Episcopalians Forge Uncertain Future: Bold Step for Inclusion of Gays and Lesbians Sets Benchmark for All Churches

By Briggs, Ken | National Catholic Reporter, August 21, 2009 | Go to article overview

Episcopalians Forge Uncertain Future: Bold Step for Inclusion of Gays and Lesbians Sets Benchmark for All Churches


Briggs, Ken, National Catholic Reporter


The Episcopal General Convention last month bit the bullet. By a two-thirds majority, it officially admitted gays and lesbians to the office of bishop and approved the blessing of same-sex couples. Was it the wave of the future or beginning of the end?

Those who forecast disaster say the 2 mill ion-member Episcopal church, now a tenuous part of the worldwide Anglican Communion because of its action, has doomed itself by condoning homosexuality. Many of these critics have already bolted the church for schismatic alternatives, such as the Anglican Church of North America. They claim the "orthodox" high ground, denouncing the practice of homosexuality as contrary to God's sexual ethics. To go that route, many of the resistors say, is to imperil salvation.

One of the opponents' staunchest defenders, David Virtue, declared in a recent VirtueOnline Web site posting, "The orthodox will never give ground on that if the church survives 1,000 years." The newly named archbishop of the American breakaway group, Robert Duncan, said there had been "a new reformation in the Christian West." The underlying message was that July's General Convention would eventually mark the grave of a heresy.

Various on-the-scene reports made clear that the convention reached its landmark decision firmly but not triumphantly. The overwhelming final votes by bishops and deputies were greeted by flat acceptance of an outcome that was all but inevitable, rather than a victory celebration.

Decades of study, talk and dispute had preceded it, of course. Episcopalians were in the vanguard of reexamining the morality of homosexuality itself; biblical scholars, theologians and scientists raised serious doubts about Christianity's insistence that same-sex love was divinely condemned. Minds changed, acceptance grew and, of course, a small but steady flow of dismayed conservatives left the church.

The issue of gays in the Episcopal clergy has been on the front burner of the denomination since 1991. At that year's convention, discussion of gay ordination grew so heated that the presiding bishop, Edmund Browning, ordered six closed-door sessions to hash things out.

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As open homosexuals were accepted into the priesthood, the question realistically was when, not whether, to accept gay bishops. The first was V. Gene Robinson, endorsed by the 2006 convention as the bishop of New Hampshire, with the proviso that such consecrations should be put on hold to satisfy the traditional elements here and abroad.

Last month's scrapping of that restriction came, therefore, after lots and lots of haggling, passion, sober study and deliberation. After the vote, some delegates were quoted as less than ecstatic, but realistic. They saw the decision as an accurate marker of the mind of the church and accepted it as such. Reason rather than radicalism emerged as the justification. Things had found their way over the years and it appeared to sufficient numbers to be God's will, whether or not it made delegates jump for joy. This moment had arrived, after all, at tremendous cost in defections from. the church, lost income and the agony of conflict.

Clearly, this is new ground. The Episcopalians, aristocrats of American church life, have advanced the ball to a place no other mainstream church has gone. Not only does it further the cause of gays and lesbians, it sets a benchmark for all churches, even Catholicism, which officially appears at the farthest remove from reform on this front.

Though the Episcopal church's action looks precipitous, it is better seen as a product of an organic process that has grown through most churches that have engaged the issue of homosexuality in recent decades. …

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