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Episcopalians' Opinions on Bishop Clash

Clergy and Their Congregants in Two Parishes Illustrate the Church's Division Over a Gay Prelate

August 11, 2003|Claire Luna and Scott Glover | Times Staff Writers

As Episcopalians returned to church Sunday for the first time since last week's historic confirmation of an openly gay bishop, congregants at two Southern California churches -- one liberal, the other conservative -- had sharply divergent reactions to the news and what it means for the 2.3-million-member church.

At All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, the confirmation of the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson as the next bishop of New Hampshire was widely hailed by clergy and congregants as a giant stride in the right direction.

"I'm very pleased," said congregant and volunteer usher Chris Folz of Pasadena, "that the Episcopal Church recognizes that all of us are loved by God."

Not quite 50 miles away, at St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, the reaction was decidedly different. Parishioners there cheered as their clergy censured church leaders for confirming Robinson during a convention last week in Minneapolis and at the same time leaving the decision to bless gay and lesbian unions up to local priests.

"The leadership of this church repudiates and dissociates ourselves from those actions with no apology," the Rev. Praveen Bunyan told parishioners at the 9 a.m. service. Most parishioners erupted in spontaneous applause, shouting, "Amen!" and whooping their approval. About half of the 300 people attending stood and clapped, but a few conspicuously stayed seated, arms folded across their chests.

At All Saints, in two sermons, the Rev. Wilma Jakobsen addressed the divisiveness surrounding last week's "hugely significant decision."

"What for some is an enormous step for which they have been longing and praying ... is for others their worst fears come true," Jakobsen told parishioners gathered in the church across the street from City Hall in downtown Pasadena.

"This is a wonderful, significant and yet most somber moment in the life of our [church] as we celebrate a monumental step forward and yet wonder if this could be the end of the [church] as we know it."

After the 9 a.m. service, as she chatted with parishioners, Jakobsen said she was concerned that All Saints' well-known positions on Robinson and same-sex unions might have discouraged some members of the congregation from speaking their minds.

"I just worry that we've silenced them," said Jakobsen, a 43-year-old South African. "People have to feel like they can state their case."

It was indeed difficult to find a contrary point of view Sunday morning as All Saints parishioners strolled out of the 4,000-member church. One after another said they were not only fully supportive of the recent developments, but also grateful for them.

Of more than a dozen people interviewed, only one offered something other than outright praise. "I guess I'm a little confused," said Ozzie Alvarez, a 38-year-old office manager from South Pasadena. "If I was doing the voting, maybe I would have abstained."

There wasn't much dissent among congregants at St. James, either. But there, everyone seemed to disagree with recent developments in the church. St. James, which is affiliated with the conservative American Anglican Council, has been flooded with phone calls and e-mails overwhelmingly critical of Robinson's appointment, said Bunyan, rector of the 1,200-member church.

He said some members had even broached the subject of breaking away from the church.

"They are very clearly agonized over the decisions," Bunyan said after the services. "It has shattered people, but we are not leaving."

As intensely as Bunyan criticized leaders of the Episcopal Church, he said his 50-minute sermon didn't carry nearly as much power as one man's two-sentence statement about his faith.

Dennis Conneen, who joined St. James 23 years ago and participated in a ministry program that he said turned him from being gay to straight, stood and told parishioners that placing a gay person in a ministry position sends the message that homosexuality is acceptable even though the Bible forbids it.

"I didn't need a priest to tell me what I was doing was OK," said Conneen, 56, of Yorba Linda. "I needed what I received here: someone to love me on one hand and correct me with the other."

After the Sunday services, dozens of parishioners signed statements of "Repudiation and Disassociation" taped to a table on the church patio, that may be sent to bishops and other church leaders. The church will hold a special service at 6 p.m. next Sunday to provide the congregation "an opportunity to worship, grieve and express their sorrow," Bunyan said.

In a three-page letter given to all Sunday attendees, which they read as the church's vestry and clergy stood in a row at the front, leaders suggested other ways in which they could express their concern: by completing a comment sheet for Bunyan or amending their financial commitments so that donations stay in the parish and are not sent to the national denomination.

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