- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2003

Conservative Episcopalians are threatening to withhold millions of dollars in parish donations and form a separate U.S. church over the confirmation of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as the world’s first openly homosexual Episcopal bishop.

The Episcopal Church’s action Tuesday “shattered the Anglican family” and “departed from the historic Christian faith,” said a statement from the American Anglican Council, the lead conservative organization opposing Mr. Robinson’s elevation to bishop of New Hampshire.

The Episcopal House of Bishops voted 62-45, with two abstentions, to confirm the election of Mr. Robinson during the denomination’s annual convention in Minneapolis.

Although the AAC instructed conservative Episcopalians not to desert the denomination until international Anglican leaders weigh in, indications are that a 37-year trend of defections from the church will continue.

From a high of 3.6 million in 1966, Episcopal Church membership has dropped by one-third to 2.3 million today.

While some delegates walked out of legislative sessions in Minneapolis yesterday following his confirmation, others boycotted the convention altogether, leaving early for home.

Theological conservatives did win one related battle as the House of Bishops voted to reject a proposal to draft an official liturgy for “blessing ceremonies” to recognize homosexual unions.

But by voice vote, the bishops also overwhelmingly approved a document stating: “We recognize that local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions.”

Mr. Robinson, 56, a divorced father of two who has lived 13 years in a homosexual partnership, was first elected bishop by Episcopalians in New Hampshire on June 7. Two votes in Minneapolis affirmed his selection.

Declaring “a pastoral emergency,” the AAC called on worldwide leaders of the 70-million-member Anglican Communion, to which the U.S. Episcopal Church belongs, to intervene by forming another “province” for conservatives.

The Rev. James McCaslin Jr., rector of the 600-member All Souls Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, Fla., said he draped a black cloth over the cross in front of his church and would ensure that no donations from his parish reached church headquarters in New York.

“I have so many parishioners in agony and anger that I felt the need to take some measures to show that we are in mourning over the depravity of our church,” he said.

A 1990 study by the Gallup organization titled “The Spiritual Health of the Episcopal Church” showed nearly 70 percent of church members were older than 45.

Despite the “Decade of Evangelism,” a church growth effort the denomination mounted in the 1990s, baptized membership fell from 2.4 million to 2.3 million, the Episcopal Church Annual says.

More than 70 percent of the church’s 7,360 congregations in 109 dioceses in North and Central America are small, according to a 2000 church study. Those small parishes, unlike those in other denominations, tend to be in larger towns or cities.

Church research director Kirk Hadaway said attendance in Episcopal churches rose 2.3 percent since 1997 to 118 worshippers per parish on a typical Sunday.

The denomination has a niche among liberal Americans, he said.

“Our more progressive churches tend to grow faster than the most conservative ones,” Mr. Hadaway said. “In a more progressive denomination, a very conservative church — of which we have very few — is out of step, more closed and reactionary. But the more liberal churches are more open and accepting of a variety of people.”

The vote in the House of Bishops originally was slated for Monday, but was delayed 24 hours amid accusations that Mr. Robinson had fondled a male parishioner several years ago and supported a homosexual youth group whose Web site included links to pornography on the Internet. The charges were dismissed by the Rev. Gordon P. Scruton, bishop of west Massachusetts, who said an investigation he headed revealed no basis to the charges.

The Episcopal Church never has voted officially to allow homosexual priests. The nearest to a position statement on the matter came at the 1998 Lambeth Conference, a gathering of the world’s Anglican bishops, which decided 526-70 that homosexual practices are “incompatible with Scripture.”

The only other mainline Protestant denomination to accept active homosexual clergy is the Cleveland-based United Church of Christ. Its first homosexual clergyman, William Johnson, was ordained in 1972 and its first homosexual “conference minister,” the closest equivalent to a bishop, was ordained last year.

The denomination’s membership dropped from 2.1 million in 1957 to 1.4 million today.

“Like all mainline Protestant denominations, we’ve had a steady decline,” United Church of Christ spokesman Ron Buford said. “But I don’t think there’s been a big loss over the gay issue. There was certainly no jump [in people leaving] in 1972.”

Increasingly, Mr. Buford added, “we see young families, people who have a gay brother or son. These are upwardly mobile people who cannot tolerate exclusion and intolerance anymore.”

Thousands of Episcopalians who do not fit that niche have left for what are known as “continuing churches” — groups that are “continuing” with the Anglican Communion but not aligned with the U.S. church.

Today, the continuing churches report a U.S. membership of 30,000 with 150,000 adherents overseas, says the Christian Challenge, a magazine for Episcopal traditionalists.

The Rev. Thomas Zain, spokesman for the 200,000-member Antiochan Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America in Englewood, N.J., said about 30 percent of its 450 priests and deacons are converts from the Episcopal Church and roughly 10,000 Antiochan laity are former Episcopalians.

“Every time something happens, we get more and more calls,” he said. “With something like this, we are anticipating a large group.

“The problem with Protestant groups is that most see themselves as in separate parishes, not as a total church. But those who have a sense of theology realize they are connected to their bishops and realize they cannot stay anymore.”

For example, Holy Cross Antiochan Orthodox Church in Linthicum, Md., was founded in 1993 by the Rev. Gary Mathewes-Green, an Episcopal priest who defected to Orthodoxy with 19 members of his Episcopal parish in Catonsville.

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