Friday, January 27, 2006

RICHMOND — Conservative churches “need to get on with their mission in as close a unity as possible” with the rest of the Diocese of Virginia, Bishop Peter J. Lee said yesterday at the annual diocesan convention.

“Our differences,” he chided more than 800 Episcopalians at the Richmond Marriott, “are too often leading us to focus on our internal life, rather than on the world to which we are sent by Christ’s great commission and great commandment.”

One-tenth of the diocese’s 195 churches have broken ranks because of Bishop Lee’s support of the 2003 consecration of the openly homosexual New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson. Bishop Lee’s chancellor, Russ Palmore, acknowledged “conflicting realities” are causing huge tensions in the country’s largest Episcopal diocese.

Several parishes have made known their desire for “a leave-taking with grace,” he said, without a pile of lawsuits that would bankrupt the diocese and departing parishes alike. A six-member committee of three conservative and three liberal Episcopal leaders have been meeting in Falls Church for the past few months, he added, to head off schism.

“I am an optimist,” Mr. Palmore said. “Litigation is expensive, disruptive and seldom provides quick relief.”

More than 10 Virginia parishes — including two of the diocese’s largest churches — are withholding part or all of their financial support and at least 19 have formally protested the diocese’s support of the Robinson consecration.

In November, a 20th congregation, South Riding Church in east Loudoun County, broke from Virginia for a more conservative Kenyan diocese. Bishop Lee then defrocked its pastor, the Rev. Phil Ashey, which provoked Kenyan Archbishop Henry Orombi to officially break relations with the Virginia diocese.

Without naming the Kenyan archbishop, Bishop Lee yesterday hinted Virginians should not be interfered with by foreign bishops. All the 70 million-member Anglican Communion needs to know, he said, is “we are faithful in mission, deeply committed to our worldwide Anglican tradition and thankful for the self-governing freedom each Anglican province enjoys.”

Most of yesterday’s sessions were upbeat, because of a “better than expected” 2006 budget of $4.2 million, according to diocesan treasurer Mike Kerr. Despite a conservative boycott, income from parishes in the 90,000-member Virginia diocese, spread over 38 counties with 450 clergy, was up 5 percent last year and 6 percent this year, he said.

Bishop Lee also called for an election a year from now to choose his successor, known as a “bishop coadjutor” who will work alongside him until he retires. In office 22 years, Bishop Lee, 67, is obligated to retire by the age of 72.

The diocesan convention ends today.

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