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Episcopalians Elect Straight Bishop in S.F.

Times Staff Writer

Bay Area Episcopalians elected a heterosexual as their bishop Saturday, at least temporarily tamping down rising tensions over the role of gays in the U.S. Episcopal Church.

Alabama Bishop Mark Handley Andrus, 49, edged out six other finalists, including two gay men and a lesbian, in a process some feared would widen a chasm between the U.S. Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion to which it belongs.

His win answered the central question in a drama that had been closely watched throughout the 77-million-member Communion: whether the Diocese of California’s Bishop William Swing, who is retiring in July, would be replaced by the church’s second openly gay Episcopal bishop.

But the battle within the church over human sexuality is far from over.

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Differing biblical interpretations and views on homosexuality are expected to be a focus of the denomination’s triennial national convention to be held in Columbus, Ohio, in June.

On Saturday, after three rounds of balloting at stately Grace Cathedral atop Nob Hill, the three gay and lesbian nominees had garnered the least number of votes cast. Nonetheless, Andrus’ victory was hailed as a gain for inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church.

In a statement conveyed by telephone from Birmingham, Ala., he drew loud applause from the delegates after he assured them that “your vote today remains a vote for inclusion and communion of gay and lesbian people in their full lives as single or partnered people, of women, of all ethnic minorities, and all people.”

“I take this election to be an expression,” Andrus added, “of our common desire to be part of the whole, the Communion and the world, in what may be a new way.”

Two houses of electors -- one of about 300 clergy, the other of about 400 parishioners -- cast ballots. Andrus won 72% of the clergy’s vote and about 55% of the lay vote. His selection still needs to be confirmed at the national convention in June.

In the weeks leading up to the election, one of the openly gay candidates, the Rev. Bonnie Perry of Chicago, had been considered a front-runner. But after the candidates toured the diocese and met with parishioners and clergy last month, various church members said, opinions began to shift.

Andrus’ supporters said his election underlined how the diocese’s 27,000 congregants were more interested in selecting the most-qualified nominee than in challenging the authority of the denomination to make an ideological point.

Among them was insurance attorney Richard Audrey, 69, of Orinda, who responded to the final tally with two thumbs up.

“Nobody here wants to break up the Anglican Communion,” he said. “We had an awesome responsibility today, and we made the right decision.”

The Rev. Pamela Cranston of St. Cuthbert Church in Oakland agreed.

“I’m thrilled,” she said. “Someone said to me that Andrus was a safe choice. I said, ‘No, he’s a solid choice. He’s for youth and the ecology, and he’s deeply spiritual.’ ”

In any case, John Kater, acting president and dean at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, which is the only Episcopal seminary in the western United States, said Andrus has his work cut out for him.

Church attendance in the five-county diocese centered in San Francisco is a dismal 50%, and its mostly white congregation does not reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the Bay Area it serves.

Even with the election of Andrus, conservative church leaders were angry that the seven finalists included partnered gays. Like Perry the other openly gay candidates, the Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe of San Francisco and the Very Rev. Robert Taylor of Seattle, have same-sex partners.

In a telephone interview, Cynthia Brust, a spokeswoman for the American Anglican Council, which has 300 affiliated churches in the U.S., said, “They may have dodged having a partnered homosexual as bishop, but they did little in bringing the church back to the center of orthodoxy.”

The 2.3-million member U.S. Episcopal Church has been trying to stem defections by parishes since its decision in 2003 to consecrate an openly gay priest in a same-sex relationship as bishop of New Hampshire.

While some praised that choice as a victory for gay rights within the church, archbishops in Africa and conservative church leaders in the United States condemned it as a step away from traditional biblical authority.

A measure of the ongoing dispute was the verbal sparring last week between a gay rights advocacy group called the Human Rights Campaign and the Rev. Paul Zahl, dean of the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa.

Campaign leaders demanded that Zahl, who believes that gay ordinations violate traditional understandings of biblical morality and teachings, apologize for equating the possible election of a gay bishop in San Francisco with a “terrorist bomb.”

On another front, turf battles have broken out between U.S. Episcopal churches and African churches, which now represent most of the world’s Anglicans.

At least four conservative Southern California Episcopal churches have placed themselves under the jurisdictions of “orthodox” archbishops in Africa who are uncompromising critics of the U.S. denomination’s drift toward what they consider heresy.

By some estimates, 100 more of the 7,200 Episcopal congregations nationwide have expressed an interest in joining up with “orthodox” archbishops in Rwanda, Uganda and Nigeria.

But it’s not just the Episcopal Church.

A week ago, the regional American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest gave preliminary approval to severing its ties with the American Baptist Churches USA on grounds that the national group has failed to enforce a resolution that says the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity.”

“It’s tragic whenever the bonds of unity are broken,” said the Rev. A. Roy Medley, general secretary of the century-old American Baptist Churches USA. “It’s a very difficult time in the life of the church as it seeks to deal with a very divisive issue.”

The proposal to pull away from the church faces a final vote Thursday.

Separately, a group of rabbis recently postponed until December its vote on whether Conservative Judaism will endorse same-sex unions and the ordination of gay men and lesbians.

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the Rabbinical Assembly’s authority on Jewish law and tradition composed of 25 rabbis and five nonvoting laymen, last addressed such ordinations and unions 14 years ago. It banned both.

Meanwhile, two groups of religious leaders are speaking on a related issue -- a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would define marriage as the union of a man and woman.

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles and 50 Jewish, Episcopal, Orthodox, Lutheran, evangelical and other Roman Catholic leaders signed a petition April 25 urging the Senate to approve the amendment, scheduled to come up for a vote in June.

“Throughout America, the institution of marriage is suffering,” the petition said. “As leaders in our nation’s religious communities, we cannot sit idly by. It is our duty to speak.”

In response, the president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, on Monday will join other clergy and scholars in calling on the Senate to reject the marriage amendment.


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