Tuesday, September 23, 2003

An overflow crowd of Episcopalians gathered at Virginia Theological Seminary last night and clashed with bishops and lay leaders of the Diocese of Virginia over the recent election of an openly homosexual bishop.

Hundreds of parishioners from around Northern Virginia, the most conservative part of the 86,527-member diocese, crammed into an auditorium at the Alexandria seminary.

Those who disagreed with the ordination outnumbered supporters by a 4-1 ratio among attendees who got the chance to speak.

“People are up in arms and outraged about this decision,” said Bruce Mason, a spokesman with the American Anglican Council, which organized a protest vigil before the meeting.

The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia called the meeting to give parishioners a chance to tell Diocesan Bishop Peter J. Lee and Assistant Bishops Francis Gray and David Jones what they thought of the election of Canon V. Gene Robinson, a homosexual, as the new bishop of New Hampshire.

Bishop Lee and six of the eight-member Virginia delegation voted to ratify New Hampshire’s election, which the Episcopal General Convention approved in Minneapolis on Aug. 5. However, the diocese itself does not ordain openly homosexual priests.

“We are deeply grieved and disappointed,” Robert Call, a parishioner from Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Ashburn, told Bishop Lee. “You and like-minded bishops have caused a schism.”

Bill Harding, a parishioner from St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Woodbridge, told the three bishops he was “disappointed” that they didn’t see their own “hypocrisy.”

“How can you justify a statement saying sexual immorality is good and acceptable in New Hampshire, but not good in Virginia?” Mr. Harding asked.

The audience began to laugh when he added: “Where geographically between New Hampshire and Virginia does a moral lifestyle transition to an immoral lifestyle?”

A few Episcopalians congratulated Bishop Lee and the Virginia delegation for their votes. Melinda Artman, a member of Integrity, the homosexual Episcopal caucus, thanked the delegation “for allowing the Holy Spirit to guide you.”

“The members of Integrity will not abandon the Episcopal Church,” she added.

Although the number of persons allowed into the auditorium was capped at 400, dozens more stood outside holding candles and a protest banner draped in black.

“We are deeply disappointed in our bishop, who has kicked us in the stomach,” said Betsy Stalcup, a member of the Church of the Apostles in Fairfax. “It’s very clear that sexuality is between a man and a woman.”

The Rev. Tom Herrick, vicar of Christ the Redeemer Church in Centerville, said the decision to elect a practicing homosexual as a bishop was “in error.”

“So we are here to pray for our leaders and the church,” he said.

Delegates at the Minneapolis convention also passed a resolution that allowed local churches to bless same-sex unions.

Thousands of Episcopalians around the country have protested both votes and the archbishop of Canterbury has scheduled an emergency session next month in London about the matter. The formal consecration of Bishop Robinson is set for Nov. 2.

The meeting was one of seven around the diocese to get feedback about the Robinson election. Previous meetings — on Sept. 15 in Christchurch, Va., and Monday night in Richmond — attracted 325 and 400 persons, respectively. Because of the high level of interest in Northern Virginia, where the diocese’s four largest parishes are located, another meeting is scheduled for Sept. 30 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in McLean.

The title of the meetings: “Honoring Disagreement, Staying in Community,” seemed to hint that dissenting parishes are expected to remain in the fold.

Bishop Lee has indicated he may sue any of his 187 parishes that try to leave with its property. The Diocese of Virginia is the Episcopal Church’s largest.

Once inside the auditorium, local Episcopalians had to wait through 45 minutes of speeches by diocesan bishops and General Convention delegates before they could approach the microphones.

“More time is given for the bishops and deputies to report than for any question or comment,” said Malcolm Phillips, a local Episcopalian. “Why waste people’s time with this? Unless you have been living in a cave or under a rock someplace, everyone knows all that is needed prior to this meeting, no matter where you stand.”

Speeches were then limited to two minutes per person and no more than one person from any congregation could speak until someone from each of the numerous congregations present had spoken.

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