Saturday, January 31, 2004

Heresy is better than schism, the Episcopal bishop of Virginia said yesterday in a speech that gently chided church conservatives for imperiling the unity of the country’s largest diocese over the consecration of the denomination’s first homosexual bishop last November.

“If you must make a choice between heresy and schism, always choose heresy,” said the Rt. Rev. Peter J. Lee to 500 Episcopalians meeting for the annual diocesan council at the Hyatt Regency in Reston.

“For as a heretic, you are only guilty of a wrong opinion,” Bishop Lee said, quoting Presbyterian scholar James McCord. “As a schismatic, you have torn and divided the body of Christ. Choose heresy every time.”

After delegates applauded him, he added, “I hope we will avoid both heresy and schism.”

Since V. Gene Robinson was elected bishop-designate of New Hampshire on Aug. 5 at the Episcopal General Convention in Minneapolis, 24 parishes in the huge Virginia diocese partially or totally cut off funding to the diocese, resulting in an immediate $257,554 drop in funds.

The diocese’s 2004 budget now shows a $900,000 drop in income from 2003 because it was discovered that 64 parishes in all would be contributing less money, diocesan treasurer Mike Kerr said. Hearings were held yesterday afternoon on ways to bring the budget up to $3.9 million, cutting the deficit back to $845,203.

Bishop Lee made it clear that the spiritual heads of churches strongly disagree with him.

“I am aware that some of our congregations are so unhappy with my decisions at General Convention that they will not welcome my visits to them,” he said. “I remind you that Christian communities often consist of solidarities not of our choosing. Our faith teaches that people with who we differ often have important truths to teach us.”

The bishop, who will have led the diocese for 20 years on Feb. 11, also announced he will allow a theologically orthodox bishop to enter his diocese to minister to several thousand conservatives who fill his largest parishes.

That was a key demand by the American Anglican Council (AAC), the lead Episcopal group opposing the Robinson consecration as bishop of New Hampshire. The AAC recently demonstrated its strength in the Virginia diocese by attracting 3,000 Episcopalians to a Jan. 16-17 conference in Woodbridge.

But the Rev. Martyn Minns, director of the Virginia branch of the AAC, said Bishop Lee’s promise to allow a conservative prelate into the diocese carries little weight if the bishop maintains legal jurisdiction over conservative churches.

As for the comment on heresy, that was “doubly condescending,” Mr. Minns said. “It made light of the true pain we are experiencing.”

Bishop Lee also alluded to “the pain and grief expressed by those angered by the election and Nov. 2 consecration of Bishop Robinson of New Hampshire and by my role in that,” referring to his vote in favor of the consecration.

“And I hear the pain and disappointment of gay and lesbian members of our diocese who are frustrated at the lack of availability to them of rites of blessing,” he added.

No churches in the Diocese of Virginia have performed same-sex blessings, said Melinda Artman, chairwoman of Virginia Integrity, the Episcopal Church’s homosexual caucus. She said there was a “blessing” of two men at a location outside one of the diocesan parishes.

Bishop Lee, she said, “is listening to people who feel profound pain at this convention.”

However, there appeared to be pain on both sides of the theological divide yesterday afternoon as church conservatives and liberals hashed out resolutions ranging from blessing same-sex unions to condemning the pro-Robinson votes cast by diocesan representatives in Minneapolis.

Final votes will be this morning. Many argued that church unity is more important than theological uniformity.

“The national media has staked out a death watch for the Episcopal Church,” said delegate Jay Litten from Harrisonburg. “I think we should disappoint them.”

An Episcopal monk from Mount Vernon countered by saying, “If we take no action on [these resolutions] this year, there’ll be less people to hear that death knell.”

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