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 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
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
"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)