Conservative Anglicans worldwide gained one of their most important political victories in 1998 when bishops voted that homosexual practice was "incompatible with Scripture."
But the aftermath of the historic vote at the once-per-decade Lambeth Conference near Canterbury, England, last August (CT, Sept. 7, 1998, p. 32) has accelerated and intensified conflict among Anglicans, especially within the Episcopal Church, USA, the American branch of the 70 millionmember world wide Anglican Communion.
Nearly a year later, American Episcopalians in 100 dioceses across the country are polarized, by default becoming people of two faiths in one church institution.
ROCKING THE BOAT: The Lambeth vote established no legal mandate, as the council is an advisory body made up of all Anglican bishops worldwide.
Despite its advisory status, the measure has met official rejection in the United States. The Diocese of Olympia, which includes Seattle, and several other dioceses have endorsed Bishop John S. Spong's Statement of Koinonia (1994), which favors the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of noncelibate homosexual priests who are in long-term monogamous relationships.
The Olympia experience provides a good window into the impact of Lambeth on local American churches. For Tom Bigelow, the rector (priest in charge) of Saint Luke's in Renton, a Seattle suburb, a vote for or against the Statement of Koinonia presented him with an intense personal and professional dilemma.
Bigelow has been a priest in the diocese since the 1960s, once serving beside the late Dennis Bennett during a lengthy revival that among charismatic Episcopalians is equivalent to the historic 1906 Pentecostal revival at Azusa Street in Los Angeles.
In contrast to the sour and divisive mood among Episcopalians in the 1990s, Bigelow remembers the unifying force of that revival. "It was a wonderful time of freedom where Episcopalians were having an encounter with God and everybody was accepted."
Eventually, Bigelow decided to vote in favor of the Statement of Koinonia, triggering a crisis of confidence within Saint Luke's. Bigelow had no intention of revealing his sexual orientation. But after persistent questioning from parishioners on why he supported it, Bigelow announced to his congregation of 300 that he is a celibate homosexual. One-third of his parishioners walked out.
UNDER SIEGE? Bigelow's story portrays not only the human dimension of the struggle within the Episcopal church over homosexuality, but also how decisions made at an institution's top level trickle down to the street, sometimes causing dramatic change.
Few Episcopalians would say their church a year later is any closer to resolving the homosexuality dispute. In reality, the pressures created by the Lambeth sexuality resolution have the potential to fracture permanently the Anglican Communion, one of Protestantism's most enduring institutions.
For those who oppose the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions, the essence of Anglicanism itself, and not solely its teaching about sexuality, is under siege.
A reform movement, Concerned Clergy and Laity of the Episcopal Church, puts it this way: "Today, there are two religions in the Episcopal Church. One remains faithful to the biblical truth and received teachings of the Church, while the other rejects them."
Advocates of same-sex unions and ordination for practicing homosexuals insist that reason and experience show that actively homosexual Christians can live lives of faithfulness, love, and holiness. They say the Bible does not explicitly condemn devoted relations between those of genuine homosexual orientation.
Conservatives, however, appeal to the traditional, universal teaching of the church—that the Bible clearly establishes that God intends sexual relations to be limited to a husband and a wife.
The church's divide persists in part be cause of the nature of the Anglican Communion, which is a loose affiliation of national churches without a top-down authority structure as with the Catholic Church, from which Anglicans split in the sixteenth century.
Though it possesses great moral authority, the Lambeth Conference has no capacity to enforce doctrine. Only national conventions can establish the doctrine and discipline of Anglican churches.
Another reason why Anglican divisions persist is that the homosexuality issue perennially surfaces in different forms and forums.
For example, at its most recent triennial General Convention, the Episcopal Church officially apologized to homosexuals "for years of rejection and maltreatment" and voted for further study of blessing same-sex unions (CT, Sept. 1, 1997, p. 72). The convention extended insurance benefits to domestic partners and blocked attempts to prohibit sexually active homosexual clergy. The net result: the Episcopal Church is one of the most homosexual-friendly mainline denominations.
