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dioceses wrestle with leaving church over gays

dioceses wrestle with leaving church over gays


Dallas bishop James M. Stanton is among the leaders of seven Episcopal dioceses who have rejected the authority of the denomination's incoming national leader, Nevada bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, as the debate over the Bible and gay relationships tears at the church.

As a moderate Episcopalian in the conservative diocese of Dallas, Dixie Hutchinson doesn't find her strength in numbers. "Nobody around here would elect me to anything," she says. Soon, she may find herself even more isolated--because of controversy over the role of gays in her church. Dallas bishop James M. Stanton is among the leaders of seven Episcopal dioceses who have rejected the authority of the denomination's incoming national leader, Nevada bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, as the debate over the Bible and gay relationships tears at the church. The move, prompted partly by Jefferts Schori's support for gay relationships, falls just short of a complete break. But in October, Dallas-area Episcopalians will meet to more fully consider their future in the denomination. The six other dissenting dioceses--Central Florida; Fort Worth, Texas; Fresno, Calif.; Pittsburgh; Springfield, Ill., and South Carolina--are having similar internal debates. And even though the diocese of Dallas is overwhelmingly conservative, anxiety about what's ahead is apparent throughout its 77 churches. Christ Church Episcopal in suburban Plano, one of the largest Episcopal parishes in the country with about 2,200 worshippers each weekend, is not waiting for the fall diocesan convention; it has already announced plans to leave the Episcopal Church. Via Media Dallas, which represents liberals and moderates, including Hutchinson, who want to remain part of the denomination, issued a statement from 15 local priests who say they will not participate in any "disassociation" from the actions and leadership of the church. Splitting from the national leaders would create spiritual orphans throughout the region--moderates and liberals who may have to leave the churches where they worshipped for years. But some local Episcopalians say it's time to go. Ann Peeler, a longtime member of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Ennis, a tiny mission that is one of the original churches in the Dallas diocese, says the Episcopal Church has been inching away from biblical truth for more than 40 years. Peeler is among those who embrace the traditional Christian view that the Bible prohibits gay relationships. She called Stanton "a defender of the faith in every sense of the word" and said she would support whatever direction he takes the diocese. "Bishop Stanton is a man who does not move hastily," Peeler said. "He thinks things through." Episcopal supporters of gay relationships contend that Scripture on social justice and equal treatment should take precedence over what they consider outdated teachings on sexuality. In 2003 the denomination consecrated its first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, sparking an uproar that is splitting the 77 million-member world Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church is the U.S. arm of the Anglican fellowship. For now, Stanton has asked Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the world's Anglicans, for oversight from an Anglican leader instead of being under the American church. Jefferts Schori will be installed as presiding bishop on November 4. Stanton is visiting each parish in his 40,000-member region to gather opinions. "What I'm hearing is growing anger and frustration with the direction of the Episcopal Church," he said. At the same time, Williams, working from London, is struggling to keep Episcopalians and the entire Anglican family together. He has proposed giving members with nontraditional views on issues like gay clergy a lesser role in the communion under a two-tiered system to prevent a global Anglican schism. He has also asked a group of Episcopal bishops with conflicting views to meet in New York next month to try to resolve their differences. Conservatives are a minority in the 2.3 million-member U.S. denomination, but a split could still damage the church. Among the biggest concerns is the potential for expensive, bitter legal fights over parishes that want to leave the denomination and take their property with them. The diocese of Dallas withheld payments to the national church after Robinson was confirmed. Asked about his policy on church property in a possible diocesan split, Stanton said congregations will not be held as "slaves." "I think it's a matter of what the church is. Some were purchased with money from the diocese, some are historical churches and became part of the diocese when it was formed," he said. "It would be hard to say there's one policy for every situation. I'm not even close to looking at that taking place." David Holmes, a religion professor at the College of William and Mary, said he sees the Episcopal Church heading toward separate branches similar to those of Conservative and Reform Jews, or Lutherans, whose two largest U.S. denominations are the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the conservative Missouri Synod. "If things move the way they're moving," Holmes said, "it's not necessarily going to be one major tent anymore, but it may be a smaller tent with projections off of it." Parishioners in the diocese of Dallas are uneasily awaiting the outcome. "You hear all these rumors such as who is going to own property, what's happening to the pension fund," Peeler said. "It's sort of like reading The National Enquirer in the grocery store line." (Matt Curry, AP)

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