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Local Churches Respond to Conflict

Mount Vernon Episcopal churches are on opposite sides of theological conflict over gay bishop.

In the Episcopal Church, which is the American branch of the Anglican Communion, bishops are elected by their dioceses. After being elected, the bishop-elect must be approved by a majority composed of representatives from each diocese. These confirmations are typically a formality. A diocese’s choice of its own leader is rarely questioned by the wider church. But three years ago, one bishop was heavily scrutinized before finally being confirmed by a slim margin. The aftershocks of the decision may cause the church to permanently split along its liberal and conservative fault lines.

At the 2003 General Convention (the governing body that meets every three years), about 1,000 bishops, laypeople and clergy voted to accept Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as the first man living openly in a same-sex relationship to become a bishop in the Episcopal Church. The consent to Robinson’s election split every level of the church: between congregations, between dioceses, and between the bodies that make up the international Anglican Communion.

In Mount Vernon, two Episcopal churches that lie only a few miles from one another are on opposite edges of the wound, and the priests of both fear it may be too deep to heal.

“This is a gut-felt issue,” said the Rev. John Baker, of St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church on Riverside Road. He said the church’s decision made him proud to be an Episcopalian. “I think the approval of Gene Robinson in 2003 was a prophetic moment for the church,” he explained. “I understand that it is hard, but I think it’s a direction it’s time for us to go.”

Baker said his congregation feels generally the same way. “I think most of the people at St. Aidan’s value very much the Episcopal Church’s ability to embrace diverse views [and] diverse lifestyles,” Baker said. He added that if the church bowed to conservative pressure to recant its acceptance of homosexual bishops, “I think there’d be people [in St. Aidan’s] who’d say, ‘I don’t have a church.’”

But he said he believes many conservative Episcopalians have already experienced exactly this feeling. His friend, the Rev. Huey Sevier, the rector of St. James’ Church on Old Mill Road, agrees.

“The actions of 2003 were for many of us an invitation to leave the church,” Sevier said. “This is not the church we were baptized into: a church entertaining speculative theology rather than classical teachings.” St. James has added a message to its sign that faces the road. It reads “A scripturally faithful Episcopal Church.”

ALTHOUGH BOTH Baker and Sevier said their churches lost some members because of Robinson’s consecration, most American Episcopalians seem to accept, if not welcome, the decision. But much of the worldwide Anglican Communion, particularly in the southern hemisphere, has coalesced in opposition. Conservative African church leaders have been the leading voices of protest. Some African Bishops have accepted conservative American parishes into their own dioceses. Many Anglicans have called for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to expel the Episcopal Church.

In an effort to resolve the divide without such drastic measures, the Archbishop established a commission to examine the controversy and recommend a course of action. The resulting document, called the Windsor Report, was released last year. It called upon the Episcopal Church to apologize to the Anglican Communion, not for consecrating a gay bishop, but for taking that step without the “consent” of the worldwide church. It also called for a moratorium on consecrating any more non-celibate gay bishops and on creating rites for same-sex unions.

According to the Rev. Robert Prichard, a professor at Virginia Theological Seminary and a deputy at the 2006 General Convention, the Windsor Report created many questions for the Episcopal Church. “What exactly do you apologize for?” said Prichard. “How much are you willing to apologize? To what degree are you willing to bind yourself not to behave in the same way in the future?”

With a schism in the worldwide church a realistic possibility, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention convened in Columbus, Ohio from June 12 through 21. It was charged with responding to these questions. But on the ninth day of the nine day meeting, despite days of negotiations, one of the most important issues, whether the church would continue to elect gay bishops, seemed destined to remain unanswered. An earlier resolution had failed to garner the necessary two-thirds majority. But in the final hours, a resolution was put forward by a small group of bishops intent on reaching a compromise. Accompanied by pleas from the current and future presiding bishops, it was accepted with 75 percent of the vote.

The convention agreed to express regret for the church’s lack of consultation with the Anglican Communion. But it did not pledge to refrain from consecrating another gay bishop, instead it called for Episcopal communities to “exercise restraint” on choosing any future gay bishops.