CONSERVATIVE POWER SHIFT: But increasingly, American Episcopalians, especially the denomination's ruling left wing, are out of sync with much of the Anglican world.
The 1998 Lambeth Conference marked a shift in power from Anglicanism's Western roots to its mission fields of Africa and Asia, where rapidly growing churches largely hold fast to traditional teachings and conservative theology. Nigeria now has more active Anglicans than the United Kingdom and the United States combined.
Some bishops point out that the sexuality resolution's 526 to 70 vote (with 45 abstentions) indicates that a majority of bishops in England, Canada, and the United States voted for the resolution.
"The notion that somehow the Africans got their way is just simply not true," says James Stanton, the bishop of Dallas and president of the American Anglican Council, a conservative Episcopalian group that promotes theological renewal.
Conservative Episcopalians lament that the positions of power in the American church are largely held by liberals, in disproportion to the Anglican church at large. The head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop George Carey, a supporter of the Lambeth resolution on human sexuality, largely espouses evangelical doctrinal positions. But his staff, who ran the Lambeth Conference and appointed the heads of the various sections that wrote papers and drafted resolutions, lean in a more liberal direction. Anglicanism's loose structure is further exemplified in Carey's lack of complete liberty to hire and fire staff.
The exchange at Lambeth exposed the rawness of the rift on both sides. Bishop William Swing of California says that he was "emotionally trampled" and "stunned" when he stood up to vote against an amendment to the resolution.
"People in my section were yelling at me, saying, white, or imperialist, or pig," Swing recalls.
DAYS OF LISTENING: Many Episcopal dioceses held annual conventions last fall, which provided an opportunity to stand with or against the Lambeth sexuality resolution.
"After the kind of, Oh isn't this wonderful how Lambeth has dealt with this, two months later we get knocked down by this Koinonia Statement, which basically endorses the gay-rights agenda. And that's when people really got upset," says Jack Tench, rector of Saint Luke's in Seattle.
Tench, 61, says many of his colleagues were in tears after the Koinonia Statement. Some lost staff and key families. "It was just one horror story after another," says Tench, who points out that some conservative clergy are opting for early retirement. Some have moved to Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic churches.
In response to the Koinonia Statement, Olympia diocese clergy met with Bishop Vincent Warner, who decided to initiate a series of "Days of Listening" meetings for clergy, and eventually for laity. The Lambeth resolution included a clause committing bishops to "listen to the experience of homosexual people," a call reiterated by the head of the Episcopal Church, Pre siding Bishop Frank Griswold, who is based in New York City.
The initial meetings for clergy, where many for the first time freely discussed their feelings about the issue, were helpful and revealing, Tench says. "We have about six clergy who are living with same-sex partners openly in our parishes."
Bishop Warner, who says that he takes a "middle" approach, acknowledges that the process will not likely change anyone's stance, but insists that "Days of Listening" are important.
"The reality is that the church—as it was with divorce and remarriage—is in a time of looking at what's around us and at the same time trying to deal seriously with Holy Scripture and our tradition," Warner says. "And that requires careful listening."
Some area clergy see no purpose in the listening process. Saint Mary's of Lake wood rector Kent McCulloch says homosexuality is a nonissue in his parish and he does not want to make it into one.
"I'm sick and tired of the sexuality question," says McCulloch, who notes he would not bless a same-sex union or favor ordaining a person openly active in homosexual behavior. "I'm part of the tradition that says there is a great, broad band of discretion that is to be taken up in the confessional, and the damage that has been done by politicizing Christianity has taken the roominess out of the catholic tradition."
At a Listening Gathering at Saint Andrew's in Tacoma in May, 37 participants gathered around a 12-foot piece of round canvas with a broken line in scribed a couple of feet inside the perimeter. Saint Andrew's rector Ralph Blackman asked participants to write down their fears about the issue in the outer area of the canvas. Most ex pressed weariness from dealing with the subject. A small minority said they feared the impact of homosexual clergy on youth. In the inner area, participants wrote down their hopes of what will come out of the process. Most hoped for unity and that in diversity they could still be true to the faith.
