Monday, May 10, 2004

Six months after the Nov. 2 consecration of V. Gene Robinson as the world’s first openly homosexual Episcopal bishop, the issue divides the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia more than ever.

After Virginia Bishop Peter J. Lee became one of 62 bishops who voted last summer at a church convention to approve Bishop Robinson’s consecration, 24 parishes staged an economic boycott of the diocese.

That resulted in a $900,000 budget deficit. The diocese produced a “task force on giving” that will begin hearings this month, aimed at coaxing churches into giving far more to the Richmond-based headquarters.

But in the 89,000-member diocese, the country’s largest, many churches already have cut back budgets, frozen their building campaigns and lost members over the contentious issue. And just before diocesan clergy left for their annual retreat last week, word came out of a retired Episcopal bishop, 87-year-old Otis Charles, “marrying” his 62-year-old partner in an Episcopal church in San Francisco.

“The Gene Robinson thing has really caused a lot of people to stop and reflect and figure out what their options are,” said the Rev. Chuck Nalls, a canon lawyer who is a priest in one of many breakaway Episcopal denominations, the Diocese of Christ the King.

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

Some church conservatives have left Episcopal parishes, taking their funds with them, while a few homosexual-friendly parishes have actually prospered from the increased polarization within the church.

The historic Christ Church in Alexandria, which draws 800 to 1,200 people on Sunday mornings, lost a $900,000 donation to a building fund because of the Robinson consecration.

In recent months, 10 families have left the church, 104 persons have not renewed their annual financial pledge and two parishioners say they have been told giving is down 20 percent.

The Rev. Pierce Klemmt, rector of Christ Church, said people are giving less because they fear “the future” on sexuality.

“Homosexuality is not a sin,” he said. “It is a gift from God, and I see this issue on the same issue as civil rights. Our brothers and sisters with the homosexual orientation should be supported and celebrated as any person should be.”

Some of the dissatisfied have made their way to St. Andrew and St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church in the Del Ray section of Alexandria, which has gained 75 members over the Robinson affair.

Collections are so good, said the Rev. Nick Athanaelos, that he has added a third service and is looking for an assistant.

“We get calls every week,” Mr. Athanaelos said. “A lot of folks are hurting and they feel their church has abandoned them. We knew there would be fallout, but we didn’t know to what extent.”

Others have ended up at the largest church in the diocese: The Falls Episcopal Church in Falls Church, which opposed the Robinson consecration. So many people are joining that the parish has drawn up a $3.9 million budget for 2004, outstripping the $3.8 million budget for the diocesean headquarters.

The church also decided to restart a $25 million capital-funds campaign, which was put on hold last year. The money will go to building an education center known as “Southgate,” which will be across East Fairfax Street from The Falls Episcopal Church’s 12-year-old, $7 million sanctuary.

On May 2, church leaders announced a sermon series outlining the 2,200-member church’s goals and desire to expand into a “church of our dreams.”

“We will have to ask the congregation to get behind [the campaign] in a renewed fashion,” church administrator Bill Deiss said.

The Falls Episcopal Church, which is part of the economic boycott, is remaining in the diocese for now. Canon law mandates that all its assets and property revert to the denomination if it leaves.

Mr. Deiss said church leaders understand the risk of potentially losing everything.

“The ministry team and the vestry feel that to wait while our church is continuously growing is to ignore what God has laid on our lap,” he said.

However, “other bishops have emptied churches and sold the proceedings, removed the rector and vestry,” Mr. Nalls said. “Bishop Lee may be holding off for now, but [if new church laws are passed], he’ll say, ‘Pay up or we’ll come get you.’ ”

At St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, a homosexual-friendly parish that favored the Robinson consecration, giving rose by 4 percent and attendance went up by 30 persons.

The Robinson consecration “was fiscally a nonissue for us,” senior warden Missie Burman said.

The church is an anomaly compared with churches such as St. Stephen’s Episcopal in Richmond, which draws 1,000 people Sundays.

Budget losses at the parish, which was split over the Robinson consecration, were just 2 percent, said the Rev. Thom Blair. Twenty families left over the issue, but the parish managed to gain 80 new ones.

“All of us are struggling down here in Richmond,” he said. “Everyone here is trying to hold their congregations together.”

All Saints Episcopal Church in Dale City, a conservative parish, says its budget stayed the same this year at $1.2 million, but attendance is up 10 percent.

“I can’t see over the horizon,” said its rector, the Rev. John Guernsey, but the parish’s $5 million capital-funds campaign is still on hold.

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