"Formally heretical"

Edward E. Plowman

Edward E. Plowman writes for World, a comprehensive news magazine.

August, 2003— of the first openly gay bishop crosses "a major line" and leads the Episcopal Church into a "profound pastoral crisis" that likely will lead to a worldwide split.

At the center of the storm that swept through the Episcopal Church's (ECUSA) triennial General Convention in Minneapolis last week was priest Vicky Gene Robinson, 56. He also was the center of attention for probably the largest news media turnout ever to cover a denominational business meeting. All because the Diocese of New Hampshire had elected him to be its next bishop, despite his being an open homosexual living with a male "lover."

The dust is still settling from the explosive actions the ECUSA took in Minneapolis to approve the first-ever election of an openly gay bishop and to officially sanction the blessing of same-sex unions.

The fallout promises to be considerable, not only for ECUSA but also for the entire 75 million-member, largely conservative worldwide Anglican Communion, of which 2.3 million-member ECUSA is one of 38 autonomous "provinces" or branches spanning 164 countries.

There will be a "realignment" in the communion, some biblically orthodox primates (province heads) vowed. Mostly from developing countries, these primates head the majority of the world's Anglicans. Led by Archbishop Peter Akinola, who shepherds more than 17 million Anglicans in Nigeria, they already have broken relations with an Anglican Church of Canada diocese in British Columbia that in May approved same-sex blessings.

Following Minneapolis, an estimated half of the world's primates were planning to meet within days or weeks to consider declaring ECUSA out of Anglican and biblical bounds, and to figure out a way to help "faithful" Episcopalians to carry on within the historic Anglican family. They acknowledge their stand may cost them dearly: The liberal-run churches in the affluent West may retaliate by cutting off funds they rely on heavily. But they said it's now time to stand up and be counted.

"This is catastrophic ... the most serious crisis Anglicanism has faced since its founding," declared conservative theologian Kendall Harmon, a clergy delegate from the Diocese of South Carolina and editor of the Anglican Digest. "You've never had a situation where half of the Anglican Communion is threatening to be out of communion with the other half."

Episcopal bishops who head the church's 109 dioceses voted 62 to 45 on Aug. 5 to consent to Rev. Robinson's election as a bishop in New Hampshire. This followed similar action two days earlier by more than 800 diocesan clergy and lay delegates, who voted by a 2 to 1 margin in Rev. Robinson's favor.

"A major line was crossed," Rev. Harmon said. "[ECUSA] is now formally heretical in its teaching about the family."

Debate was largely calm and reasoned. The pro-Robinson forces said the issue was not homosexuality or the Bible—which they claimed was open to varying interpretations—but his qualifications and track record of service. They compared the issue to the controversy over women's ordination in the 1970s; it was approved, and the church got over it, they said. The other side insisted the Bible is clear on the matter of noncelibate homosexuality, and cited the overwhelming consensus of the world's Anglican bishops at Lambeth in 1998: Such behavior is "incompatible with Scripture."

Rev. Robinson argued that the concept of same-sex couples committed to a life-long "monogamous" relationship "as I am" is a recent one unknown to the Bible's authors but nevertheless passes biblical muster (see sidebar).

After the bishops voted, Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh and 18 fellow conservative prelates walked to the podium. He read a brief statement they had drafted. It said that by "willfully confirming the election of a person sexually active outside of holy matrimony," the denomination had "departed from the historic faith and order of the Church of Jesus Christ" and had "denied the plain teaching of Scripture and the moral consensus of the Church through the ages."

The conservatives also warned that the ECUSA had "divided itself from millions of Anglican Christians around the world." The 19 bishops said they were filled "with grief too deep for words," but had to "reject" the action. They called on Anglican primates, under the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury, "to intervene in the pastoral emergency that has overtaken us."

Following the bishops' vote, members of the evangelical-oriented American Anglican Council (AAC) gathered at a Lutheran church across the street and released a similar statement. The AAC is a loose alliance of conservatives in ECUSA, including more than three dozen active and retired bishops. It is part of an emerging international movement known informally as the "Anglican mainstream."

"We now face a profound pastoral crisis that will leave many Episcopalians searching" for answers, they said.

Some church members, everyone agrees, won't wait around for answers. They will walk, continuing an exodus that has seen ECUSA lose more than a third of its members over the past three decades. But most will be from biblically orthodox parishes, leaving those churches weaker and poorer—less able to work for reform within ECUSA. Minneapolis also will make it harder for evangelistically inclined clergy and parishes to attract new members.

Veteran leaders say more congregations and clergy would leave ECUSA if they weren't tied to property (under a trust clause, they would lose it all if they left) and pension benefits, including medical insurance.

"In response to this tragedy," the AAC statement continued, the Anglican mainstream bishops "will appeal to the Archbishop of Canterbury as well as the primates of the Anglican Communion for godly direction and emergency intervention."

Priest David Anderson, AAC president, announced that the AAC would convene a meeting of mainstream Anglicans in suburban Dallas in early October to determine the next steps.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams presides over the Church of England and is titular head of the Anglican Communion, but without any papal-like authority. He had to resort to arm-twisting to force English gay priest Jeffrey John on July 6 to withdraw from his appointment as a bishop and thus avert a major crisis in the Church of England. He sent a letter several weeks ago to the primates expressing distress at the mounting disunity in the communion. He appealed to them not to take "unilateral" actions out of harmony with the rest of the communion. Clearly, ECUSA Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold was the prime intended recipient.

Following the vote, the archbishop warned of "irrevocable fallout" and appealed to all sides to pause and reflect before taking any drastic action.

A vote on another crucial issue—the formal recognition of same-sex unions—was expected to pass. The compromise measure sanctions liturgies for blessing such unions, but leaves implementation a matter of choice for each local diocese and bishop. It doesn't really change anything—ceremonies for same-sex unions have been performed in scores of dioceses, according to gay-activist groups in ECUSA. But it does legitimize them in church law.

One of the overseas primates invited to Minneapolis was Archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi of Kenya. He called for an "emergency" meeting of fellow primates. And he minced no words about ECUSA: The confirmation of an active homosexual "is wrong, is against biblical teaching, it is sin," he said in a statement to the press. Further, he added, any diocese or province that approves blessing same-sex unions "has kicked itself out of the Anglican Communion."

From Therapy to History

V. Gene Robinson was raised in a Disciples of Christ family and church in Kentucky but switched to the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) while in college. Looking back on those years, he said he questioned his sexual preference. He dated both men and women, sought therapy, finally married in 1972, and went off to New Hampshire to work for the ECUSA diocese there, including as assistant to the bishop who will soon retire. The therapy didn't work, he said. Two daughters later, he and his wife separated and then divorced in 1987. Around 1989, he says, he met Mark Andrew, a gay state employee. Mr. Andrew was at his side through much of the convention, as was one of his daughters.

Standing before delegates and reporters, Rev. Robinson maintained that the Bible's prohibitions against homosexual behavior don't apply to people who are in "committed" and "monogamous" relationships. His widely publicized comment ("God is doing a new thing") attracted rebuttals by many evangelical and pro-family leaders across the country.

Two last-minute allegations threatened to derail him in Minneapolis, but an overnight investigation commissioned by Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold determined they were unfounded.

There are and have been other gay bishops in ECUSA, gay activist groups in the church maintain. Just one has so confessed, but only after he retired years ago.

Rev. Robinson was at the center of this watershed decision because ECUSA has no rules barring gays and lesbians from the priesthood. Many bishops have quietly been ordaining homosexuals for years; more and more of them are "coming out" in parishes. Now they want to be bishops, too.

Copyright © World 2003. Used by permission.