The Episcopal Church faces change and potential chaos over the gay issue

Posted: Friday, December 05, 2003

In the month since becoming the first Christian denomination to consecrate an openly gay bishop, the Episcopal Church has been gripped by unprecedented tumult.

Episcopal parishioners are pitted against each other. Conservative parishes and priests are at odds with their liberal bishops and vice versa. And, at the national level, conservative bishops are arguing with fellow prelates in the liberal majority.

Internationally, church leaders who represent tens of millions of Anglicans have announced they are prepared to cut ties with the Episcopal Church, which is the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion.

Anglican relations with Eastern Orthodoxy are severely strained. And the Vatican announced Tuesday that ongoing talks with the Anglicans are on hold, even though the head of the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, resigned as Anglican co-chairman to placate Roman Catholic officialdom.

David Kalvelage of The Living Church, an independent weekly that opposed V. Gene Robinson's consecration as New Hampshire bishop, says the aftermath of that Nov. 2 ceremony is ''probably the largest and most far-reaching'' crisis since the denomination formed in 1789.

In one signal of a seemingly irreparable split within the hierarchy, Bishop John Howe of Orlando, Fla., called on Griswold to resign because he ''betrayed'' a sacred trust by leading Robinson's consecration service.

Further, Howe quit all offices in the national House of Bishops, charging that the majority of his colleagues ''abandoned any recognizable commitment'' to the Bible's authority.

As denunciations fly, the Washington-based American Anglican Council is organizing a conservative ''network'' to perpetuate traditional Episcopalianism with backing from overseas. The emerging entity could be a messy ''church within a church'' rather than a formally separated denomination.

The core of the budding network will presumably come from 16 dioceses whose bishops issued a formal protest at Robinson's consecration. But individuals and conservative congregations in liberal dioceses are also part of the movement.

And it isn't all about who leaves the church and who stays. If troubled parishioners stick with the Episcopal Church but stop making financial contributions, that could also be devastating.

If anything, the international situation is even worse, with the global Anglican Communion and its 77 million faithful in danger of splitting in two over the U.S. controversy and a fight over same-sex blessings in the Anglican Church of Canada.

While 59 percent of U.S. bishops confirmed Robinson's election, they are in the minority by a wide margin in world Anglicanism. A 1998 meeting of all Anglican bishops cited biblical teaching against homosexual acts as 82 percent of the leaders voted against gay clergy and church approval of same-sex couples.

The heads (called primates) of many world Anglican branches have jointly declared ''impaired communion'' with the official Episcopal Church and solidarity with American conservatives. The churches of Nigeria and Uganda representing 26 million Anglicans alone went further, severing Episcopal ties. So did the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Anglican split will worsen next year if the Episcopal Church doesn't repent, under an accord reached at a caucus of primates who lead nearly half the world's Anglicans. But there's virtually no chance liberals will seek forgiveness.

The caucus agreed that liberal U.S. bishops should be reduced to observer status at Anglican meetings, minus ''voice and vote.'' More radically, U.S. bishops and dioceses that uphold Anglican tradition would gain new recognition as the ''reorganized'' Episcopal Church that continues in ''full communion'' with world Anglicanism.

It's unclear whether Anglican rejection would have any effect on the standing of Griswold's denomination under secular U.S. law and on potential court battles over the billions of dollars in Episcopal assets.

Traditionally, recognition isn't the job of primates but Anglicanism's leader, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who named a commission to sort out solutions to the U.S. and Canadian tangles by next Sept. 30.

The Rev. Kendall Harmon, theologian for the conservative South Carolina Diocese, says ''there's no question (Williams) has to choose'' eventually between the two U.S. sides.

If Williams allies with Griswold's forces, Harmon contends, ''he is in serious danger of losing the communion'' and ''he's increasingly aware of that.'' The threat: A large chunk of the world flock could switch from Williams' leadership to someone like Nigeria's Archbishop Peter Akinola.

Griswold's allies are confident the Episcopal Church will ride out the storm. The Rev. Susan Russell, president of the denomination's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender caucus, notes there was ample shouting but few dropouts over the 1976 decision to allow women priests.

Whatever happens, Harmon sees sweeping implications for U.S. religion.

If other Protestant denominations adopt the Episcopalians' ''new sexual theology,'' he says, the result would be ''a dramatic bifurcation in American Christianity.''

If so, ''people will look back and say this was the pivot point.''

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