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Episcopal Gay Priest Wins Vote

He is one step away from becoming a bishop, a move that threatens to divide the church.

August 04, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

MINNEAPOLIS — The first openly gay priest to be chosen an Episcopal bishop stood on the verge of approval Sunday as he won a key vote that opponents said could split one of the nation's oldest and most influential churches.

The Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire must still win approval by the nation's Episcopal bishops, who are scheduled to take up the matter today. But both sides in the debate at the church's 74th General Convention here expect the bishops to follow the lead of Sunday's vote in the church's House of Deputies.

The deputies approved Robinson's election by roughly a 2-1 margin, according to the official church tally.

Later this week, the church's General Convention is scheduled to debate a further step -- developing rites to bless same-sex unions.

Minutes after the vote, Robinson told reporters: "I feel very positive" about the outcome.

"I'm feeling very peaceful on the inside, and I'm very humbled by what just happened," he said. But, he added, "I'm aware this is a troubling decision for many in our church."

Robinson, a 56-year-old divorced man with two adult children, has lived with his partner, Mark Andrew, for 13 years. He was elected bishop earlier this summer by the priests and lay leaders of the Diocese of New Hampshire. Under Episcopal Church rules, the election of bishops by local dioceses must be approved by a majority of the nation's dioceses.

Robinson's opponents said the vote to give that approval defied what they described as 2,000 years of Christian teaching against homosexuality. They warned that the move could "shatter" the denomination, which is one of the nation's oldest and most prominent.

"We are not going to accept this," Bishop Edward L. Salmon Jr. of the Diocese of South Carolina warned on the eve of Sunday's vote.

The Rev. David Anderson, president of the American Anglican Council, which had urged the convention to deny Robinson's confirmation, said after the vote that the decision was "a tragic mistake."

Robinson's supporters "misread the cost of what this will do to the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion," Anderson said.

Those opposed to Robinson's election and to the idea of same-sex blessings have said they might leave the church and perhaps establish a new denomination in North America that would also be affiliated with the worldwide Anglican movement. That could set off a lengthy fight over church property and assets as well as the loyalty of Episcopalians nationwide.

The Episcopal church is one of 38 self-governing national churches within the Anglican Communion, which claims 77 million members. The Anglican churches share common doctrines and practices and recognize the Archbishop of Canterbury as their spiritual leader, but do not have a centralized hierarchy in the manner of the Roman Catholic Church.

The division over Robinson's election reflects a debate facing many of the nation's large Christian denominations, one that mirrors the larger culture's sometimes bitter divide over homosexuality.

Both sides appeal to what they see as core values.

Robinson's supporters, like liberals of other faiths, argue that the full acceptance of gay men and lesbians -- and their committed, monogamous sexual relationships -- is essential if the church is to fully embrace the dignity and worth of all people.

"This is neither a homosexual or liberal agenda, but God who is challenging the church to be drawn into the radical inclusiveness of God's heart," said the Rev. Mark Hollingsworth of Boston.

The Rev. Richard Bruce Matters of California's Diocese of San Joaquin told deputies that "homosexuality is not a sin, but rather a gift from God, consistent with the word of God."

He linked the acceptance of gays and lesbians to other moves in which Christian churches have rejected what some saw as Biblical injunctions.

Acceptance of homosexuality "is no more contrary to Scripture than rebelling against slavery, women speaking in churches, or even those patriots in 1776 who rebelled against the authority of government -- contrary to Scripture," he said.

On the other side, Lonell Wright, a black deputy from the Diocese of Louisiana, rejected the comparison with the anti-slavery fight. "Some say ordaining [gays] is a matter of justice," he said. Refusing to do so, he said, "is a matter of morality."

"Nowhere in Scripture is homosexuality affirmed," he said.

Like Wright, conservatives in the church argue that the Bible condemns homosexual acts in terms that leave no leeway for modern interpretation.

"My parishioners are not homophobes, they are not bigots. They are good people, hardworking people, most of whom don't understand why we're having this conversation in the first place," said the Rev. James Flowers of the Diocese of Western Louisiana.

"I don't have a clue ... how to tell them that on a certain Sunday this church chose to separate itself from the body of Christ," he said.

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