Stage set for Episcopalians' debate on homosexuality

Posted: Thursday, July 06, 2000

DENVER (AP) -- The national convention for America's 2.4 million Episcopalians opened Wednesday with a divisive issue potentially on the table: whether individual dioceses can decide to ordain gays and bless homosexual relationships.

That proposal and other resolutions on the role of homosexuals in the Episcopal Church will be discussed during the 10-day meeting, the presiding bishop said Wednesday. But he said they might not be voted on.

Church leader Frank Griswold said it is more important to reach common ground on gay issues, which are confronting several other American denominations as well.

''Clearly, there's a divide,'' Griswold said. ''But I think the most hopeful thing is that there's a dialogue between bishops about the question of sexuality so they can understand each other's context more clearly.''

The main proposal before the Episcopal General Convention would codify the church's unofficial policy of allowing each diocese to decide whether to ordain gays and bless same-sex unions.

Conservatives say the practice violates church and biblical teachings. Liberals say the proposed local-option measure doesn't go far enough.

''I've heard innumerable comments that the local option is what we have and a resolution that says 'yes' or 'no' to that is destructive,'' said Marge Christie, a lay delegate from Newark, N.J.

Other proposals, many originating in a special committee on sexuality, would authorize priests to perform gay commitment ceremonies and direct the church to develop rites for them.

The resolutions must be approved by the church's two-chamber legislative body, one composed of about 300 bishops and the other composed of about 800 priests and lay members.

Delegates from both bodies said they did not know when the resolutions would come up.

''We never know what kind of horse the convention is going to ride until we assemble,'' said the Rt. Rev. Clifton Daniel III, a bishop from North Carolina.

The Anglican American Council, a group of conservative Episcopalians, says the ''anything goes'' policy threatens to divide the church. The group insists it speaks for the church's mainstream.

The Anglican American Council is committed to staying in the church, but other conservative members may leave. ''I think the potential is there for a devastating split,'' said Bishop Jim Stanton of Dallas, the council's president.

Soulforce, a gay and lesbian advocacy group, is demanding that homosexuals be accepted in the Episcopal Church and other denominations. Dozens of its members were arrested Tuesday outside the Colorado Convention Center, the gathering site for the Episcopalians.

''For 30 years they've been discussing this. We're asking them now to resolve it,'' said Mel White, a founder of Soulforce and a minister in the Metropolitan Community Churches.

Two years ago, the Episcopalians parent group, the worldwide Anglican Communion, called homosexuality ''incompatible with Scripture.''

The rift widened in January when two American priests who oppose homosexuality were consecrated as bishops in Singapore -- without church approval -- by two conservative bishops.

Similar conflicts are raging within other denominations. The Evangelical Lutheran Church discourages any blessings of gay couples, though there are no official rules prohibiting such unions, and some pastors have said they intend to perform ceremonies for gays.

United Methodist Church leaders in May reaffirmed their opposition to homosexuality, the ordination of sexually active gays and consecrating same-sex unions. Presbyterian leaders recommended last week that ceremonies blessing same-sex couples be banned.


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