Episcopal conference deals with tensions over gay bishop
March 20 2004 1:00 AM ET
Tensions over the election of the church's first openly gay bishop were evident as Episcopal leaders headed to a national conference in Texas on Friday. New Hampshire's V. Gene Robinson was scheduled to meet with bishops in the first of a series of gatherings aimed at easing the existing strain in the denomination's hierarchy. The bishops are holding the closed-door meeting in Navasota, northwest of Houston, to focus on "reconciliation" within the Episcopal Church and the international Anglican Communion of which it's a part. Robinson is attending his first meeting as part of a hierarchy in which 41% of bishops who head dioceses voted against his consecration and 28 of the bishops have refused to recognize him as a colleague. According to Episcopal headquarters in New York City, the meeting is not legislative and no major policy decisions are expected.
The bishops will discuss the current issue of how to handle conservative parishes that don't want to quit the Episcopal Church but cannot accept the authority of local bishops who favor gay clergy. The proposed remedy is to provide dissenting parishes with special conservative bishops from outside their dioceses. At an emergency summit last October, world Anglicanism's top leaders urged the American church to grant dissenters "adequate provision for episcopal oversight." The U.S. church leader, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, and his Council of Advice then proposed a plan allowing outside bishops to work with conservative parishes--though only with approval from the local bishop as required by church law, allowing for appeals to regional bodies in case of disagreements. Conservatives, who don't want the local bishops to keep their veto power and claim liberals control the regional bodies that would hear appeals, rejected such an idea. Griswold repeated Monday that any plan must honor local bishops' powers under existing church law. He will present a rewritten plan at Navasota, but conservative leaders are upset that they weren't consulted and that bishops weren't given the text to study in advance.
The leading conservative bishop, Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, is moderator of a "network" formed in January to unite Episcopal dioceses and parishes that insist on the traditional Christian teaching against same-sex relationships. Duncan said that while some conservative bishops are boycotting the Navasota meeting, some will participate fully, and some, like himself, will stay offsite and attend only sessions dealing with the church fracture. Duncan said the church must "come to its senses" and help conservatives because "the present course is a suicidal course, or at least a fratricidal course."
Tensions increased last Sunday when five Episcopal bishops led a rebel confirmation service for Akron, Ohio, congregations that had spurned local bishop J. Clark Grew II, a Robinson supporter. Maurice Benitez, retired bishop of the Texas diocese and spokesman for the five bishops, said if the hierarchy produces an "acceptable plan" for visiting bishops, "these kinds of measures may no longer be necessary." If a resolution is not reached, further violations will occur. Duncan emphasized that "continuing chaos," not only Akron-type protests but congregations leaving the Episcopal Church, will occur if the Navasota meeting doesn't heed conservative appeals.
Griswold's Council of Advice said the five bishops broke church law, since Grew did not approve the confirmations, and appealed for unity against forces that "seek to sow the seeds of division." Grew said the Akron service might have been an attempt to "manipulate" the Navasota meeting while Griswold suggested the event was intended to "co-opt the bishops' agenda."