Mainline churches struggle over gay policy

A meeting of the Anglican Communion this week confronts a US-African divide, and an unhealed rift within the US.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Gathered this week in Northern Ireland, senior bishops of the Anglican Communion are seeking to maintain unity in the global body amid the most difficult circumstances in the denomination's history.

They are meeting for the first time since the release of a major report which called for the Episcopal Church, the US branch of Anglicanism, to repent for consecrating a gay bishop and allowing same-sex ceremonies, and to agree to a moratorium on such actions. Anglican leaders in developing nations have threatened schism if appropriate action is not taken.

The deep split in one of the world's largest Protestant groups (77 million) represents only the most urgent of the debates over Christian teaching on homosexuality. US Lutherans and Presbyterians are also struggling over the demands of traditional teaching and a compassionate response to gays and lesbians in their congregations.

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After lengthy study, a commission of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) last month released proposals that stirred criticism from both sides. The report recommends staying with traditional teaching - not ordaining gays - yet suggests that the ELCA refrain from enforcing the policy should individual churches accept a gay or lesbian pastor.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), a three-year "commission on peace, unity, and purity" plans to take up the ordination issue next month and report to the church in 2006.

Unity, and its cost

US mainline churches have been riven by the debate for years. For most Christian churches, unity is part of the fundamental witness of Christian life, and the prospect of any further splintering within the body of Christ is anathema. Yet the cost of unity is the issue troubling many.

From the perspective of Anglican leaders in the developing world, "Anglicanism is in danger of being no longer Protestant because ... they don't see how the American case works on the basis of Scripture," says Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of the South Carolina diocese.

On the Lutheran task force, "some people thought unity was the primary consideration," says Bishop Margaret Payne of ELCA's New England synod. "Others thought, from the two sides, that justice should be more important or that holding fast to tradition should be more important." But, she adds, "it's a very Lutheran practice to have unity without uniformity, to place things in the hands of pastors and ask them to use discretion in their pastoral setting."

This is the direction the US Episcopal Church has gone, to the consternation of some of its members as well as most Anglican leaders in developing nations.

"The central points of theological belief have been eviscerated - it's tragic," says Dr. Harmon, a leader among those opposing church actions. "The Episcopal Church is one of radical incoherence."

Conservatives in the US church have formed an Anglican Network of Dioceses and Parishes that seeks a return to traditional teaching, and looks to the Communion to insist on it. The network acts as a refuge for parishes that feel they cannot accept the leadership of bishops who are willing to perform same-sex ceremonies or who voted to approve V. Gene Robinson, a practicing gay, as bishop of New Hampshire. So far only 10 of 110 dioceses have joined the network, though some parishes within dioceses have made the move.

Three churches in California recently left their diocese and attached themselves to a bishop in Uganda. The willingness of some African bishops to accept such oversight, crossing jurisdictional boundaries, is also criticized in the Windsor Report.

The report's proposals include a stronger role for the Archbishop of Canterbury and a new "covenant" among the churches that would define common understandings. These are to be discussed from the grass-roots up and may not take full form for a few years.

But conservatives are looking for immediate action regarding the Episcopal Church and Canadian dioceses that are performing same-sex rites.

In January, US bishops responded to the report by expressing regret for the pain and hurt caused by US actions, but not for the actions themselves. African leaders responded that repentance is called for - and agreement to curtail the practices.

Democratic tradition

Yet some point out that Episcopal governance doesn't allow for a quick response. "We are a broadly democratic church," says Ian Douglas of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. "In some Anglican churches, a [leader] can speak for the whole church, but here bishops can't make policy for all." The general convention of lay and clerical delegates, the church's legislative body, approved the steps in 2003, and it would have to undo them, the Reverend Douglas says.

The Windsor Report also requests that the US church explain the theological basis for gay unions and ordinations.

Presbyterians and Lutherans

Presbyterians, too, are confronting that issue. Members of the church's 21-person commission have for more than two years worked through their understanding of God, Christ, and the way the church uses scripture. "It's been a surprisingly unifying experience," says the Rev. Gary Demarest, a California pastor who cochairs the group. "Now we're coming to the hot-button issue of ordination."

The Lutherans engaged the entire membership in the effort to produce a policy, but the ELCA assembly must make the decisions in August. A study booklet with issue analysis and theological resources was sent out in 2003, and congregations were encouraged to hold study groups for the next year. Members sent the task force 28,000 comments. "We found that while many people don't want to change the policy, they want to create more space for gay and lesbian people," says Bishop Payne. Still, the proposal to stay with policy but not discipline those who fail to comply "is meant to be a solution for this time ... not necessarily a final answer."

Church synods can offer alternative proposals leading up to the August meeting. Yet feedback suggests that people are becoming less polarized and believe the church can turn its attention to other concerns, Payne adds. "I'm hopeful people will see so many collateral benefits from this and be secure that there will be ongoing examination ... [that the assembly vote] will be a much less cataclysmic event."

The ELCA is part of the Lutheran World Federation, and its churches in Africa have the same concerns as the Anglicans. There could be a similar reaction, Payne says, but they have stayed in conversation all along. She hopes that as a federation, there will be more allowance for differences.

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