Wednesday, July 15, 2009

ANAHEIM, Calif. | The U.S. Episcopal Church put itself on a collision course with the rest of the Anglican Communion by formally approving Tuesday the ordination of gay bishops, defying warnings that the Church of England may respond by recognizing a rival Anglican church.

The 2.1-million-member U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion also was preparing Wednesday to approve blessing ceremonies for same-sex unions, a further slap at the Archbishop of Canterbury, who warned the U.S. church last week not to act in ways that deepen the splits in the 77-million-member worldwide communion.

In Tuesday’s actions, the U.S. church reversed a promise made to the rest of the communion by agreeing to end the church’s gay-bishop ban, which the church imposed in 2006 at its last triennial convention after the worldwide furor over the 2003 consecration of Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

The House of Bishops voted here at the Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention on Monday night to pass a resolution opening all levels of ordained ministry to gay clergy. The move formally took effect Tuesday when the House of Deputies, which already had passed a similar resolution on gay bishops, affirmed the bishops’ measure by 72 percent to 28 percent.

Bishop John B. Chane of Washington, who had said earlier he did not think the “time was right” to end the ban, told The Washington Times on Tuesday that he had shifted his position. As the debate intensified, he said, he realized a ban on gay clergy “prohibited dioceses from being open to the power of the Holy Spirit.”

On Wednesday, the two chambers are expected to finish work on preparing formal rites to bless same-sex unions. The resolution, which already has passed a committee vote and is expected to win approval, would allow churches in states that permit gay marriage to offer “a generous pastoral response,” including blessing ceremonies for gay couples.

The votes come as a sharp rebuke to the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who last week told the bishops and deputies attending the Episcopal Church’s general convention not to take any “decisions in the coming days that could push us further apart.”

Bishop N.T. Wright of Durham, England, denounced the votes in a letter to the Times of London for Wednesday’s editions, saying “the Americans know this will end in schism.”

“In the slow-moving train crash of international Anglicanism, a decision taken in California has finally brought a large coach off the rails altogether. The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church (TEC) in the United States has voted decisively to allow in principle the appointment, to all orders of ministry, of persons in active same-sex relationships. This marks a clear break with the rest of the Anglican Communion,” Bishop Wright wrote.

Last week, Bishop Wright told the Church of England’s General Synod that the House of Bishops’ Theological Committee would study the organizing documents of the rival Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which was formed last month as a rival to the Episcopal Church. A resolution to recognize the ACNA has also been proposed for synod debate.

On Monday, Archbishop Williams told the synod that “I regret the fact that there is not the will to observe the moratorium in such a significant part of the Church in North America,” and unsuccessfully urged the bishops to block it. A spokesman for Archbishop Williams told The Times on Tuesday that the archbishop would not comment further on the vote, but had been in communication with leaders of the Episcopal Church about the developments.

Speaking in Anaheim, Bishop William Love of Albany, N.Y., warned the other bishops on these points Monday night, saying during the debate that “if the resolution passes, the Episcopal Church will cease to be part of the [Anglican] Communion.”

Going back on the church’s 2006 pledge not to allow gay bishops would not simply “stress or tear the fabric” of the Anglican Communion, “it would totally shred it,” Bishop Love said.

Coadjutor Bishop Shannon Johnston of Virginia reminded his colleagues of requests by Archbishop Williams and said that while he “personally agrees” with the resolution, he would vote against it as it “breaks faith” with the wider church. The “Anglican Communion is too much to lose,” he said.

But Bishop J. Jon Bruno of Los Angeles argued that if “we baptize people of all sexualities,” the church should be able to ordain them.

“We don’t need any more study on this issue,” he said. “Gays and lesbians have a right to the ordination process” under church anti-discrimination laws.

Bishop Stacy Sauls of Lexington, Ky., told the bishops that the church’s decision 36 years ago to allow divorced people to remarry was a greater theological hurdle than allowing gay people to marry.

“Remarriage after divorce was the moral equivalent of adultery,” the church had always taught. Yet the church had changed its teachings, such that “today the vast majority of Anglicans” accept divorce and remarriage.

“The future Supreme Governor of the Church of England,” referring to Britain’s Prince Charles and his likely eventual ascension to the post held as a historical honor by the reigning British monarch, “has been divorced and remarried.”

It was wrong, he said, to deny gays the right to marry when they “seek to live in a morally equivalent way.”

On Monday night’s key test vote, the House of Bishops adopted the gay clergy resolution on a 99-45 roll call vote, with two abstentions.

The Washington-area bishops were divided. Bishop Chane, Bishop Gene Sutton of Maryland, Bishop Peter Lee of Virginia and Assistant Bishop David Jones of Virginia voted in favor, while Bishop Johnston and Assistant Bishop John Rabb of Maryland opposed the resolution.

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