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Conservatives talk of schism as Episcopalians continue to wrestle with gay issues

The hostility of conservatives toward gay unions and the ordination of gay priests is threatening to rip apart the 2.4-million--member Episcopal Church, long considered one of the most accepting and tolerant of America's religious institutions and a major branch of the international Anglican Communion.

In July 1998 conservatives triumphed at the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops, where Anglican leaders from around the globe overwhelmingly passed resolutions stating that homosexuality is incompatible with Scripture and that noncelibate gay priests should not be ordained. But more liberal bishops and laity in the United States (as well as in Great Britain, Canada, and Australia) have flatly refused to follow the nonbinding Lambeth decision.

"The Lambeth Conference had no effect on the American church," says the Rev. Michael Hopkins, head of Integrity, a group of gay and lesbian Episcopalians. "Gay people are still being ordained, and there is no sign that people are changing their minds or that the practice is slowing down." Indeed, the Rev. Canon Gene Robinson could become the first openly gay bishop in the U.S. Episcopal Church if be is voted in as head of the Rochester, N.Y., diocese in an election scheduled for June 19.

Such perceived irreverence so bothers some conservative American bishops that they recently petitioned allies in Africa and Asia to consider forming a new province to govern them. "There's an increasingly hostile climate for orthodox Christianity within the Episcopal Church," says the Rev. Samuel Edwards, executive director of the Episcopal Synod of America, a conservative group that also opposes the ordination of women. Conservatives also remain upset over the 1996 acquittal of retired bishop Walter Righter, who was put on trial for heresy after ordaining a noncelibate gay man as a deacon.

Setting up a new province would effectively split the U.S. church in two. At present, at least, that is an unlikely prospect. But just because the church remains united does not mean the turmoil is dying down. If anything, next year's Episcopal conference in Denver promises to see the issue reignite publicly yet again, despite the efforts of some bishops to douse the conflict.

Some gay rights groups ore trying to keep the matter burning by pushing the American church to vote on the issue of gay marriage at the July 2000 conference. "We're saying, This is something that's not going away, and you need to educate yourself about it," says Rebecca Omahen, executive director of Beyond Inclusion, a group of Episcopalians who support church-sanctioned gay marriages. The organization is even developing an educational package that will be available to parishes next spring.

But can the church convey a message that is accepting of gays, their allies, and conservatives alike?

Hopkins says he and many other gays would rather the church follow a "live and let live" policy than let the church split into two halves. "it is clear that some of us can't" live under the same roof, "but by and large most of us can," says Hopkins. "I can't believe that this is the issue for the church to disintegrate over. Give me a break."

Ghent is a reporter for Legi-Slate, an online service of the Washington Post Company.

Find more on gays in the Episcopalian Church and links to related Internet sites at
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Title Annotation:Episcopal Church and homosexuality
Author:Ghent, Bill
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jul 6, 1999
Previous Article:A CHURCH DIVIDED.
Next Article:RICKY MARTIN cross appeal.

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