Gay Rites Movement: Conservative Episcopalians Huffing over the Consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson Are Standing on the Wrong Side of History-Their Own Church's

Article excerpt

SUNDAY, NOV. 2 DAWNED SUNNY AND hot, more like late spring than mid-autumn. At St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington's posh Georgetown neighborhood, the open doors brought a welcome hit of air to women in sleeveless dresses, who drew shawls loosely about their shoulders. The rector, choir members and seminarians were surely sweating beneath their crisp white robes as they filed in behind a woman carrying a heavy gold cross.

A layperson banded out the day's prayers on photocopied sheets to visitors entering the 18th century building--long a spiritual home to many of Washington's glitterati, including Francis Scott Key, whose portrait graces a wall in an adjoining room. In the pamphlet, a weekly message from the Rev. David Williams reminded congregants that this Sunday was part of All Saints' Day. Then it went on to the meat of the matter--that this Nov. 2 was important to the church for another reason, the consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. "While politics, orthodoxy, and a variety of opinions about what constitutes the church and its core beliefs may cause fractious conversation," the note read, "one thing will always remain eternal--the love of God and the action of that love through the incarnation of Jesus Christ."

Normally the consecration of a bishop in New Hampshire wouldn't be an issue addressed in an out-of-state parish newsletter. But Robinson, as most of America is well aware, is the first openly gay "noncelibate" bishop to be consecrated in the Episcopal Church--or, indeed, in any church. He has been the locus of a months long fight over the future of the Anglican Communion, the worldwide body of which The Episcopal Church, USA is a part. He has been Topic A in England, and the subject of an emergency meeting of Anglican primates that met in mid-October. He has been chastised in Africa. He was the focus of a protest meeting of 2,500 in Dallas sponsored by the American Anglican Council, a body that has threatened to split from the church. He has even been contested at St. John's in Washington, where a heated open forum was held the week before the consecration.

And, of course, Robinson has brought those on the margins into the center, serving as a role model for gay men, lesbians and other minorities in the church. His nomination and subsequent consecration--before a standing-room-only crowd of 4,000 in Durham, N.H.--brought joy to thousands of Episcopalians who believe that this is a natural next step for the church, and one that reflects their true faith.

THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH IN AMERICA has been, for the past century and a half, at the forefront of social justice issues. The church is not large in this country--just 2.3 million parishioners but its members have held a disproportionate number of important jobs, including 11 presidencies and one-third of all seats on the U.S. Supreme Court. It was the Episcopal Church in the north that most vocally opposed slavery in the years before the Civil War and that first or dained an African American bishop in the late 19th century. The church, in sum, has helped dictate the civil religion of the United States; the forbearance it has preached and practiced both reflects and has helped establish a civic space of tolerance in the United States.

Throughout the 1990s, that civic space opened up to gays and lesbians in remarkable ways; and quietly, behind all the headlines about "outing" and gay leading characters on television, the Episcopal Church can be said to have played an important role in that change. Though it never adopted an official policy for accepting gay priests, the fact is that it has long been open to the practice. An out lesbian was ordained as a priest by New York Bishop Paul Moore as long ago as 1977. Widespread tolerance took longer, but many gay ministers were ordained--and gay unions blessed--throughout the 1990s. In towns all over America, attitudes were shifting inside the parish house. …