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US Episcopal church faces another showdown over gays

Written by: Staff

CHICAGO, Mar 23: The US Episcopal Church is headed for another showdown over homosexuality in a rift that has already shaken the worldwide Anglican church family to which it belongs, and threatens even more division.

The next flashpoint will occur in an unlikely place -- Columbus, Ohio -- where the Episcopal Church's triennial general convention will have to confront the issue again, and may even have to decide whether a second openly gay person should be made a bishop. While the meeting does not take place until June, developments have already begun to play out.

Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, said in a recent BBC interview his church ''is not just going to settle down quietly into being a federation. My anxiety about it is that if (the church family) is broken we may be left with even less than a federation.'' The faith has been in turmoil since 2003 when its American branch ordained the first openly gay bishop in 450 years of Anglican history.

The Episcopal Church is one of several national churches, under the spiritual authority of the archbishop of Canterbury, making up the 77-million-member worldwide Anglican family or ''communion.'' Its history dates to colonial times when what became the United States broke away from British rule and in the process the Church of England.

While the word ''schism'' has been tossed about in relation to what's happening in the worldwide church, a more precise term being used these days is to ''walk apart,'' according to Mark Sisk, the Episcopal bishop of New York.

WALKING SEPARATELY It would imply ''we're walking in the same direction but we may be walking a bit separately,'' he said in an interview. ''That is certainly at least a possibility. I hope it won't happen, because I believe we in fact do need each other.'' One year ago, under pressure from the world church leadership and criticism from conservatives, particularly in Africa, the US bishops decided not to consecrate any new bishops, gay or straight, or to bless same-sex unions until at least the next general convention.

That meeting will take place in the Ohio city in June; but machinery is already being put in place to handle expected demands at the meeting from those who consider themselves orthodox believers to turn the moratorium into an outright ban.

There is also pressure because of the vacuum that has existed for the past year in the consecration of new bishops.

Nearly a dozen diocese have delayed doing anything but are now scheduling elections in May to choose new prelates. One of them, The Episcopal Diocese of California, covering the San Francisco area, has slated five possible candidates for bishop, two of whom, a man and a woman, are in gay relationships. So far gay candidates have not emerged in any other diocese.

But if a gay candidate is elected in the California diocese, the general convention -- running June 10-21 -- will face the same issue it did in 2003 when the bishops approved the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, who is in an openly gay relationship. Convention approval of a bishop requires a vote by ''deputies'' representing each diocese and then a separate vote by bishops.

Beyond that, the 2.3 million-member church is scheduled to choose a new presiding bishop, and three of the four candidates slated so far backed Robinson's elevation in 2003.

Meantime Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, has weighed in with a Lenten pastoral letter which some have interpreted as saying the church's stand on homosexuality made at a meeting in 1998 may not be reopened at the next such meeting -- the Lambeth Conference -- in 2008.

''Despite levels of bitter controversy over sexuality ... I do not hear much enthusiasm for revisiting in 2008 the last Lambeth Conference's resolution on this matter,'' he said.

The resolution called homosexual activity ''incompatible with scripture'' and said the church ''cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions.'' Williams did, however, say that discussions going on around the world on the issue should be aired and reflected on by the 2008 meeting along with considerations of the way the church makes decisions.

INCREASED PRESSURE The American Anglican Council, a conservative group within the Episcopal church, said the Williams letter has turned up the pressure on the Ohio meeting to come into compliance.

''Archbishop Williams has sent a hopeful message that Lambeth 2008 will stand firm in upholding apostolic faith and practice, but potentially explosive issues must still be addressed,'' said the Rev. Canon David Anderson, president of the group.

The questions facing the Ohio meeting, he said, are whether it will repudiate the actions taken in 2003 ''and embrace Anglican doctrine.'' But Maury Johnston, Virginia-based author of ''Gays Under Grace: A Gay Christian's Response to the Moral Majority,'' said the church factions have reached the point of ''irreconcilable differences.'' ''The longer the Episcopal Church tries to force both sides into unity that doesn't work, the longer the church will be side-tracked from forging onward in the world,'' he told Reuters.

''That does not mean that I necessarily want schism. It just means that I think that it is unfortunately inevitable in light of the hard-nosed attitudes of conservatives ... '' Bob Williams, a spokesman for the Episcopal Church, said the church ''continues to participate actively in the listening process now under way across the Anglican communion'' and the Columbus meeting will ''affirm its participation'' in the life of the church.

Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold said the Ohio meeting should be seen as ''as a vast field of exploration rather than a moment of decision'' that might be construed by some as a make-or-break moment in the history of the Communion.

In 20 years, he predicted, the church will be talking about something else.


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