Monday, January 23, 2006

Virginia’s largest Episcopal parish, in a letter to the church’s 2,200 members, yesterday called on Virginia’s the Rt. Rev. Peter J. Lee to “repent and return to the truth” over supporting the ordination of the openly homosexual bishop of New Hampshire.

Leaders of the Falls Church Episcopal said in their eight-page, single-spaced letter that “no compromise on this issue is possible,” although they refrained from specific threats. In the past, the parish’s rector has threatened schism.

“A Christian leader does not approve of sin, or purport to declassify it,” the letter said to Bishop Lee, who backed the 2003 consecration of the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. “Rather, he calls sinners to repentance and proclaims the Good News that sin can be forgiven and new life can be obtained in Christ.”

The letter was sent to Bishop Lee on Oct. 4 but was not made public until yesterday. Calls to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia yesterday for comment were not returned. Bishop Lee, however, did meet with parish leaders soon after the letter was sent.

The letter is modeled after Matthew 18:15-17, which advises Christians that “if your brother sins against you,” one is to first privately show him his fault, then repeat the message accompanied by “two or three witnesses.”

If the exhortation still is ignored, Christians are to “tell it to the church,” the pattern that church leaders followed yesterday. If still nothing happens, the offender is to be treated “as you would a pagan or a tax collector,” the verses say.

But church leaders made no threats from the pulpit yesterday about the letter, just a casual mention by one of the priests that congregants might be interested in picking up a copy of it after the service.

The letter was signed by Falls Church senior warden Sam Thomsen and junior warden Teri Ballou.

The church, the letter said, wished to express its “grief at your complicity in the errors of the 2003 Episcopal General Convention,” which approved the election of Bishop Robinson, a divorced homosexual man living with a male lover.

Bishop Lee and all but one of the lay delegates from the Diocese of Virginia, the country’s largest at 90,000 members, agreed to the election.

The letter next cited numerous Scriptures for the bishop to “bring you back to the standard that God has always called His people to uphold” in terms of sexual purity.

The bishop not only fell short of calling Virginia Episcopalians to that standard, it said, but he later defended his decision about Bishop Robinson.

The letter reminded the bishop of his public statements that homosexuals should be included in church life just as Gentiles were by Jewish leaders 2,000 years ago, then slapped down that reasoning as “selective and careless exegesis that could be invoked to condone and sin, sexual or otherwise.”

The letter, which pleaded for the bishop to affirm “unequivocally” that sex is reserved for marriage between a man and a woman, was released six days before the Diocese of Virginia’s annual convention in Richmond.

It was the culmination of a series of private discussions between diocesan officials and the Rev. John Yates, rector of the Falls Church Episcopal who last summer took 20 clergy to confront the bishop.

“He [needed] to know there are many of us who will not accept the new morality,” Mr. Yates said in a Nov. 13 sermon. “We will not go [along], and it may mean major schism.”

Leaving the diocese would mean a huge battle between the diocese and the Falls Church Episcopal for the church’s $17 million in assets and historic property in the middle of downtown Falls Church city. The church, whose $4.26 million budget just edges the diocese’s $4.21 million budget, was founded in 1732.

Church law says that a departing church must cede all of its assets to the diocese.

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