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TBC Staff

Commonweal, 9/12/03 (Excerpts from Kenneth Woodward’s “Courting Schism”): Not long ago, I asked a professor at the church’s General Theological Seminary in New York what theological issues most exercise his students. Without a pause he said: “Who stands where in the liturgy’s procession line.”

The professor spoke only partly in jest. Theology has never been the Episcopal Church’s strong suit, nor has credal commitment. The bishops have long tolerated the presence of eccentric nonbelievers in their ranks, from the late Bishop James A. Pike to the recently retired Bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong, who continues to write books repudiating the very doctrines the church’s liturgy celebrates. Given this tradition of doctrinal elasticity, it follows that Episcopalians abhor nothing more than a public family fuss. So it was not at all surprising that when delegates to the church’s recent General Convention voted to accept the Reverend V. Glenn Robinson as the church’s first openly gay bishop (“open” meaning that he does not hide his domestic relationship with another man), there was much talk from both sides about the “pain” that a decision either way would cause. There were also appeals to the Holy Spirit that God’s will be worked through the votes of the church’s bicameral legislature, and not a few warnings of schism by those opposed to Robinson. In the end, Robinson was accepted after a brief pause to investigate last-minute (and unfounded) charges of moral turpitude. The real news was that the church decided a theological issue by avoiding a serious theological debate. In other words, Scripture and tradition took a back seat to congregational politics.

The issue, one that roils every major Christian denomination, is whether homosexual acts are compatible with Christian faith and practice. By supporting the Diocese of New Hampshire’s election of Robinson as bishop, the Episcopal General Convention in effect said yes.

Although the Episcopal Church has a married clergy, many of its priests are homosexual. Obviously, the church does not keep statistics of this kind. Yet, among Episcopalians themselves, estimates of gay and lesbian priests vary from 30 to more than 50 percent in dioceses like San Francisco and New York. In these and other cities it is not at all difficult to find congregations in which everyone on one side of the Communion rail is gay while the folks in the pews are split between homosexuals and heterosexuals. As one woman priest recently complained to me: “If my husband needed counseling from a priest, he’d be hard-put to find one that was neither a woman nor a gay man.” If these admittedly unscientific reports are anywhere close to accurate, it is not unreasonable to assume that many of the delegates to the convention voted to support Canon Robinson as a way of supporting their own sexual relationships.

Why should homosexuals be drawn to Episcopal ordination? An important reason is the Episcopal Church’s reputation for tolerance. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was a de facto policy among clergy and laity long before the U.S. military thought of it. Another reason is the beauty of the Episcopal liturgy itself—the emphasis on “smells and bells,” as Episcopalians often put it. Back in the 1970s, when gay men formed the Metropolitan Community Church...they adopted a clerical look and liturgy not unlike those of the Episcopal Church.…

If schism occurs anywhere, it will be in the Anglican Communion, where the ties between national churches are already stretched over the issue of homosexuality. Within that wider family of faith, the Episcopal Church is ahead of the pack, or estranged from it, depending on one’s stand on the issue in question. Already, bishops of the more conservative (and far larger) churches of Africa and Asia have said they will not accept an actively gay clergy—or church blessings on gay unions, a step the General Convention approved as a kind of local option. My guess is that when the primates of the Anglican Communion meet next month, Rowan Williams, the new archbishop of Canterbury, will press for a live-and-let-live policy, thereby putting the onus of schism on the church leaders from Asia and Africa.