Election of first openly gay bishop ignites firestorm
August 07 2003 12:00 AM ET
A conservative faction of the Episcopal Church USA denounced the confirmation of the denomination's first openly gay bishop Tuesday and called on Anglican leaders worldwide to intervene in what it called a "pastoral emergency." Tuesday's vote by the Episcopal General Convention confirming the election of the Reverend V. Gene Robinson--delayed after eleventh-hour allegations of misconduct surfaced--could portend a possible exodus of conservatives, who said their grief over the decision is "too deep for words."
Robinson was cleared of the misconduct allegations just before the vote. With his daughter, Ella, and his partner of 13 years, Mark Andrew, watching nearby, Robinson expressed his love for the church. "God has once again brought an Easter out of Good Friday," he said. But Robinson acknowledged that many in the church would be upset by the decision, adding, "That is the only thing that makes this not a completely joyous day for me." Presiding bishop Frank Griswold, head of the church, announced that the bishops voted 62-45 to confirm Robinson's election. Two bishops abstained, but their ballots were counted as no votes, in accordance with church rules.
Immediately after the results were announced, more than a dozen conservative bishops walked to the podium of the House of Bishops, surrounding Pittsburgh bishop Robert Duncan, who read a statement saying that he and the others felt "grief too deep for words." Some convention delegates who opposed Robinson's confirmation left the meeting in tears. "This body willfully confirming the election of a person sexually active outside of holy matrimony has departed from the historic faith and order of the Church of Jesus Christ," Duncan said. "This body has divided itself from millions of Anglican Christians around the world."
The Episcopal Church USA, with 2.3 million members, is the U.S. branch of the 77 million-member global Anglican Communion. American conservatives and like-minded overseas bishops have said confirming Robinson would make them consider breaking away from the denomination. The American Anglican Council, which represents conservative Episcopalians, plans a meeting in Plano, Tex., in October to decide its next move. Duncan called on the bishops of the Anglican Communion as well as the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, head of the communion, to intervene in "the pastoral emergency that has overtaken us.... May God have mercy on his church." Eighteen other bishops signed Duncan's statement. Williams issued a statement saying that it is too soon to gauge the impact of his confirmation, appealing to opponents not to react rashly. "It is my hope that the church in America and the rest of the Anglican Communion will have the opportunity to consider this development before significant and irrevocable decisions are made in response," he said.
Clergy in Asia and Africa, where churches are more conservative than in Western countries, widely denounced Robinson's election, fueling fears of a schism. The leader of the Anglican Church of West Malaysia, Bishop Lim Cheng Ean, said Asia's bishops might consider cutting their ties with the U.S. church because of Robinson's appointment. "Practicing homosexuality is culturally and legally not acceptable here," he said. There are four Southeast Asian dioceses--Kuching, Singapore, West Malaysia, and Sabah. Similar cries of alarm came from Africa. The Episcopal Church "is alienating itself from the Anglican Communion," said the Very Reverend Peter Karanja, provost of All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi, Kenya. The bishop of the Diocese of Egypt with North Africa, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia, the Reverend Dr. Mouneer Anis, said, "The communion now faces a crisis over what holds us together and, indeed, whether we can remain together if we hold not merely adverse but contradictory views of the Scripture and what it teaches."
Archbishop of Perth Peter Carnley, the primate of Australia's Anglican Church, acknowledged that Robinson's appointment would have a negative impact but doubted it would tear the denomination apart. "I don't think it's a communion-breaking issue," said Carnley, who is considered a liberal in Australia's Anglican community. He said he hoped it would spur a moral debate on homosexuality rather than a schism. But Sydney archbishop Peter Jensen called the appointment "catastrophic" and said
Robinson would not be welcome in his diocese, urging U.S. opponents of the appointment to withhold contributions to church coffers.
Gay rights advocates, meanwhile, claimed Robinson's confirmation as a major victory. The Reverend Michael Hopkins, president of Episcopal gay advocacy group Integrity, said he was "grateful to God" for the vote. "This is a strong message to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons that the Episcopal Church does, indeed, welcome you," Hopkins said.
Robinson said he prayed that no one would leave the church over his election, noting that the Anglican Communion, an association of churches in 164 countries, already holds diverse views yet remains unified. "There is no reason to come apart," he said, adding that he had met with people troubled by his sexual orientation to try to ease their fears and hoped that convention delegates would do the same when they return home. "We're winning their hearts one by one," Robinson said.
The church has been debating the role of gays for decades. In 1998 a worldwide meeting of Anglican leaders approved a resolution calling gay sex "incompatible with Scripture," but the denomination has no official rules--either for or against--concerning the ordination of gays. Some Episcopal parishes already allow gay clergy to serve, and gay men who are not open about their sexual orientation have served as bishops. But Robinson is the first clergyman in the Anglican Communion to live openly as a gay man prior to his election. Robinson, a 56-year-old divorced father of two, will be consecrated in the New Hampshire Diocese in November.
If conservatives do decide to break away, it is unclear what that would mean for the Episcopal Church. Some parishes could split from their dioceses and refuse to recognize clergy who support homosexuality, stopping short of a complete separation. A full schism, however, could trigger bitter fights over parish assets and undercut the global influence of the U.S. church. Bishops from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, representing more than a third of Anglican Communion members worldwide, severed relations this year with a diocese that authorizes same-sex blessings, the Diocese of New Westminster, based in Vancouver, Canada.