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Episcopalians' Debate on Gay Issues May Be Pivotal

The national convention is debating whether a homosexual priest can be a bishop and whether to have rituals drafted for same-sex unions.

August 02, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

MINNEAPOLIS — The Episcopal Church has opened a divisive debate on homosexuality that could significantly alter the church's stand on sexual morality and the denomination's place in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Two volatile issues confront the church's national General Convention, which convened here Wednesday: whether to consent to the election of an openly gay priest, the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson, as the next bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire and whether to authorize the drafting of rituals for a marriage-like blessing of same-sex partners.

If approved, Robinson would be the first bishop in the Episcopal Church or the worldwide Anglican Communion to be elected after saying he is gay. His election passed a first hurdle Friday in a committee of the convention; the key floor vote is set for Sunday.

Conservative bishops in the United States and overseas have warned that either decision could force a "a dramatic realignment," if not actual schism, within one of the nation's oldest denominations.

Liberals have discounted talk of schism as overblown and said they would not be deterred from moving toward full inclusion of gay men and lesbians in the life of the church.

The Episcopal Church is one of 38 self-governing national churches or provinces affiliated with the Anglican Communion, which claims 77 million congregants worldwide. The Anglicans recognize the archbishop of Canterbury, primate of the Church of England, as their spiritual leader but do not have the sort of centralized structure that governs the Roman Catholic Church.

Much of the debate now comes down to a single 56-year-old man -- Robinson.

"The Episcopal Church is in the midst of soul-wrenching and multi-decade debate about human sexuality," Bishop Edward Little II of the Diocese of Northern Indiana said Friday.

"If we confirm Canon Robinson as bishop, that conversation is over. We will have decided once and for all that homosexual practice is an appropriate practice for Christians," he said. "There will be no turning back. It will be a definitive moment."

A priest for 30 years and a former married man who has two grown daughters, Robinson has been in a relationship for 13 years with another man. They met several years after what has been described as Robinson's amicable divorce.

In Friday's committee hearing, one of Robinson's daughters, Ella, read a statement from her mother, Isabella McDaniel, defending Robinson's reputation and pastoral abilities.

Robinson, who sat with his partner, wept as his daughter read the statement in which McDaniel wrote: "I am proud to have been married to him. I am proud to have him as the father of my daughters. I am proud to be associated with him."

"Mostly, I will be proud to have him be bishop here in New Hampshire and in the Episcopal Church," she wrote.

Last month, Robinson was elected bishop coadjutor by the clergy and laity of the New Hampshire Diocese. Under Episcopal Church rules, bishops are elected by their local dioceses, but the elections must be ratified nationally.

"I am neither the devil my opponents would make me out to be, nor am I the savior my supporters would make me out to be," Robinson said in an interview as he prepared for the convention to begin.

"In my quiet moments with God, I try to hold on to who I really am. I can't be a poster child for either side," he said. "All I can be is Gene Robinson, and it's taken me a long time to claim and know who I am and the person that God made me to be."

Last month, a gay Anglican priest in England, the Rev. Canon Jeffrey John, was appointed suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Oxford.

The appointment created an uproar among conservative Anglican archbishops in Africa, Asia and South America. After a daylong meeting at Lambeth Palace in London, the official residence of the archbishop of Canterbury, John declined to accept the appointment.

So far, Robinson said, he has no intention of following that example. He realized that his election as bishop "would be the cause of some pain and difficulty for the church, both for this country and worldwide," he said.

He has not looked back, however.

"I haven't had any second thoughts or doubts," he said. "But I continue to pray every day about whether God wants me to move forward. At this point I am not hearing from God any message about standing down, but I try to stay open to God's working in my life every day."

Robinson said that, in 1986, when he decided to publicly disclose his sexual orientation, he thought that would mean the end of his priesthood.

"The process of coming out to yourself is far more difficult than other people's dealing with your coming out," he said. "People forget that gay and lesbian folks have swallowed all the negative messages that the rest of the culture has. You have to undo that."

"By the time I finally did make this decision, I was pretty certain that it would mean the end of my ministry in the church as an ordained person," he said.

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