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Church divide over gays has a global audience

As the Anglican debate plays out, other denominations seek guidance for similar battles in their futures.

October 14, 2007|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

As Episcopalians and Anglicans wait to see if their fractious global fellowship will splinter or hold together in a long-running conflict over homosexuality and the Bible, other denominations are watching nervously.

The same or related issues are roiling many denominations, especially such mainline Protestant churches as Evangelical Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists. And many church leaders and scholars predict that the way these questions play out in the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion will hold lessons for them all.

"The struggle going on inside the Anglican Communion. . . is not peculiar to Anglicanism," Sister Joan Chittister, a Roman Catholic nun, wrote in a recent column in the National Catholic Reporter newspaper. "The issue is in the air we breathe. The Anglicans simply got there earlier than most."

Conservative Judaism has debated the issue as well, but the conflict is especially pronounced among Protestant churches. Said John C. Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life: "They know it's going to happen to them too."

Across faith groups, the controversies revolve broadly around homosexuality: whether to allow openly gay and lesbian clergy or bishops and whether to provide official recognition to the unions of same-sex couples. But fundamentally, the debate involves questions of scriptural interpretation and whether the Bible's teachings are to be seen as unchanging or in cultural and historical context.

The issues are not new. In many American Protestant denominations, the dispute has been simmering for about 30 years, longer than the same groups' now largely resolved disagreements over ordination for women.

But in recent years, vocal minorities on both ends of the theological spectrum -- religious traditionalists on one side, gay religious groups and supporters on the other -- have become less inclined to search for middle ground.

Gay and gay-friendly pastors have been tried in church courts, and breakaway parishes and parent churches have fought legal battles over property. The national conventions of several denominations have taken up the topic again and again.

"On both sides of the question, there's really no willingness at this point to compromise," said the Rev. Jay Johnson, professor of theology at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley and senior research director at its Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry. "This isn't something that's negotiable."

At the center of the storm is the Episcopal Church. With 2.3 million members, the church is dwarfed by many other U.S. denominations, but its wealth and political prominence -- one in four U.S. presidents has been Episcopalian -- have long given it an outsized influence in the life of the nation.

The church is the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, a 77-million-member fellowship that is the world's third-largest Christian denomination. Theological conservatives are a minority in the Episcopal Church, but a large and growing majority among Anglicans worldwide.

The conflict between liberal and conservative church members in the U.S. and abroad escalated in 2003, when the Episcopal Church consecrated an openly gay priest, V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire. Tensions increased last year when the American church elected a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori, as presiding bishop.

In February, the communion's top leaders, known as primates, gave the Episcopal Church what many considered an ultimatum: to state clearly, by Sept. 30, that it would stop consecrating openly gay bishops and bar official blessings of same-sex couples.

At a meeting in New Orleans just before the deadline, Episcopal bishops crafted a careful statement, trying, several said later, to ease the primates' concerns and remain true to the Episcopal Church's long-held policy of inclusion for gays and lesbians.

In the end, the bishops essentially agreed to think twice before consecrating additional gay bishops, saying they would exercise restraint in such decisions. They also promised, for now, not to approve an official prayer service for blessing gay couples.

In an open letter sent Tuesday to the church's gay and lesbian members, Robinson described the church as being "not of one mind, but struggling to be of one heart."

Alluding to the human toll exacted by the continuing debate, he also asked gay and lesbian church members to pray for him in "this painful meantime."

Also this month, an advisory panel to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the communion's spiritual leader, said the Episcopal bishops had met the primates' requirements. Williams has asked the primates, leaders of the communion's 38 national and regional churches, to respond by the end of the month.

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