The possible election this week of an openly gay bishop to lead a Bay Area diocese of the Episcopal Church would have repercussions likely to reverberate throughout the 77-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion.
On Saturday representatives of parishioners and clergy of the Diocese of California, which is centered in San Francisco, will select their next bishop from among seven nominees, including two gays and one lesbian.
However, leaders of rapidly growing churches in Africa, Asia and South America, which represent the vast majority of Anglicans, endorse traditional teachings on marriage and sexuality.
As a result, tensions over differing interpretations of scriptural teachings and homosexuality have pitted liberal Western parishioners against conservative African church members, and many church observers say the schism has taken on racial, as well as philosophical, overtones.
In a break with policy, the U.S. Episcopal Church in 2003 for the first time consented to allow an openly gay man to be elected bishop. The 2-million-member U.S. denomination has been bitterly divided over gay clergy ever since. Indeed, three Southern California Episcopal churches have pulled out of the Los Angeles Diocese and aligned themselves with a bishop in Uganda.
“What California decides will touch every Episcopalian,” said gay ordination opponent Cynthia Brust, a spokeswoman for the American Anglican Council, which has 300 affiliated churches in the U.S.
“It’s already been extremely painful for families who’ve been part of the Episcopal Church for generations: people who were married in it, who baptized their children in it, buried their dead in it,” she said.
“To watch your church suddenly say, ‘Anything goes,’ is a horrifying thing,” she added.
The Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, who was bishop of the Diocese of Newark in New Jersey before his retirement in 2000, said Brust misses the point.
“There’s not a scientist in the world today who supports the idea that homosexuals are mentally ill or morally depraved,” said Spong, a noted author and outspoken church leader on the subject. “So I’d rather see the church split. I have no desire to be a part of a homophobic church.”
The Rev. Susan Russell, senior associate for parish life at the 4,000-member All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena and president of Integrity, a 30-year-old national gay and lesbian advocacy organization, would not go that far.
“I’m convinced the voters in San Francisco will listen to the Holy Spirit and not be compelled to elect a gay candidate out of political correctness, nor be afraid to elect a gay or lesbian if that is the right person,” she said.
“I think it will grieve the heart of God if we can’t work through our differences,” she said. “A church that has held both Catholics and Protestants together for hundreds of years should be able to hold both gays and straights.”
But for church members such as Paul Zahl, dean of the Trinity School for Ministry in Pittsburgh, the election in 2003 of V. Gene Robinson as bishop in New Hampshire was a step away from biblical authority.
“The election of a gay bishop in California,” he said, “would be an extraordinarily aggressive slap in the face of a conservative group that is getting smaller all the time in the United States.”
Of the impending decision, he added: “They’ve been asked by people around the world -- even by people who agree with them -- to hold off on ordination of another gay, given the terrible tumult this caused three years ago. If they go ahead and do it anyway, it’ll be like tossing a bomb into a peace process.”
In the election to take place at Grace Cathedral atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill, the new bishop would need a majority of votes from separate houses of electors -- one of about 300 clergy, the other of about 400 parishioners -- in the same ballot.
The new bishop will replace the Rt. Rev. William Swing, who will retire in July.
The unusually large field of nominees includes the Rt. Rev. Mark Handley Andrus, Bishop Suffragan, of the Diocese of Alabama; the Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe, officer for congregational development, Diocese of California; the Rev. Jane Gould, rector of St. Stephen’s Church, Lynn, Mass.; and the Rev. Bonnie Perry, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church, Chicago.
Other candidates are the Rev. Donald Schell, rector of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco; the Rev. Canon Eugene Taylor Sutton, pastor of the National Cathedral in Washington; and the Very Rev. Robert V. Taylor, dean of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle.
All have said they want to be considered on the basis of their qualifications, not their sexual orientation.
The 27,000-member Bay Area diocese includes San Francisco, San Mateo, Alameda, Contra Costa and Marin counties.
The bishop-elect would still need to be confirmed at the denomination’s once-every-three-years national gathering, to be held in Columbus, Ohio, in June.
“Whether or not we elect a gay or straight bishop here on Saturday, the question of full inclusion of gay and lesbians in the life of the church will not go away,” said the Rev. John Kirkley, rector of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in San Francisco.
“Eventually, one of them will be elected,” he said. “Our general convention in June will have to deal with that reality, regardless of what happens.”