EARLIER in the convention, the church elected Katherine Jefferts Schori to be its next presiding bishop. She will be the first woman to hold the highest office in the Episcopal Church and to sit with the 37 other primates that represent the provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion. This decision may also prove controversial. But Prichard credits Jefferts Schori with influencing the adoption of the final resolution. Prichard said she told the convention, “I want you to vote for it because you will give me the tools to stay in discussion with the Anglican Communion.”

Bishop Peter Lee, of the Diocese of Virginia, was one of the small group of bishops that advanced the last minute resolution in the hopes of preventing the convention from ending with a debilitating non-response to key aspects of the Windsor Report.

“The compromise that was crafted on the last day of the convention … didn’t satisfy either end of the church,” said Lee. “The characteristic, vital center of the church reasserted itself … We want to be part of the Anglican community. At the same time we don’t want to exclude gays and lesbians from the life of the church.”

Lee said he hopes the measure, which passed with 75 percent of the vote, will be seen by other Anglican churches as a gesture of acknowledgment and respect for their differing view of the issue. “It’s an invitation to both sides to stay together, respect each other and listen to each other,” said Lee. “How we hold together remains to be seen. I think we can. We should. We will.”

BAKER SAID some members of St. Aidan’s were disappointed that the Episcopal Church seemed to have stepped back from its affirmation of homosexuals in its highest offices. But he held a less radical view of the decision. “I don’t think we’re backing up,” he said. “It’s just allowing further time to see whether we can find some way to live together with our differences. [The Church proved] We’re willing to go a long way to stay in the room with people we respect and disagree with.”

But Sevier said the effort expended by church leaders to stay in the room with one another may leave ordinary parishioners feeling left out. “Is our aim the body of Christ or a cause célèbre?” he asked. “People come to church not for controversy but to worship almighty God. When people find themselves in a church surrounded by all this controversy, this is not a place they come to find solace and spiritual renewal.” Sevier said his congregation would gladly welcome gays and lesbians into their church, but would not elect them to positions of leadership.

“The Episcopal Church welcomes you,” Sevier said, quoting a phrase prominently displayed on the signs of most of the country’s churches, “I believe that to the depths of my soul. We’re a church of hospitality. But in the name of hospitality you don’t rewrite 2000 years of church teaching.”

THE DIVIDE REDUCES to this: how to prioritize the twenty-first century’s concept of welcome and acceptance when it conflicts with Scriptural injunctions that have survived since long before the first century.

For Sevier and his conservative congregation, the church’s rejection of the plainly-written principles it was founded on are a source of pain. “This is not the faith entrusted to the saints,” Sevier explained. “At no point in the Bible is there anything permissive about sexual behavior outside the bonds of marriage.”

Sevier said being “scripturally faithful” does not mean being “scripturally literal.” Rather it means his church takes the scriptures “seriously,” prioritizing biblical teachings above the shifting definitions of what is socially and morally acceptable at any given time in history.

But Baker said he believes the church’s affirmation of a group of people judged as behaving immorally is in line with the timeless meaning of the Gospels.

“When people came to Jesus and told him that this group of outcasts was misbehaving, Jesus tended to side with the outcasts,” Baker said. He described the church’s affirmation of homosexuals not as a moving-away from the holiness of scripture but as a moving-towards God’s desire for humanity. “I think you've got to go where God’s calling,” he said. “I think this is where God’s calling the Episcopal Church to be.”

Baker believes that although the church may be alienating conservatives in Africa and other countries, it may inspire the many people in the northern hemisphere who feel that Christianity does not reflect their values. “I think there does need to be a more liberal church among the Christian denominations,” he said. “I think the Episcopal Church has traditionally been that. I hope we keep it up.”

But despite the recent compromise, both priests said the church may not hold together amide the conflict between conservative and liberal principles that seem to be based on mutually exclusive understandings of the Episcopal faith.

“I think you work to find a balance and a compromise for a long, long time,” Baker said. “I’m not sure that’s always possible.” He cited the Christian church’s history of periodic schisms.

Sevier said he could see no ultimate resolution. “At the least, we’re going to have a splintered existence,” he said, “at the very worst, a schism. And both are contrary to the unity of the church that Jesus prayed for.”