Many Episcopalians Wary, Some Defiant After Ultimatum by Anglicans
“By LAURIE GOODSTEIN”
Published: February 21, 2007 by the New York Times
There was a time when the Episcopal Church in the United States was known as “the Republican Party at prayer,” but in the last 30 years it has evolved into the Rainbow Coalition of Christianity.
There are hip-hop Masses, American Indian rituals to install a new presiding bishop and legions of gay and straight priests who don the rainbow stoles of gay liberation. Its pews are full of Roman Catholics and Christians from other traditions attracted by its aura of radical acceptance.
Now the conservatives who numerically dominate the global Anglican Communion have handed their Episcopal branch in the United States an ultimatum that requires the church to reel in the rainbow if it wants to remain a part of the Communion.
With a communiqué issued in Tanzania on Monday after a five-day meeting, the leaders of Anglican provinces around the world (known as primates) asked the United States branch to bar gay men and lesbians from becoming bishops, and to stop official blessings of same-sex unions. The communiqué even specified a deadline: Sept. 30.
There is no certainty that Episcopal leaders will now comply. In interviews yesterday, some liberal and moderate leaders who constitute a majority in the American church voiced everything from confusion to serious misgivings to defiance. Many took umbrage at what they saw as meddling by foreign primates who are imposing their culture and theological interpretations on the American church.
“Being part of the Anglican Communion is very important to me,” said Bishop Mark S. Sisk of New York. “But if the price of that is I have to turn my back on the gay and lesbian people who are part of this church and part of me, I won’t do that.”
On her way home from the meeting in Tanzania, Katharine Jefferts Schori, the new presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, wrote three pages of “Reflections on the Primates Meeting” that were released late yesterday.
Many in her church had been eager to hear her explain why she signed onto the communiqué, when she, as much as anyone, is clearly a product of the church’s inclusive rainbow culture. In her former diocese in Nevada, she allowed the blessing of same-sex unions and consented to the election of V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. She is the first woman to be presiding bishop, and the first woman primate in the Anglican communion.
In her “reflections,” Bishop Jefferts Schori struck a tone of respect for those on both sides, “Both parties hold positions that can be defended by appeal to our Anglican sources of authority — Scripture, tradition and reason — but each finds it very difficult to understand and embrace the other.”
She suggested that the struggle for equality for gay men and lesbians would eventually prevail, just as the slaves in Africa were eventually freed — an occasion she and the other primates commemorated last Sunday at a ceremony at the Cathedral in Zanzibar, the site of a former slave-trading market.
Bishop Jefferts Schori concluded by noting that Lent was about to begin, and said that both sides in this conflict were being asked to undergo a “season of fasting”; the liberals from blessing same-sex unions and consecrating gay bishops, and the conservative primates from “transgressing diocesan boundaries,” which is what happened when some primates from Africa, Asia and Latin America recently tried taking control of conservative parishes in the United States that elected to leave the Episcopal Church.
Conservatives in the church were also wary about the communiqué’s plan but were generally far more upbeat than the liberals.
The communiqué recommends that the Episcopal Church establish new positions of authority, a council and a “primatial vicar,” who will have oversight of the conservatives within the Episcopal Church, so they do not have to turn to primates from other countries.
Bishop D. Bruce MacPherson of Western Louisiana, who addressed the primates in Tanzania on behalf of the conservatives, said of the communiqué’s recommendations, “I believe it to be the beginning of a process, a mechanism that will enable us to work toward healing and reconciliation.”
Bishop MacPherson said he expected that the House of Bishops would meet in March to take up the communiqué’s recommendations, and that the bishops alone would have the authority to decide whether to accept them.
But already there were questions from Episcopalians who said that such significant decisions as a moratorium on gay bishops and blessings, and the creation of a council and primatial vicar, could not be taken by the House of Bishops alone, but by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, which includes lay and clergy delegates. The General Convention, however, does not meet this year and is not scheduled for another meeting until 2009.
The communiqué calls for the House of Bishops to “make an unequivocal common covenant that the bishops will not authorize any Rite of Blessing for same-sex unions.”
Some liberals yesterday were latching on to what they saw as a loophole because the wording specified that the bishops would not “authorize” rites. There are many bishops who have not formally authorized ceremonial rites for gay unions, but who nevertheless allow priests to perform them. If this is all the communiqué is requiring, they suggested, the Episcopal Church can live with that.
“Blessings happen, sure,” said Bishop Sisk of New York. “But I didn’t authorize them.”
Bishop MacPherson, however, said that his understanding is that the communiqué asks the bishops to actually stop the performing of same-sex blessings in their dioceses.
The most despairing reactions came from gay men and lesbians in the church, who say this is not reconciliation, but capitulation.
“They’re trying to make people choose between the Communion and the church’s commitment to gay and lesbian people,” said the Rev. Michael Hopkins, a priest in Rochester and the former president of Integrity, a long-established organization of gay and lesbian Episcopalians.
Although the Episcopal Church is known as an inclusive haven, Mr. (sic) Hopkins said, he already knows gay men and lesbians who are leaving. He said, “People like me can only convince other people to hang in there for so long.”