Division Looms for Episcopal Church

The Christian Century, July 25, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Division Looms for Episcopal Church


SIGNS OF A full-blown split between the Episcopal Church and most of the worldwide Anglican Communion appeared only days after the U.S. church's General Convention refused to renounce the election of gay bishops.

The 2.2-million-member Episcopal Church would be reduced to non-voting "associate" status in a proposed two-tiered membership policy for the 77-million-member communion that was announced June 27 in London.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said those national churches that sign a covenant affirming Anglicanism's traditional stance on homosexuality could be full members of the communion, while other churches would be relegated to associate status.

Outgoing presiding bishop Frank Griswold of New York welcomed the as-yet-unwritten covenant and said he expected the process would reflect the Anglican "habit of cultural sensitivity and intellectual flexibility that does not seek to close down unexpected questions too quickly."

However, Williams, speaking about the 2003 consecration of New Hampshire bishop V. Gene Robinson, who lives with a male partner, and about the support for that action that prevailed at the recent General Convention, commented, "There is no way the Anglican Communion can remain unchanged by what is happening at the moment."

One day after Williams announced his proposal, the Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, said it is considering an openly gay candidate for bishop, despite the General Convention's last-day resolution urging the church to "exercise restraint" by not electing any more homosexual prelates. Newark will choose its new bishop from a slate of four candidates on September 23.

Some traditionalist leaders in the Episcopal Church, saying their patience was at an end, took initial breakaway steps shortly after the General Convention in Columbus, Ohio, concluded on June 21. Five of the Episcopal Church's 110 dioceses said they were disappointed with the church's newly elected presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, who said she had favored Robinson's election.

Central Florida, one of the five, aired its grievances in a statement June 30, saying it was "deeply saddened" at the election of Jefferts Schori because of her support for the "blessing of same sex unions in the Diocese of Nevada, and who, in her first sermon following the election, spoke of 'Jesus, our mother.'"

Added the statement: "We believe her actions as a diocesan bishop call into question her ability to lead the Episcopal Church in the process of healing and restoration."

The dioceses of Central Florida, Pittsburgh, South Carolina, Fort Worth and San Joaquin, California, all asked to be put under the oversight of a foreign primate. The Texas diocese made the request on the morning after Jefferts Schori's election at the triennial convention.

The appeals from diocesan standing committees, directed to Williams and other primates, asked for immediate alternate episcopal oversight. But the Episcopal News Service noted at the end of June that none of the requests had yet been ratified by a diocesan convention.

San Joaquin and Fort Worth are two of three Episcopal dioceses that do not allow the ordination of women--an issue that was most divisive when the General Convention in 1976 voted to put an end to an all-male priesthood.

The five oversight-requesting dioceses belong to the Pittsburgh-based Anglican Communion Network, a group of ten dioceses and about 800 parishes formed after the consecration of Robinson. Many "orthodox" Episcopalians in the Anglican Communion's 38 geographic provinces consider homosexuality sinful.

In related announcements, three large Episcopal parishes--Falls Church and Truro Church, both in Virginia, and Christ Church in Piano, Texas--have indicated that they may soon leave the Episcopal Church. Together, Sunday attendance at the three parishes surpasses the entire membership of the Diocese of Nevada, where Jefferts Schori has been a bishop since 2001.

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