Kentucky Episcopal churches struggle with gay bishop issue

In the six months since the approval of the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, the Reverend Gordon Morrison has seen a rise in the number of people attending his services. Morrison, of St. Paul's Church in Henderson, Ky., said visitors appreciate how the denomination is "honestly struggling with the issues of the gospel." That struggle, along with the conflict between the Episcopal Church's liberal and conservative branches, is expected to play itself out over the next few weeks and next month during the normally low-key annual convention of the diocese of Kentucky in Owensboro.

Four of 38 churches in central and western Kentucky are proposing the diocese disassociate itself from the vote at last year's General Convention and oppose same-sex marriage. The proposal allows people "to be represented who feel they were just shut out" by the Kentucky delegation's unanimous votes at the convention for Lexington native V. Gene Robinson to become bishop of New Hampshire, said the Reverend Robert "Robin" Jennings. Jennings is the pastor of St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church in Harrods Creek, which has almost 2,000 members. "It's going to be a much more contentious convention than we've seen in a long time," said the Reverend Lucinda Laird, pastor of the more liberal St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Louisville, the second-largest congregation in the diocese, with about 1,000 members.

An early sign of just how contentious may be the number of people switching churches since Robinson's confirmation, pastors said. Congregants are moving in search of a place that suits their reading of the Bible and views about homosexuality, with both liberal and conservative churches seeing a rise in membership. Over the past year, 156 people joined St. Francis in the Fields, considered a more conservative church, and 24 left. For some, the Robinson controversy was a factor, Jennings said.

John Robertson and his wife now attend St. Francis in the Fields because of its more conservative view. Scripture and church teachings don't "accommodate a homosexual bishop," Robertson said. Meanwhile, Christine Brosend left St. Francis in the Fields for St. Matthew's because she said the latter is "open to questions and honest growth in faith." Members in at least two parishes are expressing their views with how they offer money to the church. Some have designated donations for the parish instead of the diocese in protest of the vote to confirm Robinson. Others have stipulated the church should use as much of their offerings as needed to fully fund the diocese.

St. Francis has suffered from sluggish pledges overall, in part due to protests over the church's reaction to the Robinson issue, Jennings said, adding that the church had to lay off a full-time educator. "What it helped to do is clarify who we are...and what's at stake in terms of the authority of Scripture and the sacrament of marriage," Jennings said. At the conservative St. Luke's in Anchorage, 30 families have joined, and pledges rose 18%, the Reverend Stanley Joe Smith said. He attributed the growth to the church's firm stance on scriptural authority.

Bishop Stacy Sauls of the neighboring diocese of Lexington removed the vestry of St. John's Episcopal Church in Versailles after that body, which protested Sauls's vote for Robinson, allegedly hired a new minister improperly. Most members then formed a new church. However the various churches and congregants react to Robinson, the debate has been good for both the conservative and liberal wings of the Episcopal Church, said Laird, who voted for Robinson's approval. "I think it strengthened [the church's] identity as a place that is open to diverse opinion," she said.

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