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A church split on gay inclusion

Episcopalians vote in coming days over blessing same-sex unions.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 28, 2003

Amid the shifting climate for gay rights in North America, the Episcopal Church faces landmark decisions that could have a deep effect on its global faith community.

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At their national convention, which begins Wednesday in Minneapolis, Episcopalians will decide whether to take the long-debated steps of blessing same-sex unions and approving openly gay clergy. Their choices threaten to split the US church and the worldwide Anglican Communion to which it belongs, as some leaders insist they would not accept such a change.

Most mainline Protestant churches have struggled with these questions for several years, with little resolution. The Episcopal Church has been more welcoming of gays than many faith communities, and some priests and bishops have quietly gone ahead to bless unions and ordain gay clergy. In June, the diocese of New Hampshire voted an openly gay man their next bishop.

But these steps have stirred turmoil across the Communion, which has 75 million members in 164 countries. Some bishops in the developing world - where great growth in the religion is occurring - have joined with US conservatives to oppose legitimizing such actions. Last week these leaders warned that if approved, the actions would "precipitate a dramatic realignment of the Church."

As the denomination has struggled with the issues, individual churches have faced difficult decisions. For example:

• Trinity Church in Boston, a high-profile congregation in the country's biggest Episcopal diocese, has an active gay community but has not blessed unions.

"It isn't easy to say we'll be fine here in our progressive bubble and wave goodbye to the rest of our historic community," says David Trueblood, Trinity spokesman. "On the one hand is the question of unity, and on the other, of leadership on what a lot of people see as the leading civil rights issue of our day."

• Church of Our Savior in Arlington, Mass., six years ago took the bold step of choosing a female pastor who was "out" and in a committed partnership.

"They chose me, but one- quarter of the congregation left," says the Rev. Linda Privitera. "We had a lot of work to do together." Today the church is growing and very diverse, from elders to young families with small children.

At the last Episcopal general convention in 2000, the proposal for a rite that would bless "life-long committed relationships" outside marriage was barely defeated. Many thus expect it to pass this time. But a major concern is that the church hasn't yet sorted out the theological questions behind the change.

"If the church is to do this, we have to modify our central teaching ... to either fundamentally change the Christian doctrine of marriage, or we have to come up with a new category. That work hasn't been done," says the Rev. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of the South Carolina diocese. In fact, after the 2000 convention, the bishops' theology committee was asked to tackle the task, and its recent report confirmed that no consensus yet exists on the theological issues. The committee, with members on both sides, called for "focused conversation ... and an openness to the guidance and movement of the Holy Spirit."