Gay policies pose test of Episcopalian loyalties

Church's confirmation of a gay bishop this week stirs controversy among faithful.

The controversial decision by the Episcopal Church to approve its first openly gay bishop is likely to lead to an exodus of some members and dioceses. The question is how widespread the revolt will be and whether it will lead to establishment of an alternative church in the US.

While disaffected conservatives have warned of a dramatic realignment in the church and the "shattering of the Anglican family," others point out that the ordination of women in the 1970s brought a similar reaction, but no split occurred.

Yet many church members consider allowing gay clergy and gay unions an unprecedented break with historic Christian teaching. They have already appealed to the Archbishop of Canterbury and other leaders for emergency intervention.

How the church weathers this crisis will reverberate through other faith communities that are in the throes of similar debate.

"We're in for a huge amount of turmoil," says the Rev. Jeff Black, pastor of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas. "This will be a time of great emotional jostling among clergy and congregations, because while some have a feeling of liberation and joy, other folks like myself feel like there has been a deep and significant betrayal of the teachings of the church and of God."

Mr. Black, who kept an eye on this week's convention from his office in Austin, hopes to stay in the church, but says there are dioceses that "will cut off money to the national church and declare themselves not in communion with the [leadership]."

Many supporters of the landmark change, however, believe schism can be avoided.

"Like any family, we have our arguments, and maybe for a time, people say, 'I'm not a part of this family;' but in the end, there is more holding us together than driving us apart," says the Rev. Michael Hopkins, head of Integrity, an advocacy group for full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church.

He's talking with many on the opposing side, he says, asking them to "not let the issue be so central that it divides us when we have so much in common."

ALTHOUGH the church has not officially changed its doctrine, this week's vote to confirm the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as bishop for New Hampshire signals a break with the teaching that sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage are not acceptable - perhaps moving to a position of holding heterosexuals and homosexuals to a similar standard of monogamous, committed partnerships. The decision on whether to create a rite to bless same-sex unions, also to be decided this week, will help clarify this stand.

The American Anglican Council of conservative Episcopalians had said that either Canon Robinson's confirmation or support of the rite would result in a "dramatic" church realignment. They plan to gather in Texas in October to determine their response. The leaders of Anglican national churches in other countries have also said they will meet and perhaps vote on disassociating themselves from the US church.

"They'll appeal to the Archbishop of Canterbury to set up a second church in the US; if he can't do that ... I expect the Archbishop of Nigeria will emerge as a second leader, and there will be two communions," Black says.

This week's actions and their aftermath are likely to affect ties with some churches and to influence future steps of other Protestant denominations. Long-standing ecumenical relations with the Roman Catholic Church, already troubled over the ordination of women, will be weakened.

Protestant churches struggling with the division over homosexuality will watch carefully what happens in coming months. Lutherans, who share a special relationship with Episcopalians, meet next week in convention, but have postponed a decision until a churchwide discussion on homosexuality ends in 2005.

Presbyterians have verged on a split for some time, headed off by the creation of a task force on unity aiming to bridge the gap over the next two years.

Episcopalians "have taken a huge, risky, and courageous step that will be very instructive for other denominations like ours," says the Rev. Laird Stuart of Calvary Presbyterian in San Francisco, who supports greater church accommodation of homosexuality. He says moderate Episcopalians will be crucial to preventing a split within that church.

For supporters of the change, it is a moment of exhilaration. "It's a clear statement that full inclusion of gay and lesbian people at all levels of ministry is a fact in the church," says Mr. Hopkins. "We're saying to the world that our doors are wide open to everyone." Indeed, many expect the move will help the church attract more gays and lesbians, as well as younger people, as members.

Episcopalians took the unprecedented step only days after the Catholic Church reaffirmed its opposition to homosexual practice, and less than 48 hours after allegations of inappropriate physical conduct were made against Robinson by a church member. The bishop-elect was cleared of the allegations after an investigation in which the accuser recanted his charge of sexual harassment.

Yet even those celebrating do so with an awareness of a rough road ahead. There was no cheering or applause at any of the three votes in favor of Robinson, as members were conscious of the pain it caused others.

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