Then participants walked around to read the responses and offer their perspective on the "picture" they saw developing. Later, some told stories that related to their fears. Some asked questions such as How do we put Scripture, reason, and tradition together?
Bob Biever, vicar of All Saints' in Tacoma and a participant in the recent Listening Gathering at Saint Andrew's, argues that the Episcopal Church's traditional philosophy and structure allows members to live together with disagreement. "By virtue of being an Episcopalian, I can't simply point my finger at them and say you're wrong," Biever says.
Scott Larsen, sexton (the one who cares for a church's physical plant) at the Church of the Epiphany in Seattle and a religion writer for the Seattle Gay News, says that the way the Episcopal Church is structured—as a "great deliberative body" —is both appealing and frustrating for homosexuals. "Our church is generally liberal, but sometimes we take time to own up to that liberalness—that we're progressive enough to accept all people," says Larsen.
WITHHOLDING FUNDS: Else where among Anglicans, withholding money has become the means of expressing disapproval—and it is being used by both sides.
Judith Gentle-Hardy, rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Marlborough, Massachusetts, sees no point in "listening to the experience of homosexuals" because the traditional teaching of the church is clear.
"It's like somebody trying to convince me that abortion is not killing." Gentle-Hardy is among the few who have taken a confrontational approach on the issue. In a November letter, she told Bishop Thomas Shaw she no longer recognized his authority because of his open defiance of the Lambeth resolution.
Gentle-Hardy and her staff promised to withhold their obligatory payments to the diocese if Shaw did not repent. Shaw has not responded, and Holy Trinity is now in its second year of withholding its assessment. Members of another church, Saint Paul's of Brockton, Massachusetts, lost control of their church because of a diocesan law passed last November that reduces a parish to mission status if it does not pay its assessments for three years.
Gentle-Hardy says that it is Shaw, by teaching heresy, who has cut himself off from the church. "When bishops and clergy preach a false gospel that has utter disregard for God's intentions for the use of the gift of human sexuality, this is no slight matter," Gentle-Hardy says. "This is a matter of eternal life and eternal death."
The primary issue is truth, not fellowship, Gentle-Hardy asserts. "That's where the Anglican Communion is getting whipsawed," she says. "Some bishops think unity and fellowship is more important than truth, as opposed to the fact our oneness with the Lord and his truth is what creates unity and fellowship."
Other Episcopal parishes across the country are withholding assessments in protest of bishops or legislation.
In Little Rock, Arkansas, a fledgling parish accepted an offer of "asylum" from a bishop in Rwanda. Saint Andrew's Church is now under the oversight of Bishop John Rucyahana of Shyira, Rwanda, because of its differences with the bishop of Arkansas, Larry Maze. In turn, Rucyahana is paying a price for his actions. Some Episcopal bishops have insisted that Rucyahana not visit parishes within their dioceses. In addition, other Episcopal churches have withdrawn funds from Anglican churches in Africa because of the Lambeth dispute.
GATEWAY INTO THE CHURCH: In Seattle, one of the signature events for the Puget Sound chapter of Integrity, an Episcopal homosexual-rights group, is a Sunday night Eucharist at Saint Mark's Cathedral.
The European-style cathedral blends into a stately neighborhood on Capitol Hill, above downtown Seattle. Just to the south lies Broadway Avenue, known for having a sizable homosexual community in an urban neighborhood rich with art studios and clubs.
On a typical Sunday night, Integrity coordinator Alan Quigley joins about 20 worshipers to celebrate Communion led by various clergy from throughout the diocese. Quigley, 53, says he became a Christian at age 24 at Saint Luke's in Seattle. He sees the Sunday-night service as a rare and invaluable gateway into the church for homosexuals who do not feel at home in church on a Sunday morning.
But other Episcopalians say there is another way to reach out to homosexuals. Saint Alban's in Seattle music director Reed Terzian, a former homosexual, says that people who accuse all conservatives of being "homophobes" speak in ignorance. "I have had rocks thrown at me because I was gay," Terzian says. "I know what real homophobia is."
