- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2003

Some call it a theological rumble; others call it a new era for homosexual rights.

Starting tomorrow, the Episcopal Church will enter a 10-day melee involving church liberals and conservatives fighting for the future of one of America’s most elite religious bodies at its General Convention in Minneapolis.

The issue: whether to approve an openly homosexual bishop who was elected last month to head the Diocese of New Hampshire, and whether to sanction a liturgical rite for same-sex blessings.

“It is going to be a knock-down, hammer and nails, tooth-and-claws fight with blood all over the convention floor,” wrote Episcopal cyberjournalist David Virtue. “It will not be a pretty sight.”

The bishop-elect, Canon V. Gene Robinson, only needs a simple majority of the denomination’s bishops, lay and clergy deputies to approve his election. He met the man who is now his lover after he and his wife divorced in 1987.

This past week, 60 conservatives in the denomination, including a handful of archbishops from overseas, had a two-day council of war at Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax. Diane Knippers, director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and a participant at the Truro meeting, called the upcoming convention a “constitutional crisis.”

“Ecumenically, [allowing same-sex blessings and an openly homosexual bishop] would be a disaster,” she said, “not just with our relationships with Orthodox, Roman Catholics, evangelicals and Pentecostals, but with other liberal Protestant denominations in this country.”

The 2.3-million-member U.S. Episcopal Church is one province in worldwide Anglican Communion, which claims 70 million members in 38 provinces.

Ever since Episcopalians broke with the rest of the Communion in 1976 by voting to ordain women, an active minority in the denomination has worked toward ordaining homosexuals and sanctioning church “marriages” for them. Resolutions calling for development of a rite for the blessing of same-sex relationships were almost passed by the 1997 and 2000 General Conventions.

A pro-homosexual coalition named “Claiming the Blessing” is lobbying that such a rite be voted in at this convention. Diocese of Washington Bishop John B. Chane is a key backer.

However, a group of Anglican archbishops, who presided over a meeting of Episcopal conservatives last week have served notice that either action approved by the General Convention could result in a schism. The most vocal prelate, Nigerian Archbishop Peter J. Akinola, heads 17 million Anglicans in 76 dioceses, the world’s largest Anglican province. The controversy is “a satanic attack on God’s church,” he recently told the Guardian newspaper in Lagos.

Archbishops of the West Indies, Rwanda, Central Africa, the Southern Cone (Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile), Southeast Asia (Singapore) and Sydney, Australia, along with 15 American bishops, have threatened a major “realignment” among Anglicans, depending on what happens in Minneapolis.

The Rev. Kendall Harmon, a canon theologian for the Diocese of South Carolina, said the African prelates especially feel pressured to hold the line on homosexual issues in view of Muslim opponents in their countries.

“When the Episcopal Church does something, it goes around the world,” he said. “The Muslims would use this as a tool against Christianity.”

The Rev. Martyn Minns, rector of Truro and one of the meeting organizers, said the Africans feel their lives are at stake.

“These are guys who risk their lives for the faith all the time,” he said. “They are serious. They cannot survive if they go along with this.”

His church is sending 39 members to the General Convention, possibly one of the largest delegations from any church in the country.

“It’s a lot closer call than most people think,” he said of the upcoming votes. “I am not giving up. I am still praying for a miracle.”

Legislative action at the convention begins Sunday afternoon , when the Episcopal House of Deputies votes on whether to approve Canon Robinson’s election. The Episcopal House of Bishops must also sign off on the vote. Only once in Episcopal history — more than a century ago — has the General Convention ever rejected a diocese’s choice for bishop.

Canon Robinson has stated he does not intend to give up his post, unlike Canon Jeffrey John, a celibate homosexual nominated this spring as suffragan bishop of Reading in the Diocese of Oxford, England. After protests by conservative British Anglicans and a six-hour conversation with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Canon John withdrew his nomination earlier this month.

Conservatives say the Anglican Communion could split over the issue.

“The majority of revisionists [liberals] in the Episcopal Church could not give a damn about the Anglican Communion, nor the Roman Catholic Church or worldwide Christianity,” said the Rev. David Moyer, a Philadelphia priest who attended the Truro meeting. “It’s so typical of American bravado and hubris.”

Some Episcopalians already are heading for the doors, said the Rev. Charles Nalls, director of the Canon Law Institute in the District, which advises Episcopal parishes of their legal rights should they wish to bolt the denomination. He has had more than 100 inquiries from parishes in the past six weeks.

“The Gene Robinson thing has really caused a lot of people to stop and reflect and figure out what their options are,” he said. “It’s not just about property. Some clergy are willing to renounce their orders [priesthood].

“There are two choices: You declare there is a level of sexual deviance you have to accept to stay in an institution, or you have to leave.”

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