Episcopal leaders reopen divisive marriage debate

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Leaders of the Episcopal Church, gathering in Anaheim for their first national convention in three years, reopened fractious debate this week over whether to authorize marriage rites for same-sex couples and to repeal a de facto ban on the consecration of gay bishops.

The issues have caused painful divisions in the 2.1-million-member denomination, which in recent years has seen dozens of parishes and four conservative dioceses, including one in Central California, break away. Last month, the dissidents formally launched a rival church.

Despite warnings about the consequences, liberal Episcopalians at the meeting are championing a flurry of resolutions to expand participation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in church life, with votes expected in coming days. The conference, the church’s General Convention, runs through Friday.


“It’s important that we recognize the equal stature of all Christians in the church so that we model that type of inclusivity in civil society,” said Bishop Marc Andrus of the San Francisco-based Diocese of California.

Even as liberalized policies on gays and lesbians appeared to gain momentum at the convention, traditionalists warned that the shift would further threaten internal unity and widen a rift with the global Anglican Communion.

The Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the communion, which has 77 million members, many of them in conservative regions of Africa and South America.

“If we are not extremely careful at this convention, we could find ourselves outside the Anglican Communion, and that would be a tragedy for all of us,” said Bishop William Love of Albany, N.Y., who predicted the loss of additional Episcopal parishes if policies are liberalized. “My fear is that the Episcopal Church destroys itself.”

Episcopalians have been debating the roles of gays and lesbians in the church for years, but the issue escalated in 2003 when a gay priest, V. Gene Robinson, was consecrated as bishop of New Hampshire.

That decision disturbed Anglican leaders, who issued a report the next year calling for all churches in the communion to refrain from electing bishops living in same-sex unions, and from authorizing the development of blessing rites for such relationships.


In the final hours of the 2006 convention, Episcopalian leaders approved a measure to mollify some of the Anglican concerns: It called for church leaders to “exercise restraint” by not allowing the consecration of bishop candidates “whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.”

Those involved in the debate said the language referred to gays and lesbians in partnered relationships.

In 2007, Episcopal bishops reaffirmed their support for the ban and pledged not to authorize blessing rites for same-sex unions.

Now, tensions are again rising as the bishops, clergy and lay leaders who set church policy at the General Convention reconsider both issues.

Overflow crowds have turned up for public hearings on both matters in Anaheim, with speakers sharing tearful stories about their struggles in the church. Most have favored an easing of restrictions.

Among resolutions attracting attention is one from the bishop of Maine that would give priests in states where gay marriage has been legalized “generous discretion,” under the direction of bishops, to adapt marriage blessings for same-sex couples.


Other proposals call for the church to develop and authorize blessing rites for such couples, and to amend church canons so that they use gender-neutral language in reference to marriage.

Those who advocate change also have introduced resolutions that would repeal the ban on gay bishops in same-gender relationships and allow anyone admission to the bishops’ ranks regardless of sexual orientation.

“To deny our gay and lesbian nominees for bishop . . . is both cruel and unkind,” Robinson told one committee.

Outnumbered opposition speakers said the resolutions, particularly those dealing with marriage, were in conflict with the Bible, which they noted defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

“I am afraid we are becoming a church of a fundamentalist left,” said the Rev. Kate Moorehead of St. James Episcopal Church in Wichita, Kan. “I want to bless unions within my church, but in our great urge to include all people and not offend anyone, we have neglected to take adequate time to instruct and reflect with our conservative brothers and sisters.”

The church’s presiding bishop, the Most. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, has yet to publicly address the dispute at the convention. The spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, voiced concern during a brief visit to the conference about the potential for “decisions in the coming days that could push us further apart.”


But Williams met privately for 30 minutes with a group of gay, lesbian and bisexual deputies.

The Rev. Altagracia Perez, rector of Holy Faith Episcopal Church in Inglewood, said she felt that Williams had listened closely. She also said she was heartened by the tone and direction of the convention.