Terzian also works with Seattle-based Exodus International, an umbrella organization for groups that minister alongside local churches to help people who want to leave the homosexual lifestyle. One of those groups, Metanoia Min is tries, has origins at Saint Luke's in Seattle.
"Some of the ministers don't understand that there is hope for change through the power of Jesus," Terzian says. "It's misguided compassion, wanting to love people where they are, but condemning them to living a life of sin."
Bishop Stanton of Dallas affirms that Episcopalians could do a better job of listening to each other. But he notes that genuine listening includes vigorous dialogue and hearing both sides of the argument. "We need to listen to homosexual persons who have experienced healing in their own lives."
Stanton is part of a potent group of American Episcopal conservatives, including organizations such as the American Anglican Council (AAC), Episcopalians United, the Ekklesia Society, the Association of Anglican Congregations on Mission (AACOM), and First Promise.
They share the same values but not always the same strategies. The AAC, for example, has challenged AACOM's and First Promise's decision to "break communion" with liberal colleagues—a refusal to receive the Eucharist from bishops who they say have departed from orthodox Christianity.
Much more radical are discussions by AACOM and First Promise about forming a new province in the Episcopal Church, based on theology rather than geography. At a conference in March, First Promise leaders nominated a bishop to oversee that province, should it ever emerge.
"I just can't imagine the Episcopal Church surviving under the present circumstances," says Tench, who believes that if individual parishes owned their own property, instead of the diocese, there would be a "massive exodus" from the Episcopal Church.
Attendance at Saint Luke's in Seattle has gradually dwindled. "A lot of people speak quite openly about just really hanging on." About a third of the congregation of 200 withholds the portion of tithes that normally goes to the diocese, Tench says, putting the parish behind in its financial obligations. "That's the only way people can express themselves, and it's frustrating, and not the best, but it's what people need to do."
BOILING POINT COMING? Survival may require a novel approach, such as one offered by Brian Cox, a rector in Santa Barbara, California. He wants to apply the principles of conflict resolution.
In February, Cox sent a 44-page proposal to all Episcopal bishops, asserting that the issue is essentially an "identity-based" conflict between two distinct communities—conservative and liberal—with different core values. "Historically these two communities have managed to coexist within the framework of the institutional Episcopal Church because they also valued the concept of unity in diversity," Cox wrote. "How ever, the issue of homosexuality has become one of those lines drawn in the Anglican sand."
He warns that unless there is resolution, the conflict will likely reach a boiling point next summer at the church's General Convention in Denver. "If liberals prevail in changing the official doctrine of the Episcopal Church on homosexuality by legislation, there will be schism."
However, the boiling point almost came sooner. V. Gene Robinson, an openly noncelibate homosexual and an Episcopal priest in New Hampshire, narrowly lost being elected as bishop in Rochester, New York, on June 19. Before a newly elected bishop assumes office, the bishop-elect must receive confirmation from a majority of other bishops. The process is rarely controversial. But the election of an openly homosexual bishop would have set off a campaign by both sides to resist or fight through the confirmation process.
According to the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, Robinson recently said, "The way I can help gay and lesbian people the most is by being a good bishop, not a gay bishop."
If an openly homosexual priest were to be elected as a diocesan bishop, the resulting power struggle over confirmation might sound the death knell to Episcopalian unity, certain to echo throughout the Anglican Communion.
Some Episcopalians see a moral equivalance between the ordination of women, approved by the Episcopal Church's General Convention in 1976, and the ordination of homosexuals.
"They're not parallel issues," Florida Bishop Stephen Jecko of Jacksonville, a supporter of women's ordination, told CT. "Homosexual behavior is specifically prohibited in the Old Testament and New Testament. Jesus affirmed the monogamous union of a husband and wife. Anything outside of that limit—except single celibacy—is inappropriate."
The deeper problem for the Episcopal Church, Jecko says, is leaders who disregard official teachings on homosexual ordination and same-sex unions. "The real problem is bishops who do what they think is right."
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.