Virginia Episcopalians Move Toward Unity

( [email protected] ) Feb 02, 2004 12:37 PM EST

Delegates from the 187 congregations in Virginia met for the first time since the controversial General Convention last year, where the national Episcopal Church voted to consecrate the first openly gay bishop. Following a 62-43 majority, Gene Robinson, who lived with a male partner for 13 years after a divorce with two children, was consecrated as bishop of New Hampshire on Nov. 2. During the 209th Annual Council of the Diocese, Friday, Jan. 30, in Reston Va, the delegates voted on diocesan church policy, budget and the committee of executives.

Delegates to the General Convention of Episcopalians in Virginia voted to set up a year-long “reconciliation commission” to examine ways of maintaining unity in lieu of deep theological differences over homosexuality and same-sex unions.

The vote came in the last night of the two-day 209th Annual convention of the Diocese, Saturday, Jan. 31. Over 700 delegates gathered at a Reston hotel for the first meeting since the controversial Nov. 2 consecration of an openly gay bishop within the denomination.

The head of the Virginia diocese, bishop Peter James Lee, had voted for the consecration along with 61 others in a panel of 105. Subsequently, a firestorm of criticism and protest followed from several congregations in his diocese, which runs from Northern Virginia to Richmond. Eight congregations held back their financial contributions, and several others have actively participated in setting up a new national network of conservative parishes against such a liberal promotion of homosexuality.

In lieu of such opposition, Lee has taken a conciliatory approach to his opponents. On Saturday, Lee said he would be "would be willing to consider other possibilities" such as allowing these congregations' customary annual Episcopal visits done by "an overseas mission bishop."

However, Lee added that this could happen only with his permission.

"I would be the inviting bishop," he said. "I do not support the idea that a bishop can unilaterally come in and replace the duly consecrated bishop of Virginia."

Generally, the delegates expressed a desire to stay together despite differences.

"What we're trying to figure out is how to stay together and proclaim the Gospel while we fight over what portions of the Gospel mean -- and it's just portions that we're fighting over," said the Rev. Lauren R. Stanley, associate rector of St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Annandale.

"The status quo prevailed," said the Rev. Martyn Minns, rector of Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax City and a leader of the conservative faction, who has been active in forming the new network, the American Anglican Council.

While the vote "showed a general desire to move forward without dividing," Minns added, resolving the crisis "may mean structural changes." Minns voted in favor of establishing the reconciliation commission.

The delegates also compromised on proposals for dealing with the diocese’s financial problems. Because of the conservative parishes’ refusal to support the diocese, the 2004 budget took a nearly $900,000 hit. The delegates approved setting up a task force to study new rules for financial giving by churches to the diocese and referred for further study a proposal to let parishes designate how their contributions are spent.