Episcopal Group Ponders Split
Two months after the Episcopal Church confirmed the unprecedented election of an openly gay priest as a bishop, more than 2,600 conservative Episcopalians gathered here Tuesday to stand against the action in what could presage a formal split in the church.
The Episcopalians, meeting at a conference sponsored by the conservative American Anglican Council, were poised for an open break in one of the nation’s oldest and most influential denominations. They warned that their church was under the judgment of God.
A theological divide in the 2.3-million-member church widened after its highest legislative body, the General Convention, met in August in Minneapolis and confirmed the election by the Diocese of New Hampshire of the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson as its next bishop. Robinson, an openly gay priest who has been in a 13-year relationship with another man, is to be consecrated bishop in November.
“We are coming here to stand,” the Rev. David H. Roseberry, a keynote speaker, declared to enthusiastic applause. “There is great virtue in just being able to stand. You remember the words of the Apostle Paul: ‘Therefore put on the full armor of God so that when the day of evil comes you will be able to stand your ground ....’ ”
The conservative conference here -- punctuated by rousing old-time hymns, prayers and preaching about heaven and hell -- came just a week before the world’s highest-ranking Anglican archbishops convene in London for an emergency meeting with the archbishop of Canterbury over the unfolding crisis in the Episcopal Church, which is one of 38 self-governing churches within the 77 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion.
It is uncertain what the Anglican primates -- the archbishops of the national churches -- will do at the London gathering. But conservative Episcopalians here are expected to urge them to intervene. They want the 37 primates to persuade the archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of the communion and primate of the mother Church of England, to create a “new alignment” that could result in a parallel church in the United States and Canada for “biblically orthodox” Anglicans.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has ultimate authority to decide which churches are in communion with him and therefore considered Anglican.
The conservative rank-and-file Episcopalians and their clergy, who are meeting here from across the country, said the church has been reeling since two crucial votes by the General Convention in August.
In addition to confirming Robinson’s election, the national church also tacitly approved letting local bishops authorize marriage-like blessings of committed gay and lesbian couples.
The American Anglican Council is an unofficial group of “biblically orthodox” Episcopalians who have opposed the church’s stand on homosexuality. Until the Minnesota decisions, the council had vowed to work for reform within the Episcopal Church. But the decisions in Minnesota were viewed by the council as the last straw.
The conference here drew 2,674 participants, including 46 bishops and 799 priests. There are 10,465 active clergy, including priests and bishops, in the Episcopal Church, a church spokeswoman said Tuesday.
The American Anglican Council said at least 200 Episcopal parishes are members of the organization. An additional 300 are “supporters.” There are 7,347 Episcopal parishes in the U.S.
Speaker after speaker here condemned the Minneapolis decisions and called on the church to repent.
“We have dropped the ball. We live in a time and in a church under judgment,” declared the Rev. Kendall S. Harmon, a theologian from the Diocese of South Carolina.
The Rev. David H. Roseberry, rector of Christ Church in the Dallas suburb of Plano, Texas, said the Episcopal Church must be “rebuked, rejected or corrected in some way.”
In asking for a realignment of the church, Roseberry compared the worldwide Anglican Communion to a constellation. He said the star representing the Episcopal Church had moved away from historic Christian teaching against homosexuality and the primacy of Scripture.
“In Minneapolis this summer, something moved,” Roseberry said. “A star moved. It will continue to move outward and away from the family system that we all know and love. We are here today to say with solemnity and with sorrow that we cannot move with you. We cannot drift any farther from this precious constellation. We cannot risk the deposit of our faith. We cannot risk the salvation of souls ... for generations to come. Don’t ask us.”
Although a decision on a resolution appealing to the Anglican primates for a realignment of the church won’t be made until Thursday, the direction of the conservative Episcopalians seems certain.
In a sign of the growing split even before the Dallas meeting, organizers denied media credentials to one of the church’s leading gay advocates, Louie Crew, who is also a member of the national church’s executive committee. The group also forbade the church’s highest-ranking bishop, the Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold -- who supported Robinson’s ordination -- from sending four observers to the conservative meeting unless they signed a doctrinal statement that, among other things, offered a traditional definition of marriage. Griswold is presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church.
Bruce Mason, a spokesman for the American Anglican Council, said the group had rejected Crew’s request because it would not be “pastorally sensitive.” Said Mason, “This is a gathering of grieving, hurting people.”
Episcopalians here said they were deeply hurt by the national church’s decisions on Robinson and same-sex blessings.
“We will not put up with what [the] General Convention did. It’s totally unacceptable,” said Emily Hubbard, an Episcopalian from Tonawanda, N.Y.
One priest said members of his congregation were “bruised” by Robinson’s confirmation. “If somebody had come into the church and asked if they wanted to leave the Episcopal Church, the place would have been [emptied],” said the Rev. Blake Greenlee of St. Paul’s Church in Darien, Conn.
The Rev. Susan Russell, national president of Integrity, the Episcopal gay advocacy group, was in Dallas but was not allowed to register at the meeting. She called the meeting an “appropriate” way for Episcopalians to confer and pray about the church. But she objected to the decision to exclude Crew and others.
“This is a small, militant percentage of the church which would like to see us become a church where you have to sign a loyalty oath to get in and where the only ones at the table are those who agree with those setting it. I don’t think that is a picture of the gospel or the Episcopal Church,” she said.
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