'Formally heretical'

National | Election of the first openly gay bishop crosses "a major line" and leads the Episcopal Church into a "profound pastoral crisis" that likely will lead to a worldwide split

Issue: "Nuclear threat in Korea," Aug. 16, 2003

At the center of the storm that swept through the Episcopal Church's (ECUSA) triennial General Convention in Minneapolis last week was priest Vicky Gene Robinson, 56. He also was the center of attention for probably the largest news media turnout ever to cover a denominational business meeting. All because the Diocese of New Hampshire had elected him to be its next bishop, despite his being an open homosexual living with a male "lover."

The dust is still settling from the explosive actions the ECUSA took in Minneapolis to approve the first-ever election of an openly gay bishop and to officially sanction the blessing of same-sex unions.

The fallout promises to be considerable, not only for ECUSA but also for the entire 75 million-member, largely conservative worldwide Anglican Communion, of which 2.3 million-member ECUSA is one of 38 autonomous "provinces" or branches spanning 164 countries.

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There will be a "realignment" in the communion, some biblically orthodox primates (province heads) vowed. Mostly from developing countries, these primates head the majority of the world's Anglicans. Led by Archbishop Peter Akinola, who shepherds more than 17 million Anglicans in Nigeria, they already have broken relations with an Anglican Church of Canada diocese in British Columbia that in May approved same-sex blessings.

Following Minneapolis, an estimated half of the world's primates were planning to meet within days or weeks to consider declaring ECUSA out of Anglican and biblical bounds, and to figure out a way to help "faithful" Episcopalians to carry on within the historic Anglican family. They acknowledge their stand may cost them dearly: The liberal-run churches in the affluent West may retaliate by cutting off funds they rely on heavily. But they said it's now time to stand up and be counted.

"This is catastrophic ... the most serious crisis Anglicanism has faced since its founding," declared conservative theologian Kendall Harmon, a clergy delegate from the Diocese of South Carolina and editor of the Anglican Digest. "You've never had a situation where half of the Anglican Communion is threatening to be out of communion with the other half."

Episcopal bishops who head the church's 109 dioceses voted 62 to 45 on Aug. 5 to consent to Rev. Robinson's election as a bishop in New Hampshire. This followed similar action two days earlier by more than 800 diocesan clergy and lay delegates, who voted by a 2 to 1 margin in Rev. Robinson's favor.

"A major line was crossed," Rev. Harmon said. "[ECUSA] is now formally heretical in its teaching about the family."

Debate was largely calm and reasoned. The pro-Robinson forces said the issue was not homosexuality or the Bible-which they claimed was open to varying interpretations-but his qualifications and track record of service. They compared the issue to the controversy over women's ordination in the 1970s; it was approved, and the church got over it, they said. The other side insisted the Bible is clear on the matter of noncelibate homosexuality, and cited the overwhelming consensus of the world's Anglican bishops at Lambeth in 1998: Such behavior is "incompatible with Scripture."

Rev. Robinson argued that the concept of same-sex couples committed to a life-long "monogamous" relationship "as I am" is a recent one unknown to the Bible's authors but nevertheless passes biblical muster (see sidebar).

After the bishops voted, Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh and 18 fellow conservative prelates walked to the podium. He read a brief statement they had drafted. It said that by "willfully confirming the election of a person sexually active outside of holy matrimony," the denomination had "departed from the historic faith and order of the Church of Jesus Christ" and had "denied the plain teaching of Scripture and the moral consensus of the Church through the ages."

The conservatives also warned that the ECUSA had "divided itself from millions of Anglican Christians around the world." The 19 bishops said they were filled "with grief too deep for words," but had to "reject" the action. They called on Anglican primates, under the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury, "to intervene in the pastoral emergency that has overtaken us."

Following the bishops' vote, members of the evangelical-oriented American Anglican Council (AAC) gathered at a Lutheran church across the street and released a similar statement. The AAC is a loose alliance of conservatives in ECUSA, including more than three dozen active and retired bishops. It is part of an emerging international movement known informally as the "Anglican mainstream."

"We now face a profound pastoral crisis that will leave many Episcopalians searching" for answers, they said.


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