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Split decision: antigay Anglicans are threatening a schism in response to Robinson's consecration--but just how likely is it that the centuries-old church will break apart?

For the Reverend Dr. Ellen Barrett, the controversy over the consecration of the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church brings back memories. After all, she was the first openly lesbian priest ordained in the Episcopal Church, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City in 1977. At the time, many in the church were still struggling with the 1976 decision to ordain women. Some dioceses of die Anglican Communion, of winch the Episcopal Church USA is a part, temporarily separated from the church in response to the decision, and many of those dioceses--primarily in Africa--still refuse to ordain women. Barrett's ordination was so controversial, she says, that she was the target of several anonymous death threats.

Now, with the November 2 consecration of the Reverend V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, Anglicanism is again going through convulsions. And the loudest outcries--most of which are touting from African and conservative U.S. dioceses--are calling for a schism, where the dissenting churches would break from the Anglican Communion and set up their own independent authority.

At the core of the controversy is the symbolism the church assigns to bishops. "This is about apostolic succession," explains J. Terry Todd, a religious studies professor at Drew University in Madison, N.J. "Bishops are direct successors of the apostles, and when those men and women gathered around Gene Robinson and laid hands on his head, they were passing down the charismatic authority of Jesus' apostles."

Just as conservative church members 27 years ago had difficulty supporting the notion of a woman being in the image of Christ, traditionalists today have similar trouble imagining a gay man living up to that image.

Internationally it is dioceses in Kenya, Niger, and Uganda leading the protest against Robinson's confirmation. According to Louie Crew, an English professor at New Jersey's Rutgers University and the founder of the gay Episcopal group Integrity, African dioceses are traditionally more conservative because of their historical ties to the evangelical churches that introduced the continent to Anglicanism in the 19th century. (South Africa is a prominent exception, and the Anglican churches there have for the most part supported Robinson's consecration.) Hence many Africans have a more literal interpretation of the Bible, which they sky condemns homosexuality.

Domestically it's the Washington, D.C.-based American Anglican Council, headed by the Reverend Canon David C. Anderson, that's leading the charge against Robinson. In September, Anderson traveled to London to warn Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the leader of the Anglican Communion, that "the orthodox party of the Episcopal Church" could he lost to Anglicanism. "The time has come," read an AAC statement following Robinson's elevation. "Our family is now split and the whole cloth of the Anglican Communion is torn."

In addition to directing protest at home, Crew says the AAC is helping fund the dissent in Africa and, to a lesser extent, in some Latin American dioceses. "It has been very interesting to watch how conservative [U.S.] bishops, who normally would not have much dealing with their African brethren, have made common cause with them over this," Barrett says. "But politics always makes strange bedfellows."

Explaining her group's goals, AAC spokesperson Cynthia Brust says "the action of the General Convention and the consecration of Bishop Robinson have threatened the unity of the Anglican Church, and we are moving forward with realignment."

Dissenting dioceses are threatening two courses of action. The first would be to end relations with dioceses that support Robinson's consecration. This would be a largely symbolic act tantamount to saying they refuse to sit at the same table with their religious brethren. The second, a more extreme action, would be a schism, where the dissenting dioceses would form their own church and elect their own primate, or governing bishop.

Many Anglicans say both scenarios are unlikely, though. "I think there is a lot of heat and some fire, but more heat than fire," says Crew, adding that many of the dioceses in Africa and Latin America are complaining in part to flex their muscles. For them, he says, homosexuality is a convenient issue with which to test their mettle.

Crew notes that at the Anglican Church's 1998 Lambeth Conference, bishops of color outnumbered those who were white for the first time in history. However, he adds, most African dioceses get large amounts of funding from more liberal U.S. and European dioceses, further decreasing the chances of an actual schism.

Harvey Cox, Hollis professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., says there is little doubt that some Anglican dioceses will disassociate themselves from the American church, but the separation would not be sustained. "There will be a lot of hard talk and negotiation, but I don't think it will result in a major schism," he says.

Cox commends Williams for trying to placate all sides. "Rowan has been superb in hearing people out and giving people a cooling-off period," he says. "He will find a way to accommodate everybody. It won't be entirely satisfactory to everyone, but most will agree."

Reflecting on her own experiences, Barrett agrees. "I ant not really worried about schism in the church in the United States," she says, adding that the Episcopal Church "is a communion with such cultural diversity and such diversity within its own beliefs that it would be shocking if we did not have these knock-down drag-out fights about things.

"The miracle and genius of Anglicanism is that most of the time most of us tend to see Christ in each other even when we don't agree," she says. "And my prayer is that that will continue to be our guiding light."
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Title Annotation:Person of the year
Author:Quittner, Jeremy
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Dec 23, 2003
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