's another thing to come in and say, 'We are really going to become a presence in your convention, and we intend to affect your due process.' That kind of interference historically has had no place in Anglicanism and, frankly, I think it's somewhat shocking today."

Diane Knippers, a conservative Episcopalian laywoman who took part in the Virginia meeting, said "the fact of the matter is, we're one church; what we all do affects one another." Knippers added that "the leaders of the pro-homosexuality advocates are breathtakingly arrogant. . . . I think the left is exhibiting neocolonialism at this point. They want to pick and choose who they hear from in the rest of the church."

The Rev. Ian T. Douglas, a professor of mission and global Christianity at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., said a major demographic shift underlies much of the tension in the church.

Until 30 or 40 years ago, he said, the Anglican Communion was, "by and large, an English-speaking, white, clerically oriented, well-educated, Western church." Since then, he said, "we've gone from having that Western white face to an incredible richness and plurality of peoples and cultures."

Britain still has the largest number of Anglicans, about 26 million. But Nigeria is now second, with 17.5 million. Although support for gay rights is strong among Anglicans in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia, "many bishops in the global South are up in arms about it," Douglas said.

However, while traditionalists invoke the value of unity, advocates of change invoke justice. "The oldest tradition in our faith is change -- the way that God called us to a new understanding of women, and of color, and of slavery, and of the divine right of kings," the Rev. Frank Wade, rector of St. Alban's Parish in Washington, said. "My question is, is this one of those times?"