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The last straw?

National | RELIGION: After months of unheeded warnings, liberal Episcopal churchmen consecrate openly gay bishop Gene Robinson; conservatives in the ECUSA now have the next move

Issue: "Soldiers in harm’s way," Nov. 15, 2003

Episcopal conservatives may be ready to drop the gloves after their 2.3-million-member denomination held a ceremony in a hockey arena to consecrate as bishop an openly homosexual priest. V. Gene Robinson will take over retiring bishop Douglas Theuner's job in New Hampshire next March.

As expected, conservatives in the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) and Anglican leaders around the world denounced the consecration as sinful and schismatic. They said it was a sign the denomination had separated itself from Scripture and the Anglican faith. They also condemned ECUSA's tacit approval of blessings for same-sex unions last summer.

"A state of impaired communion now exists both within a significant part of ECUSA and between ECUSA and most of the [38 geographic] provinces within the [Anglican] Communion," declared Archbishop of Nigeria Peter Akinola in a statement representing most of the Southern Hemisphere's primates, or provincial church heads. At minimum, that means Bishop Robinson won't be recognized as a bishop or allowed to conduct church rites in those countries. Long term, it probably means the breakup of the 75-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion if ECUSA goes undisciplined.

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From London, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams expressed "deep regret" at the divisions ECUSA's actions regarding sexuality have caused. "The effects ... upon the ministry and witness of the overwhelming majority of Anglicans, particularly in the non-Western world, have to be confronted with honesty," he said.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, on a preaching visit to Florida, called ECUSA's actions "an ecumenical scandal" and "a slap in the face of the Anglican Communion."

In the United States, conservative ECUSA clergy and lay leaders are struggling on several fronts. They're trying to prevent a mass exodus of distressed members from their parishes who see no future in ECUSA; the hemorrhaging already has begun. They're building a network of biblically faithful clergy and parishes. They're pushing ECUSA to arrange for all conservative parishes stranded in liberal-run dioceses to have "adequate" or "alternative" ecclesiastical oversight-allowing conservative bishops to cross diocesan boundaries to minister to biblically faithful congregations. Although this arrangement already is taking place quietly and unofficially in a few dioceses, some intolerant liberal bishops are fighting it tooth and nail.

The conservatives also are trying to sort out differences among themselves. Some bishops have vowed publicly they will remain in ECUSA to work for change from within; others want the primates to expel ECUSA from the Anglican Communion outright and recognize the biblically orthodox remnant as the true U.S. Anglican church. But Archbishop Williams and the primates don't have the power to do that. A more likely prospect is that the primates will split into two Anglican communions, one in fellowship with ECUSA, the other much larger one with the remnant.

The primates in an emergency meeting in London last month authorized a commission to work with Archbishop Williams for up to one year to seek solutions. One of its tasks is to explore the extent to which he can intervene in member provinces when "extraordinary" circumstances warrant it. He presently has no papal-like authority; each province would have to agree to cede it to him. The commission also will study ways around legal issues involved in setting up alternative oversight of parishes and in settling property disputes when splits occur-a major consideration for U.S. conservatives.

Any solutions can't come too soon for several congregations in New Hampshire. They have requested immediate transfer to the oversight of conservative Bishop Daniel Herzog of the adjoining Diocese of Albany, N.Y. Either liberal Bishop Theuner, who promoted Bishop Robinson's candidacy and preached at his consecration, or Bishop Robinson himself will have to act on their request. The congregations aren't holding their collective breath.

Amid heavy security Nov. 2, more than 2,500 people gathered in an ice arena in Durham, N.H., for the history-jolting Sunday afternoon consecration service. On the sidewalks outside, scores of anti- and pro-Robinson demonstrators paraded with posters and occasional shouts at the other side.

Pro-gay activist leaders were among those inside. At 4:15 p.m., banner bearers from local churches led a procession of clergy in white vestments and colorful stoles, including 53 ECUSA bishops and Bishop-elect Robinson, onto the rink. Strains of "The Church's One Foundation" accompanied them. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold took charge. The Rev. Robinson's ex-wife, two daughters, and his male partner, Mark Andrews, were among the bishop-elect's "presenters."

At the point in the service where the traditional opportunity to voice objections was given, three conservatives by pre-arrangement took the microphone to make three-minute statements. Priest Earle Fox of Alexandria, Va., who holds a Ph.D. from Oxford, was first.

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