Aspiring Episcopal missionaries are headed to Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East to work with street children, build shelters for the homeless, and help AIDS-stricken communities improve medical care. But while a world away, they know that the struggle at home over the U.S. church's acceptance of an openly gay bishop will follow them.
The consecration of openly gay V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire has divided the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch. Most Anglican groups outside the United States oppose the ordination of gay clergy. After Robinson's consecration three months ago, overseas bishops who said they represented 50 million of the world's 77 million Anglicans jointly announced that they were in a "state of impaired communion" with the Episcopal Church, a step short of declaring a full schism.
Despite that outcry, no province or bishop has asked the Episcopal Church to recall missionaries or stop sending new ones, said the Reverend Jane Butterfield, the denomination's director of mission personnel and a former missionary to Zimbabwe. More than 90 Episcopal missionaries serve at the invitation of Anglican leaders in 29 countries, including many who opposed Robinson's appointment.
"Disagreements over sexuality take a back seat to the more pressing realities of civil war, poverty, malaria, and HIV/AIDS and the need to develop educational and economic structures to sustain and deepen rapid church growth," Butterfield said.
The more than 20 missionaries who attended a recent two-week training seminar at Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin agreed. "For the average person, I don't think it's on their mind," said Sandy McCann, 59, an Atlanta physician and seminary graduate who will serve in Kenya and Tanzania with her husband, Martin. "I think it's more of what they're going to eat that day or if they're going to find a job or if they can afford to send their children to school."
But the Reverend Todd Wetzel, executive director of Dallas-based Anglicans United, a conservative group that opposes what it calls the Episcopal Church's "theological and moral decay," said overseas bishops' attitude shouldn't be misconstrued. "What I see is the graciousness and consideration of the church in Africa, Asia, and South America," Wetzel said. "They are not going to act quickly or rudely toward missionaries already in place. So you'll see missionaries from the Episcopal Church slowly receding from the overseas Anglican mission field."
At the recent seminar, eight missionaries, all in their late teens to mid 20s, gathered around a table and discussed the furor over Robinson's consecration. Austin Rios, 26, from Black Mountain, N.C., said the concern abroad goes beyond one issue. In his view, the world outcry reflects a general view that the Episcopal Church acted without regard to the rest of the Anglican Communion. Robinson's consecration is seen as just another example of American unilateralism, Rios said. That's why he intends to refrain from espousing his views when he arrives in southeastern Mexico. "I don't presume to be so arrogant that my stand on the issue is the right one," he said.
Melanie Fitzsimmons, a 21-year-old Philadelphia woman who will work with street children in the Dominican Republic, said, "It's like we didn't take into consideration what anybody else was thinking." The missionaries said their efforts to build relationships with Anglicans overseas transcend issues such as homosexuality and women's ordination. "If we dwell on that which makes us different, then we'll never be the people that God calls us to be," said Wesley Fletcher, the 25-year-old assistant coordinator of the denomination's Young Adult Service Corps.